Time to Decide
A quick guide to some of the most interesting elections in northwestern Lower Michigan Nov. 5.
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 26, 2019
It may be an off-year election, but contested mayoral elections in the region’s two largest cities are heating up. Elsewhere, voters will be asked to weigh in on whether to fund schools and how public money should be spent. Northern Express zeroed in on some of the most significant ballot questions.
A RACE OVER A HOLE IN THE GROUND
In Petoskey, the hole in the ground is the elephant in the room of the city’s mayoral election.
Or it was — until developer Bob Berg decided to make it front and center.
After city officials rejected Berg’s proposal for Petoskey Grand, a colossal mixed-use development at 200 E. Lake Street (the site of Petoskey’s hole), Berg became a noisy critic of incumbent mayor John Murphy and made it known that as long as Murphy is mayor, he’s not going to do anything with the piece of property that residents have long wanted to see developed.
What’s more, in several buildings Berg owns around Petoskey, signs have gone up that read: “Another Vacant Property brought to you by the failed leadership of Mayor John Murphy.”
The ado over the hole seems to have hijacked the race.
Murphy agreed that the Petoskey Grand debate has come to dominate the mayoral race, and he’s ready to defend his decision-making, but he said he also tries to remind people of his accomplishments as mayor.
“I have three great years of past accomplishments that I think are being overshadowed,” Murphy said.
He cites passage of a pledge for Petoskey to go 100 percent renewable by 2035. Also, Petoskey increased the funding of its pension debt obligation to 85 percent, a level unmatched by most other municipalities. He also said he believes he has been a good steward of Petoskey’s finances, and his rejection of the Petoskey Grand proposal was part of that.
“The hole is an issue [that] I believe that will contribute to my victory,” he said.
Murphy said the concerns he and many other residents had about the project wasn’t simply about the building height that Berg had proposed (up to 96 feet in one spot, as much as 70 feet elsewhere); it was also about the $17 million tax credit — for an underground parking garage and a section of brownstones representing ground-floor residential units — that would have created a commercial “dead zone” in the heart of the city.
Murphy said that he thinks it’s unfortunate that Berg has vowed not to work with him.
“I continue to state that I will work with Bob Berg or any developer that happens to own that piece of property,” he said. “He refused to discuss compromise. When he didn’t get his vote, he walked out.”
Murphy’s challenger, Reg Smith, vice president of hotels for Stafford’s Hospitality, disagrees with Murphy’s characterization of what happened when the project was turned down. Smith said that Berg engaged in negotiations and willingly made compromises throughout the planning process.
“I think it was frustrating to him and to others just to have the door slammed,” Smith said.
Smith said, however, that the election for him isn’t focused on Petoskey Grand. He said he wants to be mayor because he’s watched Petoskey stagnate for too long.
“I decided to run for mayor because I believe this is a critical time for our city, most critically for our downtown,” Smith said. “I think it needs a new vision, a new approach, a different take.”
Petoskey needs more parking and all kinds of housing, he said. There is a housing shortage in the city at just about every price point except, perhaps, at the top end.
Petoskey Grand would have addressed some of those needs — it proposed plenty of housing and more parking, and would have brought a downtown pharmacy to town, as well as a new movie theater.
But for Smith, it’s more than that.
“What I hear time and again is our zoning codes, heights, density, have really prevented proposed development,” he said.
Smith defended Berg but said Berg’s foray into the mayoral campaign has been a bit awkward.
Berg, who owns 10 or so buildings in Petoskey and lives part of the year in Charlevoix County, is one of few developers to have navigated Petoskey’s rules and regulations in order to achieve ends that city planners say they want — things like historical renovation, construction on vacant lots, and the creation of upper level residential units downtown, Smith said.
“Bob is one of the few building owners that has taken this on and has delivered. So, in my mind he’s got the track record for doing this,” Smith said.
Still, Smith said he thinks that Berg’s jump into the election fray has been a bit of a distraction.
“I think, while Bob is a nice guy, the way he chooses to express himself has certainly created some controversy, with the signs in the windows and so forth.”
TC RACE IS A TIF REFERENDUM
As election day nears, the distinctions between the incumbent candidate for mayor of Traverse City and his challenger have grown sharper.
Mayor Jim Carruthers said he opposes an extension of TIF97, a tax increment finance district that captures tax revenue for downtown projects, administered by the Downtown Development Authority. Carruthers said he believes TIF has done its job, and it’s time to let it expire.
Carruthers’ opponent, Shea O’Brien, wants to see it extended in order to realize projects like a west-side parking deck and to assure that cost of maintenance of the downtown corridor is at least indirectly shared by regional taxpayers.
Carruthers said he’s running on his record of serving on the commission for years as both a commissioner and mayor.
“I feel I gained the respect of the citizens. I’ve worked with downtown groups, I’ve worked with neighborhood groups. I feel I’ve brought people together,” Carruthers said.
Carruthers said TIF was meant to be temporary.
“I was there in the beginning. I know that we marketed this to the community by saying, ‘Give us 30 years,’” he said.
What’s more, Carruthers said, TIF has evolved into something more than what it started out as. It was created to address blight, which at the time was a problem for a downtown Traverse City riddled with closed storefronts and few restaurants.
Now that the downtown is thriving, the program should end, and the taxes being diverted to the DDA should go to where they belong so that can used for projects throughout Traverse City — not just downtown, Carruthers said. Grand Traverse County, Northwestern Michigan College, Bay Area Transit Authority, the Commission on Aging, and other entities should also finally get their share of taxes that have been redirected for downtown projects.
Carruthers also said he has problems with the proposed West Front Street parking deck. He said that, to begin with, the city paid too much for that piece of property. And now, the cost of the parking deck itself is too much.
If the DDA scrapped plans for the proposed parking deck, they wouldn’t need to extend TIF97 beyond its expiration in 2027, and they could pay for all of the other projects they’ve discussed by then, including bridge reconstruction, a civic square, and streetscape improvements, he said.
O’Brien said he believes that funds that come to the city through TIF are vital to maintain infrastructure and will remain so in the future. Downtown, after all, has become a place people from all around the region visit for work or recreation.
“I’ve said it many times — maintenance doesn’t end. I would feel slighted if the city had to raise its taxes on me to repair a road downtown, even though I typically don’t drive downtown. I walk and I bike.”
O’Brien supports the West Front Street deck, though he said that almost makes him feel uncomfortable. He said he believes in density downtown and wants to make it easier for people from across the economic spectrum to live and work in Traverse City.
“I’m not usually in favor of creating car storage, but I would love to see the city hold itself to the promise that if we do get this third parking deck, then we’re going to get rid of surface lots.”
He said many of the surface lots in downtown could be turned into parks or into mixed-use developments.
Both candidates said they want to see more affordable housing. Carruthers said he thinks it’s impractical to build it downtown; rather, he believes it should be built in more remote locations in the city, and residents should be encouraged to ride the bus. O’Brien said he would support changes in zoning that would allow more density near downtown to allow people to split lots and more easily construct accessory dwelling units.)
O’Brien, who is 32 and has been a dedicated volunteer in the city for years, said he also disagrees that residents were promised that TIF97 would not be renewed in some form.
“I’ve spoken to other people who were at the table, and they said that there was no promise made,” he said. “I just want to see Traverse City do better and do great things.”
SHRINKING FAMILY CARE IN LEELANAU
Leelanau County wants to bolster early childhood education.
The county board approved a .253 mill request that would raise $728,393 through 2024 to fund programs for pre-K children. The programs include weekly playgroups, which teach children social skills and help parents develop relationships with other parents; improve access to health resources like mental and dental health services; enable home visits from counselors who can determine what services a family needs; and parent programs that can be tailored to individual parenting interests and needs.
Leelanau County commissioners only approved putting the measure on the ballot by a 4–3 vote. Critics contend that the millage represents an unnecessary expense for taxpayers who already fund some of these programs and that there aren’t that many children under age 6 who live in the county and would benefit.
Supporters like Patricia Soutas-Little — a Leelanau County commissioner who was part of the 42-member advisory committee that came up with the funding request — say that new parents can be isolated and overwhelmed, and it’s critical to offer them support during the first five years of their child’s life, when 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs.
Soutas-Little said the services funded through the millage are ones that the county used to offer but which have been gradually chipped away at over the years due to state and federal funding cuts. As Leelanau County has become more affluent, access to funding for social programs has become increasingly limited.
Developmental problems can lead to antisocial behavior, and bolstering early childhood education can pay dividends for the community, she said. Dollars spent on it can lead to fewer dollars spent in the juvenile justice system and, in the long term, on crime and punishment.
“Parenting is the hardest job any of us are ever going to do, and it’s the least well supported,” Soutas-Little said.
SUPERINTENDENT: TIME TO FIX BENZIE SCHOOLS
Benzie Central Schools Superintendent Matt Olson said what his district is asking voters to approve would represent “a generational fix” for the school district.
He said the bonding request, a loan that will be paid off over 26 years, has been designed to shore up infrastructure across the district and to make repairs so that school district officials should not need to return to voters and ask for more infrastructure funding during that time.
Olson, who signed on as superintendent in 2016, said the district commissioned an architectural study that year and learned that a lot of work needed to be done. They were able to address some emergency problems with stop-gap funding, but Olson said it is critical that the major projects included in the current bond proposal go ahead.
A similar bond measure was narrowly struck down by voters in May, so Olson said this new proposal has been reworked to address some of the concerns.
The current bond request for 2.98 mills would pay for: A new elementary school on the Benzie Central campus, which would replace Crystal Lake Elementary; construction of a bus garage and the purchase of several new buses over 10 years; remodeling and expansion of the Benzie Central High School gymnasium to include new locker rooms and a fitness center/indoor track that would be open to the community; new classrooms at Lake Ann Elementary to house early childhood education programs; and various building renovations and upgrades, parking lot resurfacing, and sidewalk construction.
Proponents note that because the bond proposal will replace an existing levy, the actual increase to taxpayers from this bond is less than half a mill and would cost property owners about $24 per year per $100,000.
Olson said he is optimistic that voters this time around will approve.
“I feel really good. It was a very tight election last time,” he said.
ANOTHER FIVE YEARS OF PARKS FUNDING FOR TC?
Voters in Traverse City will see a familiar request on the ballot.
City leaders want voters to approve a five-year renewal of the Traverse City Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund. The measure would make available oil and gas royalties from the Brown Bridge Quiet Area to pay for city park projects.
After voters greenlighted a similar measure in 2014, nearly $2 million was raised over five years to pay for park improvements.
While most residents welcomed the park improvements, the program drew criticism because the bulk of the money — $1.5 million — went to a $4 million renovation project at Hickory Hills. Critics said the money should have been better spread around to parks around the city rather than spent in one place.
This time, the city commission approved ballot language that ensures the money will be spread around.
If voters approve Proposal 1, money will first go to improvements at the Brown Bridge Quiet Area and then to long-delayed projects at seven parks scattered across Traverse City, including Arbutus Court, Ashton Park, Boon Street Park, F&M Park, Highland Park, Indian Woods, and Juniper Gardens.
Another change in the 2019 request — the requirement that organizers of additional projects raise matching funds — has been eliminated. The matching funds requirement proved to be an obstacle for nonprofits and neighborhood groups; it’s hoped that its removal, while leading to less investment, will make more park projects possible.
The Brown Bridge Trust Fund was created from oil and gas royalties from the city-owned, 1,300-acre Brown Bridge Quiet Area which sits 11 miles south of the city. The 2014 vote capped the fund at $12 million, diverting anything over that into the park improvement fund. Interest earned on the $12 million goes into the city’s general fund.
It was thought in 2014 that over the five years of the diversion, the fund would generate $3 million for park improvements, but oil prices collapsed and closer to $2 million will have been captured when the measure expires this month. Due to diminishing output and lower oil prices projected in the coming five years, it’s expected that the fund will bring in about $900,000.