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New University president and mayor set to reshape town-gown relations

Terra Molengraff/Daily
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje will be stepping down at the end of 2014, marking a leadership change for both the University and the city. University President Mary Sue Coleman will conclude her term as the institution's leader on July 1. Buy this photo

By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published January 24, 2014

After over a decade of unwavering leadership, the city of Ann Arbor starts the process of replacing the two most important figures in the city.

Ann Arbor City Council members and mayoral candidates are reluctant to pass judgment too quickly on University President-Elect Mark Schlissel, but several said they are ready for some changes to the University.

Schlissel is currently the provost of Brown University, a position he has held since 2011, and will replace University President Mary Sue Coleman who has been in office since 2002.

The new appointment comes during the final in office year for Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje — who opted not to run for another term after 13 years in office — creating an opportunity for significant leadership and policy changes at the University and in Ann Arbor simultaneously.

While the University provides Ann Arbor with much of its unique qualities — and serves as ones of its biggest economic engines — cooperation between the school and city has, at times, been strained. The University and city have gone head-to-head many times in the past, primarily over issues of land acquisitions, development and voluntary payments in lieu of taxes. The University is currently a tax-free entity, and has grown, the land available for property taxes in Ann Arbor has shrunk — squeezing the city's budget.

Although most of the mayoral candidates are mostly unfamiliar with Schlissel, the candidates agreed on the importance of a strong relationship between the mayor and any University president.

“Our community is a symbiotic relationship of trust and respect,” said Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), one of the four mayoral candidates. “I’m hopeful that we will see that relationship continue. I do believe we’ve always had that but I think it did get strained, it gets strained when the community feels that the University is buying up the city.”

This past week, the City Council approved a $25,550 contract with Atwell, LLC to conduct Environmental Site Assessment services for the Edwards Brothers Malloy facility on State Street to determine if the city will purchase the property or not. The University has also expressed a keen interest in purchasing the property. Though the University has not laid out any specific plans for the location, the property is close to athletic facilities and could be used for additional athletic buildings or office space.

The Edwards Brothers property case serves as an example of many land disputes between the city and the University, wherein city officials are concerned with tax revenue lost from a potential private owner — taxes the University is not required to pay.

Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), another candidate for mayor, said she hopes communication between the two institutions will continue to move forward and give University administration a better understanding of Ann Arbor’s needs. She added that she and other city officials do appreciate the human capital and resources the University provides, but that the administration often overlooks the extra financial burdens imposed on Ann Arbor citizens and taxpayers.

“I don’t see the money they give the city to pay their debts as discussion points when it comes to the cost the University brings along with it,” Briere said. “I would love to see that instead of playing semantic games with each other we acknowledge that the University of Michigan benefits the city in intangible ways.”

There has been discussion among council members regarding the possibility of working with the University to implement payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), a program where already public entities, like universities, provide money to the their host towns despite not having any legal obligation to do so.

Under Coleman’s leadership, the University has not shown any interest in engaging in PILOT or other such programs. That may change under Schlissel.

During Schlissel’s time at Brown, the private school has donated additional money to Providence, Rhode Island on top of tax payments. As provost, Schlissel agreed to contribute roughly $3.9 million to the struggling town as part of an agreement with other organizations in the area, the Brown Daily Herald reported.

Still, there is no way to know exactly how this new president will work with the city and the new mayor, whoever it may be. Briere said the councilmembers won’t have a real reaction until Schlissel is in office, saying she’s being careful not to make assumptions too early.

“The president and the regents set the tone for the relationship with the city,” Briere said. “I’m willing to wait and see how the tone changes.”


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