The Ann Arbor City Council met Monday evening over Zoom for their final meeting of the year to discuss increasing water rates, restricting locations for short-term rentals and amending the City Council Rules.
After tabling the water rate increase ordinance at the June 1 meeting, the council reintroduced the ordinance that includes two increases, one at 7% increase effective Jan. 1, 2021 and a second at 6.5% increase effective July 1, 2021. The rate increases will be used to “provide stability for planning and budgeting purposes.”
Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, proposed to amend the ordinance by separating the two distinct rate increases and have the second rate be voted on at a closer time to when Council adopts their new budget in May 2021.
“This is a case where we’re asking for two rate increases with one vote which is a little unusual,” Ramlawi said. “We also have a public right now that has its own financial problems, and it’s scary for a lot of people to see two rate increases at once and have double the rate of inflation, all within six months during a pandemic.”
Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, did not support the amendment, saying that “it’s not fun to raise rates,” but that there are resources available for those who cannot afford to pay water bills. Grand said she believed raising the water rates is a crucial investment that should be made to make sure the city has the infrastructure necessary to provide water for everyone in the community.
Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, said he appreciated Ramwali’s proposed amendment but concurred with Grand to not support it for concerns about damaging water infrastructure if put on hold.
“Unfortunately, I think something that would be much more damaging is if we were to have an infrastructure failure, and the safety of our water supply is critical,” Radina said. “Ultimately I want to provide stability for us to be able to start investing in infrastructure improvements now before it's too late.”
Ramwali’s proposed amendment to the resolution failed to pass with a 4-6 vote.
“It’s really disappointing to see the lack of clarity and understanding on this issue before taking a vote,” Ramlawi said. “I think this body as a whole is very disconnected with the struggles of people, the working class, they’re struggling to make ends meet. It’s simply out of touch and your last vote just cemented it.”
Councilmember Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5, countered Ramlawi’s sentiments of disapproval and showed her support for the water rate ordinance.
“One of our basic responsibilities is to care for our infrastructure and to maintain it,” Briggs said. “As uncomfortable and it is to raise rates, especially during a pandemic, that is our responsibility … That doesn’t mean that we don’t care for our community. In fact, it means we care deeply for our community.”
Before voting and ultimately passing the motion with an 8-3 vote, Mayor Christopher Taylor also expressed his support for the ordinance, as he said approving it will allow the city to implement the proper infrastructure needed to mitigate water contamination.
The council also went on to discuss a resolution introduced by Taylor to apply locational restrictions to short-term rentals such as Airbnb properties. The resolution comes after a Sept. 8 meeting at which the council passed an ordinance to license short-term rentals and require owners to register with and pay fees to the city.
The Sept. 8 ordinance will be implemented on March 1, 2021 and will not prohibit full-time short-term rental units in areas that are not zoned for commercial activities. Taylor said at Monday’s meeting that he hopes to pass another ordinance in the future that would restrict future growth in the short-term rental market.
“I believe that we as a city could and should pass a more tailored ordinance that will prohibit (the) expansion of non-owner occupied, short-term rental units because too many is not good for the community, I think that would bring current units current units that are already in use already on the ground operating legally,” Taylor said.
This new resolution would “enable the continued operation of preexisting short term rentals,” which some councilmembers saw as a way to monopolize and protect the investments of those who already exist in this market while also harming those in residential districts.
Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, echoed this complaint, saying she does not support this resolution because short-term rental units deplete the local housing supply.
“I just want to add that recent council campaigns centered on the idea that we need more housing in the city, and if those ideas were anything more than words, I think that a vote on this should be very straightforward,” Nelson said. “The units at stake here are somewhere between, 102 (and) 100 units of housing.”
Contrastingly, Radina said he supports this resolution because, without it, owners who abide by the regulations may still suffer from consequences of the Sept. 8 ordinance.
“My concern is about punishing those residents who have purchased these properties and have been operating them legally, and within the confines of our existing law, and investing in these properties and making improvements on these properties for this purpose, and then pulling out the rug from underneath them,” Radina said.
During the period of public commentary at the beginning of the meeting, Ann Arbor resident Katie Dortch, a Ward 4 resident, represented a group of approximately 50 local and short-term rental property owners, all of whom support the resolution.
“We purchased our homes at a time when there was no existing restriction on short-term rentals and invested our time, money and energy to improve their neighborhood presence. We are devoted neighbors and we care about our community,” Dortch said. “I’m here to ask each of you to support this resolution to amend the existing ordinance to take effect in March, to continue to allow community members like myself to own and operate our short term rentals in a fair and equitable manner.”
The resolution passed 7-4, with Councilmembers Griswald, Nelson, Ramlawi and Hayner voting no.
During the first public commentary section, Ward 5 resident Adam Goodman spoke about the DC-2 resolution to update the City Council Rules following a general election. While no new rules were added, the council is still able to make changes to the City Council Rules at any time. He raised concerns about the council enacting policies that will hinder the public to voice their opinions during meetings.
“I find it quite disturbing that over the past few months, when we’ve actually been hearing substantive, pointed and relevant concerns about the conduct of council members, several suggestions have been made to make more barriers to entry to public participation, in response not to these hateful comments but to these substantive ones,” Goodman said.
When Goodman began speaking about Councilmember Jeff Hayner’s involvement in reportedly adding an additional floor to his home illegally, three council members interrupted Goodman by calling Mayor Christopher Taylor to issue a call to order. Taylor denied that request, allowing Goodman to continue speaking.
It wasn’t until at the end of the meeting during public comments that several residents spoke up about this incident, saying the council members involved were stifling freedom of speech.
“Interrupting Ann Arbor citizen and taxpayer Adam Goodman during public commentary by Councilmembers Griswold, Hayner and Ramlawi was very disappointing to me, and I feel very embarrassed for Ann Arbor as I see such negative exercises of censorship by public officials who should know better than to attack a constituent while they speak from the podium,” Ward 1 resident Luis Vazquez said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Luis Vazquez, Ann Arbor Ward 1 resident. This current article has been revised to reflect the accurate spelling.
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