Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor hosted a virtual town hall on Facebook Live Sunday evening to discuss COVID-19, basic services, the Ann Arbor budget and the city’s carbon neutrality plan, A2Zero. He answered questions from the approximately 60 community members watching.
Taylor opened the conversation by thanking residents for complying with social distancing measures and reiterating points from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recently extended Stay Home, Stay Safe order.
“The executive order requires us to wear masks whenever we are in closed, public spaces,” Taylor said. “Retailers may sell regular supplies for pickup and delivery and, a subject that has been of some concern for residents, lawn service companies may return to work, provided they do so using proper procedures. As before, Stay Home, Stay Safe does not mean be isolated, so I want you to check in on your families and friends. Make sure they’re okay — you’ll be glad you did.”
Taylor said the municipal government continues to operate, including essential services such as police, fire, water and waste. City facilities like the senior center, playgrounds, skate park and farmers’ market remain closed, but Taylor said he is hoping to reopen once the city devises safe social distancing rules. City Council will vote on the $468 million Fiscal Year 2021 budget on May 18, but most of the proposal was written pre-COVID-19, Taylor said.
“We do know that that revenue will drop somewhere between five and 10 percent, we expect, due to state revenue sharing shortfalls, gutted parking revenue within the city and scaled down water usage,” Taylor said. “These losses are going to require that we make difficult adjustments in the months to come.”
Taylor spoke on the A2Zero carbon neutrality plan, which City Council declined to adopt at its last meeting. Taylor said he hopes City Council will vote again and eventually adopt the plan.
“We absolutely need to do our part,” Taylor said. “Ann Arbor has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030 and it’s absolutely imperative that we do everything we can to meet it.”
When Ann Arbor resident Bret Hautamki, Transportation Committee member, asked Taylor about emergency management powers granted to him by City Council, Taylor said he has not issued any city-wide rules but was considering closing bars and restaurants prior to St. Patrick’s Day if the county or governor did not do so beforehand.
Resident Mark Lee asked Taylor if the recent stock market declines will affect the city’s pension obligations. Taylor explained the city’s actuaries calculate pension funding levels on a trailing five-year basis rather than yearly, so the calculation made on June 30 will reflect the past five years. Taylor said the pension’s current funding of around 84 percent is not outstanding, but better than many funds.
“The pension is a long game,” Taylor said. “We will ultimately be able to pay our obligations to all of our retirees, whether they are currently working or whether they retire next year.”
Taylor said the University of Michigan would make its own decision regarding bringing back students to Ann Arbor for an on-campus fall semester. The city would have that decision well in advance, Taylor said, allowing time to coordinate policing, traffic and solid waste for move-in.
“We are in very frequent contact with the University about a variety of things, whether it’s now with COVID or on the staff level working on projects of parallel interest,” Taylor said.
University Staff Member Elizabeth Cain-Toth asked Taylor if the city was taking action against the rising rent costs in Ann Arbor, especially given reduced hours and voluntary furloughs for many University employees. Taylor explained the city does not have any authority over privately-charged rent, but expressed support for more affordable housing in Ann Arbor.
“We have 80,000 people who commute into Ann Arbor every day,” Taylor said. “Many of them would love to live in the city and it would be good for us to have them live in the city, but they are unable to do so in many respects because of affordability. The office workers, hospital workers, nurses, these are people who need to commute in because they can’t find a place to afford here in Ann Arbor. We are impoverished by their absence, but we suffer the traffic because of commutes and we also suffer economic segregation.”
Taylor noted Washtenaw County was ranked the eighth-most economically segregated county in the country in 2015. He said efforts towards affordable housing in Ann Arbor include city-built housing and premiums incentivizing high-rise developers to include affordable housing. He also hopes City Council will ask the planning committee to look at building housing along transit corridors.
“If (people) live at these places, first off, they will not be commuting in and out of the city and that’s going to reduce traffic for everyone,” Taylor said. “Further, these locations will of their nature be more affordable than single family homes throughout the city. And so we will increase our economic diversity, we will increase our demographic diversity and we will reduce transit in and out of the city.”
Taylor fielded multiple questions about the status of his marriage officiating duties during COVID-19. He said he is still able to perform marriages with “extensive distancing” and has already done so once during the pandemic.
Taylor said the Ann Arbor Summer Festival is cancelled but the Ann Arbor Art Fair, run by four non-profits rather than the city, is not yet cancelled or postponed. Taylor stressed he is “pessimistic” about the Art Fair due to social distancing measures likely continuing throughout the summer. He added August elections will go on as planned in the city.
Taylor closed the town hall with an optimistic message for residents in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is a renewed understanding settling that we’re all in this together, that action in concert with others, that action with being mindful of others, is the only way that this society is going to make it through this crisis,” Taylor said. “And that’s incredibly important.”
Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.