Mayoral candidates weigh in on city debt, affordable housing

By Anastassios Adamopoulos, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 30, 2014

With the election just around the corner, the two candidates for mayor of Ann Arbor — City Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D-Ward 3) and independent Bryan Kelly — weighed in on some of the issues not at the forefront of discussion in recent months.

Since Taylor has been heavily favored throughout the campaign, Kelly said though there was a short period where he was optimistic about his chances, he does not believe he can win the race Tuesday. Taylor said he feels optimistic about the outcome, having won the four-candidate democratic primary with a near majority vote.

Kelly noted that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s low popularity in Ann Arbor gives straight-ticket votes to Taylor who is a Democrat. Without a party affiliation, Kelly’s campaign for mayor comes with less support.

Still, Kelly’s goal of continuing political discourse in Ann Arbor throughout the mayoral election has brought additional city issues to the forefront. In particular, dealing with debt in Ann Arbor has been a main point of focus for Kelly while Taylor has said little on the topic.

Debt

Kelly said one of his primary concerns is Ann Arbor’s debt, including pension debt and healthcare. Kelly said he is concerned the city will continue to launch new initiatives that will contribute to the city’s financial obligations.

Kelly said the city will profit from development projects in the next two years and that these funds earmarked for these programs should be directed toward lowering debt. Decreased debt will lead to lowered taxes, which Kelly believes is critical to the city’s growth.

Taylor noted that the Ann Arbor bond rate has been highly rated by rating agencies. He said while the city needs to keep track of its obligations, Ann Arbor does not have a debt problem.

“It is our obligation to repay the debt that we have incurred. We do not incur debt without a robust plan to pay it back and an excellent reason for incurring the debt. We do not incur debt for operational expenses, we incur debt for capital expenses and that’s good practice,” Taylor said.

Homelessness and affordable housing

Another issue largely downplayed during this election are the challenges faced by Ann Arbor's homeless population. Last winter, the City Council faced issues of housing those sleeping in the street during the cold winter and debated different ways to best keep at-risk individuals safe. However, the problem is still present year-round.

“The real fix to homelessness is housing and services to get people ready to support that housing through employment,” Taylor said. “We need to make sure that people who need a hand up get a hand up and that there are jobs available for them and that houses and that homes are affordable.”

Taylor noted that the city has limited resources and the housing market is a key determiner of affordable housing programs. He said if he becomes mayor, the availability of funds and timing would determine potential projects for affordable housing.

“What the city can do is it can make sure that zoning is suitable for residential usage and it can participate in the market by supporting affordability and affordable housing in the city,” Taylor said.

Kelly said he believes the city needs more shelters along with substance abuse programs, as he said many of the homeless are substance abusers.

He added that government creates the problem of affordable housing as much as it solves it because zoning and building codes are not primarily based on the affordability of the housing market.

“The best way city government can make housing more affordable is to cut taxes,” Kelly said. “The second is to spur growth of businesses through less restrictive zoning, i.e. mixed-use or commercial overlay zoning, so that wages rise and people have more money. The third is to pursue a density experiment in downtown and, if possible, elsewhere. As more options for living space become available, we will see the effects development has on the market.”

Stadium Boulevard Billboard

Kelly said the University undoubtedly benefits the city, largely through the number of people employed by the University and the University Health System. However, he also noted that the University acts independently, citing the fact that the billboard at Stadium Boulevard violates city ordinance.

“It’s really become the situation where the University throws the party and the city cleans up afterwards,” Kelly said.

Kelly met with James Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, and discussed the relationship of the city with the University. Kelly said he understood that the goals of the University and the city overlap and that the University only purchases properties that are useful to its purposes.

He added that the main lesson he took away is that communication between the University and the city is very important and can improve. He said if the University communicated better with the public, much of the animosity towards its decisions would be solved.

“(Kelly) reinforced the importance of communication and the importance of recognizing that there are some mutual interests and that being able to communicate and understand each other’s interests would be exceedingly important,” Kosteva said.

Taylor, who has not yet met University President Mark Schlissel but has met with other University officials as a councilmember, said the University and the city are bound together and that the two work together well. He also noted that he has long wanted the billboard signs at Stadium Boulevard to be removed.

“There is no question that the University is a tremendous benefit to the city of Ann Arbor. That is a given,” Taylor said. “There is also no question that the billboard on Stadium Boulevard is a distraction and an intrusion and of little utility.”