Archive for April, 2008

Apr 30 2008

Show me the money!

Published by under On the campaign trail

After weeks of working my way to the top, I finally got a chance to meet with the person that controls the money! Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t actually see any “money”, we just talked about it. All kidding aside, Tom Crawford the Chief Financial Officer and I had an hour discussion today about the budgetary and financial reporting process that keeps our budget balanced and the cash flowing. I consider myself to have a strong financial and accounting background but Tom was able to hold up to my intense, pressure filled Q&A session! Must be the Wharton education! Actually the nuances of public accounting make it quite different from private accounting so I have a lot to learn. Tom has been very patient with me as I grapple with the complexity of the budget. Thanks Tom.

I continue to discover that whomever is assembling the professional team that is piloting the City must know what they are doing as once again I walked away with the opinion that Tom Crawford is the right man for the CFO job. I have had some well publicized disagreements with the senior staff in the past but most of the disagreement has been the result of the lack of transparency rather than substance. When allowed to sit down and talk about the issues person to person we almost always find some common ground. I am convinced that if everyone first looked for the common ground in all their relationships, the world would be a better place.

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Apr 28 2008

IT Redux

Published by under On the campaign trail

Today the Campaign Trail lead deep into the heart of Larcom Building where they used to keep St Larcom’s bones on display. The relics have been displaced (to who knows where?) by an air conditioned Dell server farm with more switches than Lombard Street in San Francisco. In charge of the operation is Daniel Rainey, Director of Information Technology. What a breath of fresh air Dan brings to the City. In 45 minutes he used the phrase “customer service orientation” at least 10 times and I really feel he means it. This is not the same type of an IT organization that brought us the Y2K problem and I suspect a big reason why is the IT Director,  Dan Rainey.

Several things were very apparent about Dan Rainey that most IT guys seem to lack; one, he spoke plain English and two, he recognizes that technology is there to serve the users that use it and not the other way around. I also got the sense that Not Invented Here, NIH, attitudes are left at the secure door. All this means that our IT infrastructure is in very capable hands. I was impressed that Dan understands the value of collaborating with the County and is actively working on key projects where we overlap needs…which is about everywhere. As taxpayers we can look forward to getting more return on our IT investments as long as Dan is Director.

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Apr 22 2008

Water, Water Everywhere….

Published by under On the campaign trail

Yesterday the campaign trail took me to the Drinking Water Treatment Plant on Sunset Rd. As a youth growing up on Robin Rd. (till age 11) not too far from the plant I remember trying unsuccessfully to get nearer to the large round tanks that pulled me closer like steel to a magnet. To tell you the truth, I am not sure what I would have done if had succeeded in penetrating the Cyclone Fence with barb wire on top? For sure there are no fish in the tanks.

My orientation and tour was conducted by Sumedh Bahl, the Plant Manager. If I was getting ready to draft an all-star team for a new treatment plant, Sumedh would be my first draft pick. Sumedh was a virtual “fountain” of knowledge on the intricacies of keeping our water safe. Sort of like getting a drink of water from a fire hydrant as I got more than I expected. Did you know that 85% of our water comes from the Huron River? This sends home the point about when you wash your car we need to insure it doesn’t go down the storm drains.

Another tid bit…Sumedh and his staff are also in charge of the three damns and also the 2 large storage tanks we can see covered by the fancy artwork on Plymouth Rd and also on Washtenaw. There are also four remote pumping stations that they are responsible for. All this so that when we turn on our tap, clean water appears. My new resolution is to turn the water off when I am brushing my teeth. We all need to do our part.

Did you know that May 4 to 10 is National Drinking Water Week? I certainly would have missed that one if I hadn’t taken time to actually visit with Sumedh and explore the City web site. If you are curious, the City Web site has more information.

http://www.a2gov.org/government/publicservices/water_treatment/Pages/DrinkingWaterWeek.aspx

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Apr 16 2008

W.R. Wheeler Service Center

Published by under On the campaign trail

Monday I got the VIP tour of the W.R. Wheeler Service Center on Stone School Road. I had the privilege of being escorted by the most friendly and passionate person in the building Karla Henderson. I told Karla her smile could “light up” a room. We are truly fortunate to have capable managers like Karla that worry constantly about the infinite problems that can and do develop in the maize of streets, copper cable, fiber cable, concrete pipes and other “stuff” that keep our City functioning efficiently. Thanks Karla for a great job!

The high point of the tour was a demonstration by the smartest technician you have never heard of, Kevin Braun. Kevin is the computer genius behind the programmable traffic signals that populate our City. You really need to see how this operates. Kevin could make your commute home 10 minutes shorter if he wanted to. If you get a chance to see this in operation, do yourself a favor and go. It is well worth the time.

There has been a lot of controversy about the cost of the Wheeler Center but if you take the time to go out and meet the staff and watch the operation, you will see it is the type of investment we need to make to keep our City running smoothly and efficiently. This building is one we truly can be proud of, not because it makes a flashy statement of how important Ann Arbor is, but because it shows to the world that we are willing to invest in ourselves. If we won’t invest in our City, why would a potential business want to invest here?

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Apr 10 2008

State of the City

Published by under On the campaign trail

Last night I attended the State of the City message delivered by Mayor John Hieftje and City Administrator Roger Fraser. Mayor Hieftje eloquently described the various awards the City has received in the past year. Mr. Fraser reviewed budget numbers for last year and for the coming fiscal year that starts in July. I will not bore you with the accounting detail, but according to our Administrator we can look forward to a balanced budget again for FY2009.


During the presentation, Mr. Fraser and the Mayor fielded numerous questions. Listening to their responses, I was amazed at their dexterity in avoiding controversy by giving answers to questions that were not asked instead of answers to those that were. I am sure I will never be able to develop that skill, so if that is what you are looking for in a city council member, I am not your guy!


Many of the questions centered on how the City council could just vote to spend $47,000,000 on the police-court without feeling any responsibility to “put the question” to the voters. Several answers were offered by the Mayor and Administrator:


  1. As we are not going out for a millage, we do not need to have voter approval.
  2. We live in a system of representative democracy, whereby we delegate to our elected officials the authority and responsibility to make the tough decisions for us.

 

 

The reality is that answers are correct but for some other question.  The only answer to the question posed by the group was that they did not look for voter support because they knew it would not pass!  Our City Administrator also understands that the only issues that stand a chance to pass muster with the cash strapped Ann Arbor voters are warm fuzzy issues like public safety, green initiatives, retiree healthcare plans for City workers, parks and public transportation.  If tapping the City piggy bank for a $20M down payment leaves us short of funds in the future, it will be put back to the voters disguised as an item off the warm and fuzzy list. 

 

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Apr 09 2008

“Infrastructure R Us”

Published by under On the campaign trail

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my friends exploring the storm sewers on Scio Church Road. (I am sure some of you reading this know where they are.) I lived on Weldon Blvd so after a short walk we could spend a half day spelunking on a warm summer afternoon and fantasize about “giant ants” living and breeding just around the next bend of the large concrete jungle.  All that was before kids could actually slay imaginary creatures with “real blood spilled” right in the comfort of their own room on a computer screen.  I must admit that after 1965 I spent more time above ground than below and now the memories of that underground maize of concrete tubes has faded into black and white.  Sometimes I wonder if the ants are still there.

 

I am sure that if you are like me you don’t really think about how our drinking, storm and waste water are distributed about the city until something goes wrong.  We are fortunate that the things we take for granted are in very professional hands.  Last week I spent an hour with the brains behind the Waste Treatment Plant and this week I met with their boss, Sue McCormick.  Sue refers to her organization as “Infrastructure R Us”.  Sue McCormick is one of the most professional public sector top level managers I have ever met. Once again I am impressed with the technical expertise and depth and breadth of knowledge that we have on staff.  Earl Kenzie, P.E. our Waste Treatment Manager, and his right hand man, Mike Amicangelo, Senior Utility Engineer at the Treatment Center personify the theory that “good people make up for bad equipment every day”!  We are lucky to have them working for us as the equipment they are using was made in 1936 and not updated until 1974!  I don’t need to tell you what happens when what they work on stops working! 

 

Next stop on the campaign trail is the Wheeler Center with Karla Henderson. 

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Apr 08 2008

Why not ask the voters?

Published by under Politics

I am an announced candidate for City Council for Ward 2 on a platform of fiscal responsibility and community involvement. Toward that end, I have spent much time analyzing the arguments for and against the proposed $47,000,000 renovation of the Guy Larcom Jr. Municipal Building objectively.  I have personally interviewed the Police and Fire Chiefs, Planning and Zoning officials, the County Administrator , County Treasurer and a County Commissioner, current and former City Council members, Waste Water Treatment officials, DDA, Main Street Area Association, The Ann Arbor Chamber, The State Street Area Association, University of Michigan officials, business and community leaders and hundreds of residents in my Ward. I also have exchanged e-mails with Tom Crawford the City Chief Financial Officer. I thank everyone for their input.

My conclusion is that the Mayor and a group of City Council members and City Administration have already decided that they are willing to spend $47M of our money unnecessarily to correct a $4M problem while they ignore a $100M problem to fix our crumbling waste treatment infrastructure and an even greater $140M financial and moral obligation to our city worker’s retiree medical benefits.  Both of these obligations will have to be dealt with in the next two to three years, at a time when our City will be facing other significant financial obligations related to core services. 

Therefore, I believe the City should permanently table the current plans for the police-court building financing and place the decision to fund this project to the voters in the form of a referendum on the next ballot.   

In light of an economy that saw 2200 homeowners go into foreclosure in 2007and more on the way, shelving the $47 million plans to renovate Larcom is the only logical decision we can make now.  We can finish drawing the plans for the complete renovation so we will have them on hand if the economy starts to show signs of improvement in 2009 or 2010 and other more cost effective solutions cannot be found. 

What do we do in the interim?

  • One, we should proceed with the much needed but more modest renovation to the police space.
  • Two, start negotiations with the County to build a combined Court Facility that would accommodate all City and County Courts.  There is a substantial cost saving available to us in construction and operational costs if we can accomplish that. 
  • Let the citizens of Ann Arbor decide on a ballot initiative if there is support to invest a substantial portion of our current “rainy day” funds and bond capacity in a flashy display of civic pride. 

I would hope that as a City we will recognize our moral obligations to our public retirees and invest our money in the only “real assets” the City has, its employees,  then core infrastructure before we invest in bricks and mortar that really is only a superficial display for visitors to our city. 

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