1st Ward candidates for Ann Arbor City Council offer different takes on city's budget
Sumi Kailasapathy says she's not buying the argument that Ann Arbor is doing well just because it's better off than other cities in Michigan.
"Ann Arbor has a different economy," she said. "So it's kind of a moot point to keep saying we are better. It's like saying, 'Oh, George Bush was better than Ahmadinejad in Iran.' I mean, can you actually compare a democracy with a theocracy?"
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Kailasapathy, a certified public accountant seeking a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council, mostly directed those comments at Mayor John Hieftje during a debate Thursday night. But she also was responding to claims by her opponent, Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, who says Ann Arbor is making wise budget decisions.
Kailasapathy offered a stern critique of the incumbent's two years in office, criticizing what she deemed wasteful spending.
"Believe me, I have been looking at the budgets and studying the numbers," she said. "There is so much mismanagement and waste in the budget, and I feel if we can get our priorities right, we can manage. I know times are hard, but we should get our priorities right."
That's a perspective Kailasapathy is offering to bring to the City Council if elected. She faces off against Smith, a real estate professional seeking her second term, in the Aug. 3 primary.
With no Republicans in the race, and no other foreseen challengers, the winner of next month's primary likely will take office in November.
Smith is stressing her experience in tough times. She currently serves on a number of boards and committees for the city, including the Housing and Human Services Advisory Board, Council Rules Committee and the Downtown Development Authority, which she has served on for six years — predating her election to council.
"I'm very active in the community and I have been for a long time," she said. "I've been on boards for nonprofits, I've been on task forces for the city, joint city-county initiatives, I've taken leadership positions. These are important things to consider when you have times like these."
Kailasapathy criticized the city for taking on two ongoing building projects: the police-courts building and a new underground parking deck downtown.
"A person told me, 'We have our own Palinism here,'" she said, drawing laughs from the crowd. "We have our 'dig baby dig' with the underground parking lot, and 'build baby build' with all these ugly structures coming. And these are all poor choices."
Kailasapathy has aligned herself with an unofficial slate that includes mayoral candidate Patricia Lesko, 4th Ward candidate Jack Eaton and 5th Ward candidate Lou Glorie. Together, they're hoping to oust the current council majority and refocus city spending.
"One of the things we need to be doing is start a zero-based budgeting, meaning we start from the core services that we need in the city," Kailasapathy said. "So if we believe a certain amount of fire and police have to be there, we start from there, then we decide whether we have $11 million to dump in that Fuller garage."
Kailasapathy's claim that the city plans to spend $11 million on a new parking structure and transit station on Fuller Road was disputed by Hieftje during Thursday's debate. Smith also dismissed many of Kailasapathy's claims.
"I'm very curious," Smith said. "What I hear talk about is 'so much mismanagement' and 'all of this waste and fat' and I haven't heard any specific examples. I haven't heard how we're going to move forward.
"I hear a lot of rhetoric and a lot of stone throwing, but I have yet to hear a single idea that's going to take us forward," she said.
Smith said the next two years will be a struggle for the city financially, but Ann Arbor will maintain its high quality of life even as city officials look for more ways to trim costs.
"But I don't see all this excess fat," she said. "We have funds that we have dedicated for certain things, and we cannot take that money and use it. It's illegal to use it to pay for firefighters."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The layoff of four employees in the fire department this week was a budget decision supported by Smith that Kailasapathy criticized on Thursday. She argued those jobs might have been saved if the city hadn't taken $975,000 from the general fund to spend on an audio-visual system for the new police-courts building.
"If we had kept our costs under control, and if we didn't have mismanagement, if we had an efficient person running the city government, this will not be happening," Kailasapathy said.
Thursday's debate was attended by more than 60 residents. It was hosted by the North Central Property Owners Association and also featured the two mayoral candidates, Hieftje and Lesko, who will face off in the Aug. 3 primary.
Responding to a question about her community involvement and civic work that prepares her for a position on council, Kailasapathy said much of the last 12 years of her life has been spent raising her children. But she talked about her past life in Sri Lanka.
"I'm an immigrant from Sri Lanka and the reason I had to flee Sri Lanka is I was part of a human rights group when I was an undergraduate student," she said. "And all of the professors had to go underground, exiled or they were killed. Unfortunately, most of my colleagues were killed as well."
Kailasapathy said she was one of two who escaped, and she eventually came to study at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
"In Boston, I continued to work for the amendment of Amnesty International's position on incarceration of political prisoners, because until '93, Amnesty International agitated only against people who were incarcerated by governments, not non-governmental," she said. "And most of my friends were incarcerated by the Tamil Tigers non-governmental group. So I have that human rights background."
Smith talked about coming to study at the University of Michigan many years ago and deciding to stick around town after graduation because of the high quality of life that Ann Arbor has to offer. She touted her civic involvement over the past several years, saying experienced leadership is what Ann Arbor needs right now to preserve that quality of life.
"I have been working hard, I have the experience, the background, the ability to work with other people to move this city forward, continue to invest in our infrastructure and stop living off the infrastructure of our grandparents, and balance a budget," she said.
Smith, who owns Trillium Real Estate with her partner Linda Lombardini, distinguishes herself as "the green candidate." She said that's defined by the way she lives her life, choices she has made in her business, and her work as a public official to create an energy audit and grant program for downtown businesses through the DDA.
"I believe that we can do things in Ann Arbor to put ourselves on the map to say this is a great place and we care about our environment," she said. "I support single-stream recycling. This is by far a very progressive way to go. We all know how to rinse out our cans and make sure that the things don't cross-contaminate each other. We've been doing it for 30 years. Single-stream recycling is going to save $650,000 a year. It's a no-brainer."
While Kailasapathy differs with Smith on the decision to switch to single-stream recycling, both candidates mostly agreed on Argo Dam. They both are in favor of keeping the dam intact. Smith fears the loss of Argo Pond, a recreational asset treasured by Ann Arbor's rowing community.
"There's a ton of people that row, and without a suitable replacement, I don't think we can even begin to talk about taking the dam out," Smith said.
The two candidates differ on their stances on Planned Unit Developments, projects that ask for exceptions to the city's existing zoning. Smith recently supported both the Moravian and Heritage Row PUDs, developments that promised density outside the downtown boundaries.
Kailasapathy, who has two graduate degrees in political economy from the New School for Social Research in New York, said density should be limited to the core downtown.
"Jumping these boundaries is sprawl if we are going to go into single home neighborhoods and put up these huge Moravians," she said.
Smith said she preferred there not be any "big, blocky, six-bedroom apartment buildings" in near-downtown neighborhoods. She expressed a distaste for "monstrosity buildings that have no character" and "have lots of room for students to pack in."
Both candidates said they oppose a city income tax. Kailasapathy said she feared it would cause new businesses to located outside the city limits. Smith said even though she doesn't favor it, she is considering putting it on the ballot to have a community dialogue and let the public decide.
Kailasapathy said she believes she can be the numbers expert on the City Council, but she insists she's not a plain "bean counter."
"I do have values and I do love Ann Arbor for what it is, and I don't want people to destroy it, and that's why I jumped into this race," she said.
Smith said Ann Arbor's economic engine and driver of growth in the coming years will continue to be the University of Michigan. She said she favors compact growth and wants to maintain the charm and pedestrian scale of the city with thoughtful infill development.
Smith echoed the mayor's statements that Ann Arbor is doing well in comparison to many other cities across Michigan.
"So many cities across Michigan have been failing," she said. "Grand Rapids just voted to increase their income tax. They still laid off people. Royal Oak spent their reserves down to a very dangerous level. They had to negotiate with their city workers and they still laid off people.
"And here in Ann Arbor," she said, "we managed to pass a budget unanimously, we didn't close any fire stations, we didn't lay off any police officers, we didn't close pools like Grand Rapids, we didn't sell off any parks, we didn't raise the taxes. We were able to do this with property taxes that are declining, state revenue has been slashed, and Pfizer was taken off the tax rolls — 4.86 percent of our taxes have been diminished by that purchase."