AnnArbor.com announces mayoral endorsement
In Ann Arbor, times may change, but the mayor doesn’t. John Hieftje seemingly has the job as long as he wants it.
Having won the primary in a landslide over a vitriolic opponent, the only thing between the mayor and re-election in November is a low-key challenge from Independent candidate Steve Bean.
Critics of Hieftje have trouble understanding his popularity, seeing it as out of proportion to his accomplishments. We agree that the mayor’s record has been mixed.
He clearly is passionate about the environment and mass transit, and those are good issues to be strong on, particularly in Ann Arbor. Another of his hallmarks has been long-term investments in capital and infrastructure - though, sometimes, in ways that raise questions about priorities.
The millions spent to renovate the sewage treatment plan, replace sewer and water lines and introduce single-stream recycling are prudent investments that will serve the city well in the long run.
Hieftje also points with pride to the construction of the Police-Courts Building and the Fifth Avenue underground parking ramp, but these projects are more exciting to him than to the public, and involve long-term costs that are harder to justify in the current economic climate. We also question what they say about the city’s focus, when it can build these projects, while basic infrastructure needs like the Stadium Boulevard bridges and the Argo Dam languished.
We credit the mayor for navigating the city through hard fiscal times. That is no small feat. Tough decisions have been made to reduce the city workforce from more than 1,000 to some 735 employees today. But general fund spending was up from 2006 to 2009, partly because of one-time expenses and partly because the city hasn’t confronted employee benefit costs the way it needs to.
We also think the city has relied too much on balancing its budget by taking parking revenue money from the Downtown Development Authority. Granted, the funds ultimately belong to the city. But when the DDA took over management of parking, the understanding was that the city could tap $10 million in revenue over 10 years. Instead, the city burned through that $10 million in five years, and then dipped back into the DDA for another $2 million this fiscal year to avoid draconian budget cuts. That can’t be a long-term fiscal solution, and in the short-term it raises questions about the DDA’s ability to be independent and serve the best interests of downtown - especially when both Hieftje and another City Council member also sit on the DDA board.
Have the mayor’s accomplishments earned him another term? We believe they have, and we endorse him for re-election. But we also think the times and the challenges are different than when he first came into office in 2000. They require a different emphasis.
We hope Hieftje will continue to maintain the current millage rate, while achieving real, structural change to the city budget and greater restraint on spending. During his next term, we expect the topic of a city income tax will surface again. Hieftje says he’s against that, and we call on him to hold to that position, and look for other solutions.
We hope he will continue to be forward-thinking enough to position the city for future growth, but put more of his energy into immediate concerns and demonstrate more caution about committing future spending at a time when economic uncertainty will continue.
For those who believe fundamental services come first, the success of the mayor’s next term will be judged by how he handles less-than-grandiose concerns, be it fixing the Stadium Boulevard bridges - which fortunately, nearly miraculously, the city has just received federal funding for - or be it coming to final resolution on Argo Dam or dealing with parking policies and rates in ways that preserve the vitality of downtown, and not just plug holes in the city budget. If the mayor rides his popularity to re-election in November, the focus of his next term should be on getting down to basics.
Editor’s note: The three community members who serve on our Editorial Board - David Mielke, Bob Guenzel and Marsha Chamberlin - did not participate in the endorsement interviews and were not involved in these endorsement decisions.