Opinion: Transfer of DDA parking money to city fails the transparency test
I didn’t disagree with the DDA’s decision to hand over $2 million to the city because I don’t think the DDA has an obligation to be a good financial partner with the city. I do, especially during difficult economic times. The DDA captures about $1.9 million annually from the city. In addition to the $2 million it just voted to give to the city, it already pays the city $1.6 million a year toward street maintenance and bond payments for the court/police facility.
The only thing we ever said no to was free parking for Google - because we thought it was unfair to all of the small and local businesses and employees in the downtown who have to pay for their parking and would have to pay even more to subsidize Google. The DDA created and funded the getDowntown program to try and increase the use of alternative transportation. It fought hard for street improvements on 5th and Division that would provide for the installation of bike lanes. It pays for the holiday lights, provides funds for the annual spring clean-up downtown, pushed for and paid for pedestrian recycling receptacles, and wayfinding, provided grants to assist Avalon Housing in purchasing homes and apartments to increase the stock of affordable housing in and near downtown, and provided further grants to help retrofit them to improve energy efficiency. The DDA has worked hard to reflect and uphold the values of our community. It pays a living wage to parking employees, adopted its own 1% for the arts to generate funds to assist struggling arts organizations downtown, has a green energy grant program that provides energy audits and assists businesses and non-profits with green energy improvements. The DDA is not stealing from the taxpayers, it is serving them.
And if we decide we don't need a DDA then it should be dissolved. But as long as the DDA is collecting from the taxing authorities based on the plan they all approved, then the DDA board should be spending their money the way they said they would. And if the DDA is going to offer rebates to the taxing authorities, it should do so proportionately to all of them, not selectively to the one who has the most votes at the DDA board table. But since the $2 million is coming from the parking fund, we're really talking about parking dollars and not tax dollars.
Core municipal parking management principles adopted by the DDA and supported by nationally recognized best practices are:
1) That parking should pay for itself and not be subsidized by tax dollars.
2) That parking revenues should be reinvested in the system.
3) That rates should be set strategically to achieve certain goals (like getting long-term parkers off the street and into the structures, increasing the use of alternative transportation, making parking convenient for people running errands or using city services, etc. Our parking system was once on the verge of collapse because the city violated these core principles and did not make the necessary re-investments into the system. That was why the DDA took over management of the system - to take politics out of parking management decisions and ensure the system's sustainability.
My fear about taking money from parking and moving it to the general fund is that we will no longer be running a financially sustainable parking system - which I think is bad for downtown and everyone in the community that uses the downtown. I have said all along that the community might very well decide that we are willing to spend more on parking to generate money for the general fund if asked the question. But I want that debate to happen out in the open. I would like the City and DDA to say, "If you will accept a 50 cent an hour increase in parking rates, there will be no layoffs this year." That way we know what we're paying for.
I think it is important for people to know that the DDA is increasing rates and extending enforcement in order to generate revenue for the city of Ann Arbor’s general fund. And if we had not stood up and objected to this process, no one would have known because the council members and DDA members involved in the closed-door negotiations didn't want people to know. I think everyone who pays taxes in the county or pays to park in the downtown should have the right to know why decisions are being made and what the potential pros and cons are so that they can come to their own conclusions and have the opportunity to voice their opinions before a vote is taken - rather than waste their breath after the fact as is too often the case. My problem is not in giving money to the city, it is the lack of an open, honest, and transparent process and debate.
Rene Greff is the owner of Arbor Brewing Company in downtown Ann Arbor and the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. She is a former member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.