Ann Arbor residents feel pinch of budget cuts as city shuts off street lights, cancels fall leaf pickup
This story has been updated to reflect a correction in the approximate location of streetlight testing, which is south of East Stadium Boulevard.
When Ann Arbor City Council members were trying to balance this year's budget, they promised budget cuts in the final plan might be painful.
Residents are starting to better understand what that means now that the 2010-2011 fiscal year began this month. One example: Ann Arbor began turning off about 50 street lights in mid-June. Another will come in fall when the city drops its leaf pickups.
In what a DTE Energy official called a 'rare' move for a city, it plans to turn off another 1,200 streetlights next month, or a total of one in six lights around the city to save money. All told, the "de-energizing" is expected to save about $100 per street lamp annually, or cut about $120,000 in the city energy budget, said Andrew Brix, city energy programs manager.
It was part of a broader move to trim expenses throughout the city's general fund in a struggle to balance the city budget earlier this year.
Before this year's budget passed in May, council fought to find places to cut back as falling revenue from the state and property taxes created a financial crisis. It considered ideas like cutting the grass in parks less often, slicing its human services funding, shuttering some recreation facilities and laying off some police and firefighters.
The final budget retained 30 jobs in public safety, avoided a $260,000 cut to human services agencies, and halted plans to reduce park mowing and trimming.
But among changes passed in May were plans to increase parking fine rates and stop curbside pickup of Christmas trees this year. And beginning this fall, the city of Ann Arbor will no longer conduct its two scheduled leaf pickups, said Tom McMurtrie, solid waste coordinator and systems planner for the city.
Instead, residents are being asked to consider mulching their leaves or bagging them up in compost bins for weekly curbside pickup.
Several Ann Arbor residents expressed confusion and frustration with the change and communication about it. Watering the garden around her central Ann Arbor home Wednesday afternoon, Kate Higgins said she can't imagine how eliminating the fall leaves pickup will work.
With five towering Maple trees, her yard consistently wins the distinction of having the largest amount of leaves on her street to clear every year.
Typically she starts the season mulching the leaves. But in the thick of the season — when the leaves would typically be hauled in big piles to the road for pickup — there is simply too much to be able to mulch, she said. And there would certainly be too many leaves to try to bag them every week, she said.
"That is not going to work well at all," Higgins said.
Another Ann Arbor resident, John Ross, said he wasn't sure many residents realized the change was coming. He couldn't imagine how many compost bags worth of leaves the numerous trees in his yard were going to produce.
"I understand changes needed to be made," Ross said. "But I just think it's going to be a real mess for the city."
McMurtrie acknowledged he and council members have received calls from residents.
"It will be a challenge for some people because there are quite a few yards that do have a lot of leaves," McMurtrie said.
But, he says, the change could end up bringing benefits to city residents and the environment. For example, the city will be offering curbside pickup to residents every week to better manage yard waste throughout the season. They say it will reduce the problem of vehicles parking over leaves and blocked bicycle lanes in the streets.
It also should reduce the amount of leaves clogging storm drains, sending excess particulate matter into the Huron River and reduce the number of extra vehicles needed to pick up leaves during a bulk pickup.
Last fall, Ypsilanti changed from a single-leaf pickup model for managing leaves to one which depended on weekly pickups and mulching.
"It went well for us," said Stan Kirton, Ypsilanti's public service director. The city offered workshops on mulching yard waste and residents seemed to make the transition smoothly. Personally, Kirton said, he ended up liking the change.
"I started mulching my leaves," he said. "It sure beats stuffing bags and carrying them out to the curb. I wish I would've started doing it years ago."
But really, he said, it was about the bottom line. "We really can't afford to do the bulk pickup anymore," Kirton said. Last season, Ypsilanti saved enough to pay one-and-a-half month's solid waste management bill, he said.
And it's Ann Arbor's bottom line that led to its collection of cuts, some more visible - like the street lights - than others, which residents may begin to notice in the coming months.
Neighbors in the central Ann Arbor neighborhood impacted by the street lights, south of East Stadium Boulevard between Washtenaw and Packard Avenues, had mixed views on the subject.
Some local residents, like Abbey Alvarez, said they had yet to notice the difference. But, Alvarez said, many people in the area either walked or rode their bike to and from work and might get "aggravated" with the change as daylight hours shortened.
Others in the area were unhappy with the change. "This is about safety," said Ann Arbor resident and parent Ali Reingold. "What happens in the winter when it gets dark at about 5 or 5:30 p.m. and there are kids walking home from a friend's house?"
Mayor John Hieftje and City Council Member Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward plan to do a walking tour with residents next Thursday, July 8 at 10 p.m. to discuss concerns of the neighborhood already impacted by the shutdown of the lights.
"The city and the state are obviously in very difficult economic times and the city needs to find areas of savings where it can," Taylor said. "These cuts will occasionally prove difficult and we need to see if this is an area where we could cut and still maintain service."