Additional Thoughts (Mar 3, 2019) - Mental Health Millage Rebate

The following was originally published in my Mar 3, 2019 Newsletter in the "Additional Thoughts" section

Additional thoughts…

Since the last meeting, I have received quite a lot of emails about allocation of the county millage rebate funds. A resolution on the agenda this week asks us to “nullify” a resolution from 2017, passed by a previous council. I plan to oppose this resolution, primarily because it affirmatively rejects information that I find relevant to our decision making process. 

I have heard a number of people use the word “promise” to describe the 2017 resolution to allocate county millage rebate funds toward three purposes: pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and climate change action. I appreciate that, for many advocates, the news of this commitment was very exciting and very satisfying in 2017. Current discussion that revisits the issue is frustrating to many - in some rhetoric, current council is characterized negatively as “breaking a commitment” or “governing by survey.” As a new Council member, I find this concerning and also misleading.

Exceptional circumstances

The rebate attached to the County Mental Health and Public Safety Millage was unprecedented. Never before had a county millage been structured in this way: local municipalities receiving funds untethered as to purpose, but connected to a county millage with clearly stated purposes. Of the seven municipalities that received this rebate of untethered funds, only Ann Arbor actually passed a resolution of intent (the “promise”) ahead of the public vote. This original resolution is what led to significant misunderstanding.

This resolution was non-binding, but it seems that many in our community did not understand it that way. Typically, we recognize millage funds to be firm and regular commitments of funds with specific allocations as to purpose; this was not true for the rebate funds. The combination of millage, rebate, and the 2017 resolution naturally led to confusion. A significant number of voters were completely unaware of the resolution; for these people, the ballot offered no indication that allocations were “promised” or that any of the funds were committed to goals other than community mental health or public safety.  

We find ourselves in a remarkable and unusual situation not because current members of council are failing to follow through on a “promise.” New members of council are in a difficult set of circumstances based on decisions made long before we assumed office. In the other six municipalities that received this rebate, elected leaders recognized that the funds were entering local budgets untethered as to purpose, and allocation decisions would have to happen in the context of a regular budget process, among the leaders in office during that process.

2017 Resolution Vs. Survey

I supported a survey to collect more public input around the spending of the millage money. The confusion and frustration around this issue is very much connected to what people were led to believe before they voted and what they were surprised to learn after they voted. I understand that community groups sent out emails and other communications about the 2017 resolution. I also understand that a lot of community members did not expect allocations that were not described clearly on the ballot. For me, this survey adds one more data point to our discussion about what our community supports re: use of the millage rebate. It is far from the only data point.  

I plan to vote against this week’s resolution to set aside the 2017 resolution. I do not and will not endorse an approach that ignores the history of public conversation around this issue. I support the goals of the 2017 resolution but I strongly disagree with how it was injected into public discussion and promotion prior to the vote on the millage. City council is now forced to reconcile two very different understandings of a public vote. For me, the 2017 resolution is relevant, but only insofar as our community actually supports it. Rebate funds will be allocated as part of current budget decisions, among current council members.

I appreciate the many emails I have received on this topic.  It helps to hear from all of you!

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Elizabeth NELSON

DEMOCRAT for Ann Arbor City Council Ward 4

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PO Box 2243. Ann Arbor. MI 48106-2243