“Green” Mayor’s Parkland-for-Train Station Scheme Underwritten In Part By Slush Fund
by P.D. Lesko
Let’s start with a quiz:
1. Has Ann Arbor City Council voted to approve the construction of a train station in Fuller Park?
2. As the city Charter requires, have the citizens of Ann Arbor voted to give over the 10-acre river side parcel of park land valued at between $4-$10 million dollars for a train station on Fuller Road?
Answers: 1. No. 2. No.
So how can Ann Arbor City Council continue to spend money on a construction project on a prime parcel of parkland that voters never approved to be used for this purpose using money that could be used to pay for services including as police and fire? How are the residents of the “smartest” city in the U.S. being bamboozled by elected officials? Two words: Slush. Fund.
John Hieftje and his Hive Mind Collective on City Council have quietly plowed millions from the general fund into the train station/parking garage project opposed by the local chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as a collection of citizen environmentalists concerned with protecting park land, particularly park land abutting the Huron River.
Since 2008, John Hieftje’s administration has siphoned away more than $4 million dollars from the general fund to pay for what some believe is a hair-brained scheme to force taxpayers to foot the cost of a a new train station for Amtrak that would sit at the foot of Geddes Road, in the shadow of the University of Michigan Medical Center. His administration and his Council supporters, including Second Ward Council member Tony Derezinski, Third Ward Council member Christopher Taylor, and Fourth Ward Council members Margie Teall and Marcia Higgins are doing it by crafting and supporting budgets include slush funds and by directing money from other parts the the city’s budget, such as water and sewer.
For instance, a $1.6 million fee for sewer work on a 10-acre parcel of parkland was paraded as a necessary improvement to the parkland parcel in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. Meanwhile, in other parts of town, residents woke up to this sight after a 2012 spring storm:
In other Michigan cities such as Dearborn, the federal government stepped in and funded new train station projects. According to Detroit2020.com, “Dearborn’s new $28.2 million dollar new rail station is fully funded through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which allocated the money to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. The FRA directed the money to the Michigan Department of Transportation for the building of the City of Dearborn’s station.”
Ann Arbor applied for the same federal money to build a train station, and the application was denied.
So, John Hieftje wants Ann Arbor taxpayers to fund a train station for Amtrak. To get the money, over the past several years, police and fire staffing have been slashed. In 2008, $4 million from the general fund was taken and put into an economic development fund. Then, money from that fund was spent on the Fuller Road project—giving local politicos political deniability. Fees the city charges for just about everything have risen dramatically: the cost of a pool pass, for instance, has rise 25 percent in just three years. The cost to rent a park shelter has risen to $137 for weekend use. Water and sewer rates have increased significantly, as well. Meanwhile, our fire department no longer meets national standards for response times, and frequently does not have equipment in service to deal with fires in high rises downtown. Police staffing is so low that residents often wait an hour or more before a police officer arrives. Officers are candid about the fact that Ann Arbor’s is a reactive police force as opposed to a proactive police force. The Ann Arbor police force doesn’t expect to stop rapes, robberies and assaults before they happen through a strong police presence; they expect to respond after a rape, robbery or assault has been committed and reported. In April of 2011, John Hieftje smugly announced that he was “pretty comfortable” with cuts to safety services that have been made over the course of his tenure.
Despite the Hieftje and his Council cronies feeling “pretty comfortable” not providing basic safety services that meet national standards, the FY2013 proposed budget contains $307,781 from the General Fund (the source of police and fire funding) for a “High Speed intercity Rail Grant Match” (page 5 proposed budget). The proposed FY2013 City Council budget resolution does not call the $307,781 a grant match. Instead, it says the transfer would be a “deficit elimination plan” if the High Speed Intercity Rail project ends FY2012 with a deficit (Page 9 proposed budget).
Search the trial balance for the first 10 months of FY2012 (on the city’s data catalog) and you won’t find anything called the “High Speed Intercity Rail project.” You do find a cost center called “FRS-Phase II” in OOMG-Major Grants programs in the FY2012 trial balance. The account first appeared in FY2012 and shows spending of $19,299.72 for staff time and related benefits. There is also an account called “Fuller Intermodal Train Station” in OOCP-General Capital Fund. This account first appeared in the FY2010 trial balance and shows spending for contractual services of $651,177 through April 30, 2012. It also shows bad debt expense of $279,511. The OOCP-General capital Fund was used to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds before the Fuller Road project started. A review of the history of this fund indicates it operates as a slush fund for pet projects. It was left over funds from past projects that paid for the portion of a $652,945 JJR contract to design, yes, the Fuller Road Intermodal Transit Station.
U of M pulled the plug on Hieftje’s Fuller Road Folly. The High Speed Intercity Rail Project is the new name for the Fuller Road Intermodal Transit Station project to be built on the 10-acre riverfront parcel of parkland. The OOCP-General Fund slush fund is being used to skim money from within the budget, including from the general fund, and to pay costs for a project neither voters nor elected officials have formally approved, and from partnership in which University of Michigan officials recently fled.
Spending on the Fuller Road Station project started August 17, 2009 when City Council authorized a consulting contract with JJR for $541,717. The contract was later amended by adding another $111,228 in expenses bringing the total approved contract to $652,945. The Council resolution for the initial JJR contract stated that the University of Michigan would contribute $327,733 toward the JJR contract—detailed in an August 17, 2009 letter from Hank Baier to city administrator Roger Fraser. It says the University of Michigan will fund 75 percent of JJR’s estimated cost of $436,975, but left open the possibility that U of M might agree to fund additional work.
However, 2012 budget documents show that the University stiffed the city, and paid only $98,100 of the $377,611. If Council directed the city attorney to pursue collection action against the U of M, the city could use the unpaid $307,781 to increase police and fire staffing. More to the point, however, is why local elected officials continue to vote to use money from a long-time slush fund to fund a train station project that they never voted to build, is opposed by citizen groups, and reviled by the Sierra Club?
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