Kirk for City Council

Issues

Please find below Kirk Westphal’s responses to 1) the League of Women Voters 2014 questionnaire (also viewable at vote411.org), 2) the League of Women Voters 2013 questionnaire, and 3) the 2013 Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber questionnaire.

 

League of Women Voters questionnaire responses from 2014

Education
B.S.E. (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania)
M.U.P. (Taubman College, UM)

What in your education and experience make you the best qualified candidate for this position?

Education: My undergraduate degree in economics (Wharton) and my master’s in urban planning (UM) would both play a major role in informing my priorities for long-term thinking and fiscal discipline as a councilmember.

Experience: My profession as an urban planner and best practices researcher has exposed me to a wealth of relevant ideas for how we can move Ann Arbor forward productively. My experience over the past eight years on the Planning Commission and five years on the Environmental Commission has shown me the value of of robust community engagement and sound policy making. I am prepared to hit the ground running as a councilmember.

What are your goals should you be elected and how will you work to accomplish them with current resources?

1) Focus on neighborhoods: Let’s make our excellent neighborhoods even better. Some priorities include making streets safer from speeding, fixing roads right the first time, and improving parks.

2) Common-sense fiscal priorities: The city is running efficiently, but we have to look harder at how we compare to peer communities. We must keep attracting investments—and leverage outside funding for rail and roads—to strengthen our finances.

3) Communication: Many people are craving ways to understand city issues better or perform volunteer service but don’t know how. We also need to increase voter turnout. Let’s start a citizen’s academy.

What would you like to see happen with growth and density in Ann Arbor in the next ten years?

I agree with what the community has stated: 1) preserve neighborhoods, historic districts, and open spaces, 2) encourage density and a diversity of housing downtown, and 3) reinvigorate our commercial corridors. These all help the “triple bottom line” of our sustainability goals—environmental, fiscal, and social.

Growth and evolution are signs of successful cities. However, we must continue to “reality check” our vision with what we see on the ground. Whether it’s buildings that don’t match our expectations, or traffic conditions that hamper our commutes, we have to be nimble and frequently solicit public input to adjust our policies.

How well is the city handling the problem of homelessness? What changes would you like to see in dealing with this issue?

Like many Ann Arborites, I care deeply for those in need. I think the city is effectively using the scarce resources we have. I am proud we are among the few Michigan cities committed to tackling this problem. As such, this has also led to our capacity being stretched. We have increasingly become a regional homeless center, which we are not equipped for. We must continue to collaboratively engage the county.

As this is a complex issue, I’m glad that we have recently sought outside help to assess our progress. I am encouraged by council’s commitment to affordable housing, which will help many individuals who are emerging from homelessness.

League of Women Voters questionnaire responses from 2013

How many years have you been a resident of Ann Arbor?
Nine

Education
B.S.E. (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania)
M.U.P. (Taubman College, UM)

What in your education and experience make you the best qualified candidate for this position?

My degrees in economics and urban planning serve me well in understanding both: 1) the current fiscal demands, and 2) the future promise of Ann Arbor. As a researcher of municipal best practices, I am confident that we can achieve an even higher degree of efficiency in some services through collaboration with other jurisdictions. But what is currently missing from council is a vision for how to maintain our increasingly expensive services 5, 10, and 20 years from now. With my urban expertise, I am uniquely qualified to evaluate the experiences of cities who have faced similar challenges and opportunities as Ann Arbor. Let’s learn from them.

What are your specific goals for the office and how will you work to accomplish them?

1) Long-term prosperity: A secure future must come from both economic development and higher property values. Investments and jobs coming to Ann Arbor translate to excellent services to residents.

2) Proactive neighborhood engagement: The city often contacts neighborhoods just when there is “bad news.” We have an opportunity to instead create an ongoing dialogue where residents feel empowered to ask for neighborhood enhancements as well as to troubleshoot problems early on.

3) Budgeting for results: It’s easy for politicians to make campaign promises we can’t pay for. Have they delivered? I’ll take a disciplined, data-driven approach.

What actions would you take to ensure the character and vitality of downtown Ann Arbor?

Ann Arbor’s downtown excels—I would not have moved here without it. In fact, I created an award-winning documentary about it (“Insights into a Lively Downtown” on YouTube) and later led a team of residents to win us the “America’s Greatest Main Streets” award (Travel & Leisure). Ann Arborites before us had the forethought to create historic districts, without which downtown would not be what it is today. But to protect what we have, the rest of downtown must continue to evolve, welcoming empty nesters, young professionals, and enhanced transit opportunities. Ask your favorite local business about the benefit of more residents living nearby.

Are you satisfied with the relationship between the Downtown Development Authority and the City of Ann Arbor? What changes would you like to see?

What used to be a productive relationship between the DDA and city council has succumbed to an increasingly toxic environment on council. My view is that there has been an unnecessary politicization of what should be deliberate, fact-based, problem-solving processes. At the time of this writing, a more productive process appears to be evolving. Unfortunately, a great deal of community, staff and volunteer time has been wasted in the meantime. The city employs highly-qualified experts who are trained to provide objective guidance on these matters; they should have been consulted from the outset. Council’s role is to focus on policy.

Which areas of the the city budget would You fight to retain or increase? Which areas would you be willing to cut?

I believe city council passed a responsible budget this year that focused on core services. There are no longer “extras” such as funding for arts or culture. I believe we can be more efficient, but we can no longer ignore the fact that we have a structural “earning” problem, not a “spending” problem. Costs of services are increasing 50% faster than revenue. We need to prioritize economic development now; if not, simple math dictates that we will all face further cuts in service. My opponent’s voting record shows an irresponsible desire for more spending but no economic development. I will fight to keep us the safe, desirable community we are.

 

Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber questionnaire responses from 2013

1) What actions have you taken, or will you take, to make city government more efficient? In what areas do you see the possibility for increased consolidation and/or collaboration, either of services or governmental units?

Our city is running very efficiently, after having been forced to downsize 30% over the past decade. I have a new respect for our staff who are picking up the slack. That said, our balance sheet is less than ideal at the moment, with costs of city services going up 50% faster than revenues coming in. This means we will need to find further efficiencies where we can.

The city is making progress on collaborative efforts with neighboring jurisdictions, like the mutual aid box alarms that help streamline fire safety services. But we still have a long way to go. Other opportunities include cross-training of police, fire and medical personnel.

Our political boundaries were drawn back in a day when services were delivered by horse-drawn carriage. We need to be more creative, collaborative and efficient so we can maintain the quality of services we expect.

2) How did you vote, or how would you have voted, on the downtown development moratorium in 2013 and why?

I understand that new buildings downtown can be an emotional issue. However, unlike my opponent, I would absolutely not have voted for the proposed development moratorium on all downtown construction, for two important reasons.

1) The moratorium would have put millions of dollars worth of the city’s assets and taxpayer dollars at risk through a lawsuit. The proposed moratorium was clearly targeting a specific project that had already been submitted for approval. Judges have punished cities harshly when it can be shown that a city treats a developer unfairly, and I would not have run the risk of this happening to us. Our neighbors in Novi, MI learned several years ago that these lawsuits can come at a high price: they were forced to sell off 75 acres of parkland to settle a developer lawsuit that grew to $70 million (Sandstone v. Novi). I do not want to endanger our parks, our tax dollars, or any city assets over a building.

2) A moratorium is bad for the city’s bottom line, jobs, and ultimately residents’ services. A moratorium would have choked off downtown development for an extended time in Ann Arbor, taking away construction jobs, turning away new residents, and reducing tax revenue that the city should be taking in. A moratorium was not advised by our city’s planning experts—it is a hatchet when a more appropriate tool is a scalpel. Enacting a moratorium also damages a city’s reputation and scares away investment for years to come. It is effectively the “nuclear option” against economic development, something we desperately need to maintain our current level of services.

Bottom line, while voting for this kind of action was appealing to some residents, I strongly believe it would not have been in anyone’s best interest. Many residents don’t know that our representatives came within one vote of passing this ill-advised action. It could have precipitated a financial crisis as well as other unfortunate fallout, such as recall elections. Instead, the prudent path that the council chose to pursue included gathering community feedback and taking a closer look at how the city can ensure—legally—that new development downtown fits better with our expectations. This process is ongoing, and I am confident that it is the correct path.

3) What policies have you or will you pursue regarding the board membership, operations and oversight of the Ann Arbor Development Authority?

I believe that Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has excelled at its mission, which is to strengthen the downtown and attract new investment. A strong downtown strengthens property values throughout the whole city. The population of downtown has doubled in the past decade—a boon to reinforcing local retail as well as our overall tax base.

Like many people I talk to, I find that the DDA has been good stewards of its budget. Our city council approves the DDA’s budget every year; in this regard, there is oversight already built in.

I have heard some discussions about term limits. I am generally not in favor of this, whether on our boards or in other governmental bodies for that matter. If there are qualified people seeking to be appointed to the DDA—or any board or commission—council should weigh the pros and cons of all applicants. If there is an applicant whose qualifications are better than those of a currently serving member, then a change should be considered. But “forcing” a change in membership, particularly during a time when fewer people may have interest in applying, would not be in our best interest.

DDAs are extremely effective tools to improve the local economy. They are a mechanism by which surrounding jurisdictions “chip in” to make sure our urban core is healthy. With the DDA’s help, our downtown evolved from a disinvested, struggling area with crumbling parking structures, to the award-winning, regional entertainment destination it is today. Recent politically-motivated attempts to reduce the amount that our DDA can reinvest in our downtown shifts the burden to the city’s general fund. This has already produced bad outcomes, and I fear that it will have undesirable consequences in the future.

4) What transit policies will you pursue or oppose on Council?

Transit is an integral part of Ann Arbor and our region. As an urban planner, I recognize the “triple bottom line” value of excellent transit service: economically, environmentally, and societally. Many people are familiar with the value of transit to those who cannot or do not wish to rely on a car, as well as the environmental benefits of less carbon emissions. However, the economic returns of a robust transit system are significant: it leverages state and federal money, saves people the high cost of owning and operating vehicles so they can save or spend more locally, saves travel time by removing cars from the road, saves the cost of building parking structures, increases property values near transit lines—the list goes on.

I support a full study and discussion of the necessary transit upgrades Ann Arbor will need to consider as we grow our economy. Thousands of jobs are projected to come to our city in the coming years, and the “do nothing” scenario is unacceptable from a traffic management standpoint. We’re not going to widen roads, so we have to choose between moving people more efficiently or seeing traffic worsen.

There will be a range of solutions proposed, so I will vote for transit investments only if my constituents are convinced of their long-term personal and city-wide economic benefits.

More specifically, I am pleased that a majority of council is in favor of leveraging large federal grants to study how our AMTRAK facility may be reconstructed to better serve a fast-growing train ridership (up 60% since the year 2000) and to better integrate these riders with our own bus system. I support this effort 100%. And I fully support leveraging as much federal grant money as possible to complete the project—something my opponent rejects. Cities that experience growth in rail ridership typically see financial return in the form of higher property values and more jobs and investment coming into the community. To turn away these large subsidies—thereby giving them to another Michigan community—would constitute a missed opportunity. I would do everything I could to capture and leverage these funds for our long-term gain.

5) What future actions should the City of Ann Arbor take in terms of infrastructure development and do you believe the City’s current levels of investment are sufficient, insufficient or excessive?

We have well-maintained infrastructure in the city. The city has a tradition of thoughtful planning for needed upgrades, as evidenced by the current replacement of our aging waste water treatment plant. Departments within City Hall are collaborating more frequently now, so that repairs are made logically and synergistically; for example, replacing aging water mains when a road is reconstructed.

Some people point to our roads as a sign of under-maintained infrastructure. I’d agree that our roads seem rougher than normal, however I’m told that this is because the city was for years putting off routine road repair in order to save up a large amount of funds to replace the Stadium Bridges. When we unexpectedly got federal money to accomplish this project, the road funds were released and now the city is playing catch-up.

Since we have a dedicated millage for road reconstruction, there’s a fixed amount the city can accomplish—it’s not a matter of trade-offs with other priorities. So if a politician promises better roads to you, they should also tell you how you will pay for them.

Flooding is an increasing problem, as we are receiving significantly increased rainfall and more “flashy” storms in recent decades. It’s been made clear by engineering professionals that we cannot “build our way out” of this situation by increasing capacity of all of the storm water infrastructure. Something the city is increasingly prioritizing are low-cost methods of preventing water from entering our storm drains in the first place, by using “green infrastructure.” For example, policies are put in place to make sure that water has a chance to be detained and/or infiltrate at every opportunity rather than use up capacity in our storm system.

The city needs to continue to invest carefully, thoughtfully, and with full public discussion to meet our infrastructure needs long term.

6) Are Ann Arbor’s police and fire staffing levels too high, too low, or appropriate?

Every city department is stressed, after having to cut back fairly drastically over the past decade. Many department heads make the case for more staffing within their respective areas each budget cycle. It is up to council to decide—based on community feedback, benchmarks from other cities, and recommendations from the city administrator—where our scarce resources go.

I am encouraged that the council agreed to use “outcome based” metrics for budgeting for police, for example, which is one of the largest expenditures within the general fund. “Prioritize public safety” is a popular campaign slogan, but what do the words mean? Of course, local government has to keep us safe. If the goal is keeping our community on the list of the 10 safest communities in Michigan, for example, and we’ve achieved that, should we spend more on public safety? If the community would like to be even safer, I would fully support a discussion about this—with the recognition that we’d have to cut elsewhere in the budget.

I personally would like the city to have the flexibility to respond to increased safety services if needed in the future, but there isn’t an obvious way to do that at the moment. If we don’t begin to be purposeful about economic development, we will not have this flexibility.

With regard to fire safety, my understanding is that we may be on the low end of staffing levels. The city absolutely must maintain excellent fire safety ratings so that our insurance premiums don’t go up. Response time and staff capacity is key. I hope we are able to collaborate further with surrounding jurisdictions to be both safer and more efficient as costs keep climbing.