Traverse City News and Events

City Considers Brown Bridge Ballot

Jan. 13, 2014

What could $2 million do for Traverse City's parks?

That's the question TC commissioners will discuss at tonight's commission meeting, as the city considers if it should pursue a 2014 voter ballot proposal to free dollars from the community's Brown Bridge Trust Fund (BBTF) for park improvements.

Established in the city's charter in 1978, the BBTF is funded by oil and gas exploration rights and royalties from the city-owned Brown Bridge Quiet Area (BBQA) located approximately 11 miles southeast of TC. The principal of the fund – currently at $13 million, according to City Treasurer William Twietmeyer – can only be tapped by a vote of the people.

In recent decades, residents have approved such access twice: to purchase property on West Grand Traverse Bay in 1987, and to purchase additional property near the BBQA in 1994. Both of those were one-time cash withdrawals, requiring 60 percent voter approval.

This go-round, the city is considering requesting an amendment to the charter that would cap the fund's balance at $12.5 million, utilizing the current $500,000 surplus plus an estimated $300,000 annually from royalty income over the next five years for a total of $2 million to be used for city park capital improvements and maintenance. The amendment could be passed by a simple majority vote of residents.

“The questions that have to be answered by the commission are: Do we believe our parks need additional capital improvements? If the answer is yes, where do you get the money?” says Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes. “I'd contend we do need improvements, that the city's general fund is not adequate to cover them...and that the BBTF is an appropriate place to look for those dollars.”

City Commissioner and Brown Bridge Advisory Committee member Gary Howe says a ballot measure would need “concrete details and an overarching vision” to ensure voter support later this year. The commission considered bringing a BBTF ballot proposal before residents in 2013, but ultimately decided to wait and gather more public input and refine a list of park priorities before proceeding.

“The (BBTF) is a great resource and one we should be open to using,” says Howe. “But we need to identify a long-term plan, not just a short-term wish list, and we need to gather a lot of user input and have clear measurements for success."

The refinement of a city “wish list” – which currently contains proposals from Central Neighborhood Association for improvements to Hannah Park, Orchard Heights Neighborhood for plans for Clancy Park and Old Town Neighborhood for the establishment of a new park, to name just a few – is also of concern to Brown Bridge Advisory Committee Chair Deni Scrudato. Scrudato believes any discussion of fund usage should focus first on improvements to the BBQA itself, and that commissioners should take care that the process doesn't become a “runaway train” of project requests and demands.

“The (BBTF) isn't something to be viewed as a bottomless cookie jar,” Scrudato says. “It was a bit of a free-for-all last time around. I'd like to see the money used for parks that are already in existence, versus building new parks.”

Mayor Estes also favors focusing on improving current parks over constructing new ones. But he believes the ballot proposal should remain “general in nature,” with commissioners deciding annually which projects to allocate funding to.

“We can set guidelines, but we don't live in a static world,” he says. “To get too specific...would limit the scope of what we could consider at any particular time.”

If the city decides to pursue putting a BBTF proposal before voters this year, the commission will need to adopt a resolution finalizing its language and receive the approval of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Governor Rick Snyder by May 13 to be on the August 5 ballot, or by August 12 to be on the November 4 ballot.

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