Traverse City News and Events

New City Commission Tackles First Regular Agenda Including Setting Manager Spending Limit, Establishing Coronavirus Fund

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 16, 2021

Following the swearing-in of a new Traverse City mayor and three new city commissioners at an organizational meeting last week, the new city commission tackled its first full meeting agenda Monday – including establishing spending limits for the city manager following recent voter approval of a ballot proposal and establishing a dedicated fund to track city spending of federal COVID relief funds.

City voters earlier this month approved a ballot proposal to raise the city manager’s spending authority – the first such increase in 16 years and one intended to stay current with inflation and better reflect spending policies in other city departments. The proposal amends a section of the city charter that regulates how much the city manager can spend in a single transaction without commission approval. That figure has stayed a flat amount of $9,000 since 2005. Voters agreed to change the limit from a flat amount to a percentage of the general fund’s budgeted expenses each year: up to one-tenth of one percent, which would equal roughly $19,700 this fiscal year.

While the amendment allows potential spending up to that amount, city commissioners will actually set the manager’s spending limit on an annual basis, a figure that could be lower than the allowed maximum. Newly elected Mayor Richard Lewis suggested putting the figure at $15,000 to start and revisiting it during budget talks next spring. He said that approach would allow commissioners to get “comfortable” with the kind of funding requests that will no longer be coming to them for approval, but that City Manager Marty Colburn can instead approve on his own. The spending increase is “allowing a lot more things to go through that we don’t get to look at and the public doesn’t get to look at,” Lewis said.

Other commissioners said they were comfortable establishing the spending limit at the full maximum, noting that voters had supported that ballot language. Many types of expenses, such as certain contracts, capital projects, and outlays that weren’t previously budgeted, still have to come to commissioners for review even if they’re under the manager’s spending limit. The charter amendment was proposed “so we wouldn’t have to have all these discussions and motions about smaller-ticket items,” said Commissioner Ashlea Walter. “That was the whole impetus behind it.” Commissioners ultimately agreed to set the limit at $17,000 to start, with staff to come back at a future meeting with updated language reflecting that amount in the city’s ordinance and commission policy for approval.

Commissioners Monday also agreed to establish a dedicated Coronavirus Local Recovery Program Fund to track spending for the roughly $1.6 million in federal dollars the city is slated to receive through the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The city has already received half those funds, with the other half expected to arrive next year. Colburn noted the funds have federal reporting requirements attached to them and that establishing a separate fund will allow the city to better track those dollars. He mentioned a sanitary sewer project could be coming to the commission as one recommended project for spending ARP funds.

Commissioner Tim Werner encouraged commissioners to start thinking about how ARP funds could best benefit the community. While the city’s sanitary sewer system has a dedicated funding source already, ARP funds “could benefit things that don’t have funding sources, whatever those might be,” Werner said. Lewis pointed out that President Joe Biden signed a separate new $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law Monday, which means more federal relief could soon be flowing into the community. He said the commission will need to “see where all that plays out in the months to come” in terms of impacts on Traverse City and possible areas of spending.

Also at Monday’s city commission meeting…
> City commissioners unanimously reaffirmed their support for the recently completed Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan, including pursuing short and long-term steps recommended in the document to be taken by the city, TC Downtown Development Authority, and Traverse City Police Department to improve the community culture surrounding alcohol consumption. The previous city commission adopted the plan in October, but with a majority board turnover in the November election, staff said they wanted to give an overview of the project to new commissioners and ensure they were committed to the plan as well. The document calls for action steps including updating Traverse City’s ordinances and liquor license permit processes, working on a policy for drinking tour operators, and improving lighting and security cameras downtown.

> Commissioners established an ad hoc committee that will work on developing a stormwater utility plan that could be submitted to voters for approval in the November 2023 election. Consultants have recommended Traverse City pursue introducing a stormwater user fee – a rate that could be assessed against both residential and commercial properties based on their impervious surface square footage for the purposes of maintaining and improving stormwater infrastructure. Though legal in Michigan, the method by which such rates are established and implemented has proven to be a thorny issue for communities throughout the state, several of whom have faced – and lost – lawsuits over stormwater fee ordinances.

Acknowledging that it’s been “problematic” for other communities to establish a stormwater utility or fee, Colburn said the city would “really need to make sure what we (introduce to voters) is as solid as we can.” Lewis said setting a deadline for 2023 instead of next year would ensure the committee would have plenty of time to research and develop options and work with partners like The Watershed Center before putting a proposal on the ballot. Werner will chair the committee, with Commissioners Mi Stanley and Mitchell Treadwell also serving as members.

> Finally, commissioners Monday scheduled December 6 votes on two proposals recently supported by the city’s planning commission. The first is to allow marijuana testing facilities to operate downtown. Cambium Analytica has requested the zoning ordinance change, as the company is outgrowing its Woodmere Avenue facility and hopes to expand its offices on the upper floors of 102 West Front Street – the building that houses Fifth Third Bank near the corner of Front and Union streets. Commissioners will also vote on December 6 on a request from property owner Richard Weaver to rezone a prominent parcel on the corner of Division and Fourteenth streets – which used to host a Fifth Third Bank – for new development. The zoning change would allow retail to be offered on-site, which is not currently allowed. Weaver hopes to construct a mixed-use development that would contain a first-floor retail center and upper-story housing on the property.

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