A total of four residents met all requirements and have declared their candidacy in Royal Oak's upcoming election. The candidates have set their sights on three commission seats.
The Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce’s Community Relations Committee invited each of the candidates to answer nine questions relevant to the business community.
What steps, if any, should the City of Royal Oak take within the next four years concerning outstanding pension and retiree healthcare liabilities, the total of which is over one-hundred million dollars (See City’s published actuarial valuation reports)?
Sharlan Douglas: Hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. cities are grappling with problem of under-funded “other post-employment benefits” (OPEB). Much depends on how the courts treat Detroit’s bankruptcy. The Michigan Municipal League’s “Partnership for Place: An Agenda for a Competitive 21st Century Michigan” proposes that the state of Michigan make up for revenue taken from cities, or create a bond pool to assume the debts, to which communities would make payments. This might be Royal Oak’s best option. I was reassured to see that Oakland County successfully completed a bond deal to finance its employee health care liabilities. We can watch cities like Chicago as they explore the possibility that health care exchanges are a solution for health care for retirees under the age of 65. Royal Oak essentially borrowed money from its employees over the years, promising to repay it to them in their retirement. We must honor that obligation.
Diane Hargan: I listed this item as my top priority and stated that I would like to be part of finding a solution to the looming financial threat that exists from continual under funding. I can't develop a specific strategy until I am sitting in a commission seat and have a better understanding of our revenue sources and expenditures. I will say that the money that has been spent on projects such as city surveys, branding, and the dog census (to name a few) would not have gotten a yes vote from me if we were sacrificing the money needed to fund our pension and healthcare liabilities in order to do it.
Jeremy Mahrle: This is going to be a major issue for municipalities all across the country as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age. We have taken action to begin to address the situation: significantly reducing city staff, negotiating concessions from employee bargaining units, eliminating retiree health care plans for any employee hired after 2009 and replacing defined benefits plans with defined contribution plans for all new employees except police and fire. More will likely need to be done.
As we consider our options, it is important to remember that we have an obligation to our city workers. Whether they are Police Officers, Fire Fighters, DPW or City Hall staff, their pension is nothing more than deferred compensation – we are paying them less than they would make for the same job in the private sector in exchange for a more secure retirement. Whatever our solution may be, we must keep in mind the sacrifices that these employees have been making.
Dave Poulton: During my first term as City Commissioner, aggressive steps have been taken to stem the growth of this liability. By working with city unions, the city has realized millions of dollars in long-term savings with the elimination of retiree health care and adoption of defined contribution plans for new employees. However, a substantial obligation remains. I suggest the city meet with auditors and municipal financial experts to consider a solution implemented by Oakland County and a few surrounding communities. Within the past year, the Michigan legislature passed a law that allows municipalities to issue general obligation bonds to finance the unfunded liabilities of retiree pensions and health care. This option could prove attractive to the city as other communities are expected to realize millions of dollars in savings by taking advantage of this law.
What is your vision for the downtown?
Hargan: I would like to see a downtown with fewer bars and more businesses that are family friendly.
Mahrle: A thriving downtown is an essential part of what makes Royal Oak such a great community in which to live. The downtown attracts young families to move to our neighborhoods, increasing property values and adding students to our schools. But we must diversify and enhance the landscape of our downtown to ensure its sustainability and make it more family-friendly. Adding more office, retail and affordable living space needs to be a priority as we attempt to develop a 24-7 live-work-play atmosphere.
Poulton: A vibrant mixed-use downtown that incorporates office, residential, retail and entertainment. However, we must remain committed to expansion that is compatible with neighborhood areas and promotes a pedestrian friendly environment.
Douglas: A vision for a downtown – and for an entire city – should spring from the visions and will of the people, not from the designs of any one elected official. If elected, I will make sure the city listens to its citizens and business owners to make sure our plans continue to represent their desires. I’m a planning commissioner. My vision of downtown is defined in the city’s master plan which calls for a compact, pedestrian-scaled, transit-oriented downtown with a broad mixture of residential and commercial uses. It has buffers to ease the transition between downtown and adjacent residential neighborhoods. It has a central plaza linking city hall and the library. Consistent with that master plan, I’d like to see more office uses in and near downtown, with continuing solid residential occupancy.
What do you think the City should do, or not do, to create your vision for downtown?
Mahrle: We currently have a Downtown Taskforce Committee that is comprised of elected officials, business owners, residents and the City Manager. I would like to see this committee continue to discuss ideas for downtown improvement, including better way-finding signage, increased parking options – both in terms of additional parking spots and particularly in terms of means of payment (credit card, cell phone apps, etc.) – and continuing to develop plans for a downtown park as called for in our Master Plan.
Poulton: The City must adhere to the Master Plan that sets forth the goals, objectives and strategies for the entire community, including the downtown.
Douglas: We have to be vigilant about routine things: Keep the streets and sidewalks clean, maintain floral displays, refresh the DDA banners, enforce ordinances, respond to criminal activity. We also must be entrepreneurial as business opportunities present themselves. The city needs an economic development director (see below) actively recruiting office tenants in and around downtown. We must continue to use good judgment to continually refresh our restaurant mix with appropriate establishments. I’d like to see us market our downtown more actively to tourists. If we could find the funds, I would like to see better signage to help people find suitable parking.
Hargan: A good start would be to allow fewer liquor licenses, or at the very least do not give out any more.
Does Royal Oak need a development director? If you answered yes, should the director’s focus be the downtown or City-wide?
Poulton: Not at this time. There are new developments occurring in all corners of the city. However, we need to improve the economic development process at City Hall. We are in the process of moving all 3 of the economic development departments – Planning, Building and Engineering – to the same floor in an effort to promote a customer friendly and efficient business development process.
Douglas: Yes and it should be city-wide. (In the opinion survey conducted in 2012, economic development was one of the highest priorities for our residents.) Just having an economic development director tells developers, brokers and business owners that the city is open for business and cares about their success. There are scores of economic development tools used successfully by other communities that could work for Royal Oak. An economic development director would help new businesses navigate through all the departments that control their building and operations. We should practice economic gardening, working with existing businesses to understand, meet and even anticipate their needs. We should seek creative scenarios to make it advantageous for developers to purchase and redevelop the sites of marginal motels. State incentives for businesses have waned in recent years, but if there are any, we should seek them.
Hargan: I do not believe that we need a development director. This would be another paid position within a city government that is large enough already. We do not need to hire someone to sell Royal Oak. The city, with all its amenities is capable of selling itself.
Mahrle: I think an Economic Development Director, which is a position that we currently have budgeted for but have not filled, is important for Royal Oak. The director should have a city-wide focus so that no area of our city is neglected. Not only will this person be able to help market the city, the director will be able to act as an intermediary between developers and City Hall to bring new projects to our city that are harmonious with our neighborhoods, existing businesses, and our Master Plan.
Are there programs or events used to create or promote business in other cities that you would like to see adopted in Royal Oak?
Douglas: A. As a public relations and marketing professional, I tell my clients that their marketing programs must take advantage of their unique qualities. Royal Oak’s DDA and its downtown merchants and restaurants conduct a number of events that well suit the mix of businesses in the district, like Ladies’ Night Out, the wine and beer strolls and Spooktacular.
B. For the Michigan Association of Planning’s magazine, I recently summarized the book “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development” by Birmingham’s Robert Gibbs. To attract tenants, he encourages traditional downtowns to use the “long term, objective, cost-benefit metrics” used by malls: Weather data, parking counts, pedestrian counts, rental rates, vacancies. He says downtowns should act like malls in other ways, with uniform hours of operation and cooperative marketing. Again, these activities are solidly within the scope of work for an economic development department.
Hargan: Royal Oak is host to a number of events such as Arts Beats and Eats, Royal Oak in Bloom, our city garage sale, etc. I think that we outshine most of the surrounding communities with our numerous and diverse attractions.
Mahrle: We are beginning to see an influx of new, young families moving to Royal Oak with our good stock of smaller starter homes and newly constructed larger houses. We need to do more to make these families want to stay in Royal Oak long-term.
Having grown up in Royal Oak, I know that we have some wonderful events in our city already, but I think some of them could be improved. An example is the DIY Street Fair in Ferndale. Our Clay, Glass and Metal Show is a great annual event, but why not add a music and entertainment element to keep visitors in town to shop and dine beyond the hours of the fair (and of course end at a reasonable hour so as to not inconvenience those who live close to downtown). This model has proven so successful for Ferndale that they replicated it in the Pig & Whiskey event.
If our downtown park becomes a reality, we would have many additional opportunities for family-friendly events. For example, parents could take their kids to dinner downtown followed by a movie night outside the Library (or a concert, as we have now). The Farmers Market does a great job of hosting unique events throughout the year – from BaconFest to the Food Truck Rallies. I think we have opportunities to leverage that success into more than just Bike Nights downtown.
Poulton: We need to provide signage in the downtown and advertise our 2 hour free parking in the garages before 5pm (Mon-Sat) and free city wide parking on Sunday to drive people downtown to shop and spend time during the day.
In your opinion, is the City’s decision to ban bicycles from downtown consistent with the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan?
*please note: when the Chamber sent these questions to the candidates, we inadvertently left the word “sidewalks” out of the question. We apologize for any confusion.
Hargan: No. I think bikes should be allowed on all sidewalks and roads. And we should have a lot more bike racks. Having said that, let me elaborate. Who are we talking about here? Avid cyclists prefer the road; Mom, Dad, and little Timmy are going to be safer on the sidewalks. There is room for both pedestrians and bikers on our sidewalks.
Mahrle: I am a strong supporter of the non-motorized plan. I believe that making Royal Oak more pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly will help to attract more young families to move to our city, the type of families that will stay and invest in their homes and the community.
However, I can see that the use of bicycles in an area used primarily for walking does present some safety issues. I have witnessed a pedestrian exiting a building and only narrowly missing being struck by a bicyclist travelling at a high rate of speed on a sidewalk. In many cases, particularly where there are sidewalk cafes, our sidewalks simply are not wide enough for both walkers and bikers.
A good compromise solution seems to be an increase of places to lock a bike on the outskirts of downtown – bike racks strategically located to allow residents to ride their bikes to downtown and then have a secure place to store them while walking around downtown. The addition of bike paths on downtown streets is another option to consider, but one that would need more resident input before being implemented.
Poulton: The City did not ban bicycles from downtown. Rather, due to the high level of pedestrian traffic, the City moved to prohibit only the riding of bicycles on sidewalks in the downtown. Bikes are allowed in the downtown, but individuals will have to walk them on downtown sidewalks or park them at a rack. Due to the increased use of bicycles as a means of transportation, the City must expand the amount of bicycle parking spots in the downtown.
Douglas: The non-motorized transportation plan is part of the city’s master plan. One of its goals is, “To create safe and inviting walking and biking environments for residents and visitors.” Common sense tells us that walkers on our busy downtown streets are less safe when cyclists are present. We similarly must protect cyclists pushed onto the streets from cars, with visual warnings and even dedicated bike lanes. While elements of the non-motorized plan are costly, we should steadily implement the low-cost, easy tasks while staying alert for opportunities like grants, road construction and actions by neighboring cities to pay for bigger things. And the city didn’t recently ban bicycles. It had banned them on ALL sidewalks since 1927, along with animals, wagons and carriages. It now permits them outside downtown.
What is the one thing that you would most like to see approved by the City Commission in the next year?
Mahrle: As a candidate who is deeply involved in the community, there are a number of important things that I would like to see happen in Royal Oak. I would like to see a satisfactory development at the I-696 property, the gateway to our city. I would like to see the city be a partner as construction begins on the Michigan World War II Legacy Memorial at Memorial Park so we can better honor our WWII veterans before it is too late – this of course goes hand in hand with the maintenance of our Veterans War Memorial in front of the Library.
However, in my mind the most important “issue” is the direction our city is headed – we must keep moving Royal Oak forward and not let petty differences stall our progress. We need to keep our neighborhoods strong and safe, maintain our parks and playgrounds, responsibly grow and diversify our downtown, and protect our community assets like the Public Library, the Senior Center, and the Farmers Market. If we do this, I will consider my time as your City Commissioner a success.
The tough decision will be surrounding the financial realities of these goals. We must do what we can, with what we have.
Poulton: Enhanced public safety – fulfilling our promise to the residents of 79 police officers and appropriate personnel and equipment at all 3 fire stations.
Douglas: A. Royal Oak has long craved a nationally-branded downtown hotel. As a planning commissioner, I voted for a mixed-use plan on the site of the former Jim Fresard auto dealership that includes a hotel plus offices, apartments and a parking deck. Our approval makes it clear that no other development will happen on that site until the hotel is built and operating. Nothing would make me happier than to approve that building.
B. I would also like to see the city use more and better tools to more actively listen to and engage with its people. I’m pleased that we’re using quantitative opinion surveys to make sure we are collecting information that is representative of the entire city. There are web-based tools that make real-time interactions possible, even during city commission meetings. I’ve pushed the planning commission to post the drawings of proposed projects online in advance.
Hargan: A solid plan for decreasing unfunded liabilities.
What City infrastructure improvements, such as in parks, roads or buildings, would you most like to see the City make in the next four years?
Poulton: Improving and enhancing recreational opportunities and roads are a priority of mine over the next four years. We recently approved the purchase of new playground equipment at several city parks and resurfaced a tennis court. Through the Adopt-a-Park initiative, grants and funds devoted for park and recreation programs, we must work to improve each city park. We also need to consider the addition of a downtown park at a suitable location.
There are certain roads in our city that must be fixed now. We need to immediately seek funding solutions to get these roads fixed. I suggest we begin the process by redirecting money from needless surveys and other wasteful expenditures to building roads.
Douglas: The city should continue to follow its capital improvement plan, which allocates approximately $60 million over the next six years, with 35% spent on water and sewer, 28% spent on local streets, 25% spent on major streets and the balance spent on vehicles, IT, facilities and parks and grounds. (Those percentages may change a bit when the results of the parks master plan are incorporated in the capital improvement plan.)
A 2013 study rated the condition of Royal Oak’s 214 miles of roadway at 4.8, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being poor and 10 being new. Of those, 168 miles are not eligible for any federal funds and the city allocates $1.5 million per year to repair them. With that small sum, those local streets will continue to deteriorate over time and the city manager has made it clear: We don’t have enough money to fix them. Within the next four years, we may well need to find a comprehensive solution to this growing problem.
Hargan: The Adopt-A-Park program is a great idea. It is not reasonable for a city of this size to try to maintain 51 parks without assistance, so getting the community and sponsors involved is very smart. I am still formulating my opinion with regards to our roads and buildings.
Mahrle: As I state above, I think one of the most important things we can do as a city is to maintain our parks and playgrounds. They are a real source of pride for our residents, and they contribute to our increasing home values and the family-friendliness of Royal Oak.
The funding mechanism for road repairs is an issue that we as a city need to examine. There is currently almost no funding available to repair side-streets beyond assessing home owners additional taxes to pay for their own road – most of the current construction and repairs that you see on major roads is provided by the federal, state or county government.
Given our tight budget, we should research and apply more often to grant opportunities to help fund the repairs of city buildings like the Farmers Market and the Public Library.
In your opinion, did the City recently enforce certain ordinances (i.e., dog licenses and fences) to promote public safety, to raise revenue, or for some other reason?
Douglas: I am confident that those decisions were made to promote public safety. The revenue generated from those activities is a drop in the bucket in the city’s budget and I would be surprised if it covers the full, true costs of regulating these activities.
Hargan: I think enforcing the fence ordinance was a revenue issue, but vaccinating dogs against rabies was definitely a health issue. Although I would question the timing of the census, I do consider it valid since the rabies virus has been making itself known again in Oakland County.
Mahrle: While there may have been better ways to go about it, enforcing the dog license ordinance is an important issue. Now, if someone were to be bit by a dog, it is significantly less likely that they will have to receive a series of painful rabies shots. I do not see a dog census being an annual occurrence – as the City Manager has stated it is more likely a 5-year cycle – but it did indeed serve a purpose and our community is safer for it.
Similarly, the sudden enforcement of the fence ordinance is an issue that did get a little out of hand. While it is still an issue that we need to look at remedying – we have documented examples of pedestrians and bicyclists being hit by cars backing out of “blind” driveways – there certainly was a better way to go about it. The Commission acted wisely to cease the enforcement of the ordinance while alternatives such as parabolic mirrors or sensing systems are researched and considered. It is unfortunate that some residents had already proceeded with fence modifications before being informed that the changes were not necessary.
Poulton: Following a series of incidents involving unlicensed dogs, the City Commission took steps to promote public safety by requiring dogs in the city to have a valid license. State law requires that all dogs 6 months or older must have a license. With the licensing process, if a dog bite involves a licensed dog, a person will not have to undergo a series of anti-rabies shots.
I am troubled by the enforcement of the provision in the fence ordinance regarding vision obstructions because there have been minimal incidents. I will seek to either grandfather fences in or eliminate this provision from the ordinance. The City needs to reprioritize the ordinances it seek to enforce. For instance, I contend that the inspection of city motels by building officials is a more pressing issue than enforcing the fence ordinance for the promotion of public safety.