His audience of about 100, mostly city employees and serious city hall watchers, knew what was coming, of course: to make the case for the already proposed 4-mil tax increase. The anticipation was focused mostly on how he was going to make the case. It took Jim Ellison about 30 minutes to read his 3,300-word address.
The mayor did not hesitate to name and describe Royal Oak's problems, but along the way he repeatedly reminded his audience of bright spots such as the city's "relative prosperity"; its inclusion in "the top 10% of all governmental entities rated by Standard & Poors" ; the operation of two senior centers and of HAVEN; Sandlot League contributions for field improvements at Memorial Park; Library activities like the Butterfly Garden and the Time Capsule; the improved housing market; high number of building permits; the fire department's successful use of grants to move toward such improvements as Compressed Air Foam delivery; "a name known in Hollywood"; city-wide sidewalk repair; water main improvements.
Not everyone -- in the audience or since -- agrees with what is perceived as Ellison's core belief:
"The Royal Oak of today has transitioned from a bedroom community and has hitched its star to its unique and vibrant downtown, to the efforts of the creative class, and to a continued commitment to stable, stimulating, green neighborhoods. All of these feed and strengthen the other, and without any one of them, each of the others and our community as a whole will suffer. This is the path that we have chosen; we must have the strength of conviction to stick with it."
Nor will everyone agree with his contention that businesses with Class C liquor licenses "are contributing positively to the feel of downtown Royal Oak, to our ability to draw new residents and new investments to the city, and to our financial sustainability into the future." The mayor pleads with voters: "Please do not let your feelings about liquor licenses unduly influence your choice come November as to whether to pass this needed public safety millage or not."
As he went along, Ellison described the impact of the overall economy, the drop in real estate values ("because of the limitations posed by Headlee and Prop A, tax revenues will never match the levels they were in 2008"), the concern that without passage of the millage the city might not be able to provide adequate public safety security for next year's Arts, Beats & Eats.
The mayor mentioned the concern of some that the needs of downtown, alcohol-related or not, are being funded at the expense of neighborhoods and offered, "Tied into the cost of doing business in the DDA are personal property taxes and an additional millage not levied against neighborhoods -- and in addition, non-residential property isn't eligible for the nearly 15-mil Principal Residence Exception on school taxes that Royal Oak homeowners receive."
Because of the nature and length of the address, Ellison read it a bit more studiously than usual. Both reading the script and occasionally ad libbing, he was able to draw a chuckle now and then. But the seriousness of the topic cast a veil of formality and subdual over the event. Applause was brief and polite, and the usual cluster-conversations after such events were fewer as people left the Emagine Theater.
A couple of people who weren't there but who apparently have read the text have complained to me about Jim's core belief, above, and about several other points, but those complaints demonstrate the non-wisdom of judging a long message by predisposed interpretation of a single passage or two.
For some of those attending the affair one of Jim's ad lib comments generated an unfortunate, if brief, improper and impolitic tone for such an occasion. He said that the current city commission is "the best commission I have ever worked with." Three of the five individuals who chatted with me afterwards characterized the comment as "throwing in our face that he now has a Democratic majority and can do any damned thing he wants to." Two related his comment to Versagi Voice's earlier contention that the absence of personal animosity among the commissioners has led to civil discussion, rather than across-the-table shouting matches about matters serious and matters trivial which often characterized previous commissions.
Anyway, that ad lib is what dropped the grade for this otherwise thoughtful and timely speech to A-minus.
Frank Versagi is the editor of Versagi Voice.