Here's the full text of his speech.
State of the City
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I want to thank you all for joining me today to recognize our collective efforts since the economic downturn in Michigan, and especially this last year. On that theme I tried to keep my remarks today relatively brief but I’m afraid this is going to be my longest one yet; my bad, y’all. Before I begin, I would like to say what an honor it is to be giving today’s address in one of Royal Oak’s most historic buildings, the Royal Oak Woman’s Club. I thank them for opening up their home to us. I’d also like to thank Barbara Wheeler and the Royal Oak Rotary Club for once again hosting the State of the City address. I think I can honestly say that their civic-mindedness and sense of public engagement have been an example to Royal Oakers as a whole – a convenient segue to this year’s address.
Announcement of the State of the City
Last year a proposal for a public safety millage was brought before you all and I’m proud to say that this essential measure was overwhelmingly supported by the voters and residents of Royal Oak. Now, you all know about the financial situation in this part of the country, and the case of Detroit is illustrative only insofar as every city in the region is dealing with similar difficulties. To wit: making hard and unpleasant choices about decreased revenue and manpower in order to manage substantial pension obligations; meet residents’ public safety needs; and replace infrastructure nearing the end of its useful life; while at the same time maintaining the cultural and economic vitality of the city and its residents.
Thanks to tough decisions made by the City Commission, City Manager Don Johnson, our departmental heads, and the various unions and departments, Royal Oak was able to mitigate the worst of the financial hardships faced by many of our neighbors. Thanks to your understanding and acknowledgment that austerity measures are incompatible with long-term economic recovery (especially in the face of limitations placed on revenue generation by Headlee and Prop A), we have been able to start slowly rehiring essential personnel and rebuilding our own service infrastructure.
So the passage of this millage has helped us to check off for some years to come what was and has been the most immediate of these difficulties – namely meeting public safety needs – and frees up city resources - and focus - to start looking at and dealing with the more long-term challenges to come. Your willingness to return to pre-2008 tax levels – and the truly humbling outreach we’ve seen on the part of individuals, service organizations, and local business leaders to help us shoulder some of our common burdens has proven and will continue to prove to be one key to ensuring that we will all continue to flourish well into the future.
So ladies and gentlemen, I am most proud to stand up here today and proclaim that the state of our city is the strongest it has been in more than five years. We have stood together in solidarity and pride and we will be better off for it, both singly and together. We take pride in our city, both in how it is managed and in how it is perceived. For the fourth year running, on the strength of our financial management practices and transparency we have been recognized by the Governmental Finance Officers Association. For the fourth year running, on the strength of our safety record and cultural cachet, we will again host Arts, Beats, and Eats. And for at least the fifth year running, both residential and commercial development has at least modestly outperformed that of our neighbors – contributing to keeping our downtown unique and vibrant and our neighborhoods stable, stimulating, and green.
Now, these trends don’t mean that we’re out of the forest completely. Many of the services that we have had to cut are gone for good, and it will take a good long while and a great deal more recovery before we’re in a position to fully restore some of the others. But we’ve taken some good steps towards that recovery and we’re finally in a position to talk about longer-term challenges instead of just the immediate ones: you’ll recall there are two I mentioned above that we’ve had to set aside during the long and hard process of assessing, reorganizing, and cutting – namely legacy costs and aging infrastructure. My first task today is to highlight the positive things this millage, and your civic-mindedness and elbow grease, have made possible. My second task is to lay out some options for how we might address these perennial challenges moving forward. But if the past is any indication, and I’m willing to bet my time, my livelihood, and the sweat of my brow that it will be, we will continue to stand as we ever have in addressing these concerns – in solidarity and in pride.
Now. Since much of the emphasis of these remarks is going to be upon the effects of the ongoing public safety millage, it’s only reasonable that I start by discussing how our financial picture has changed in light of the special revenue fund created through this millage. The public safety fund is a special revenue fund. That means all of the revenue from the new public safety millage, in addition to revenue from police, fire, and ems fees will be directed straight to where it’s needed most. All police, fire and emergency medical services expenditures are now budgeted in this fund instead of the general fund.
The public safety millage vote, and the tax revenue it authorized, allows us to refocus on longer-term concerns and the priorities you all highlighted in the residents’ survey. I’m happy to say we now have adequate funding for police, fire and emergency medical services; we have a plan in place for hiring police officers and improving the department; and we will be able to maintain fire and emergency medical services.
First and foremost, these funds have already had a demonstrable impact on the number of officers Royal Oak has been able to field. Last year a study by the independent International City Management Association concluded that Royal Oak’s police force was significantly understaffed and operationally unsustainable in the long run. They recommended that staffing levels be increased by 13 officers, and the process to carry out these recommendations is progressing nicely.
To date, eight new officers have been brought onboard and 4 more are on track to join the force by the fall. That increase however is somewhat offset by the retirement of some current officers, so Chief O’Donohue targets this force renewal to be complete by this time next year. He reports that because the millage provides good job security for the department we have been able to recruit well-experienced candidates in addition to strong new recruits. He is confident that when ICMA recommendations are fully implemented the force will be in excellent shape.
Public safety funds have also been employed towards updating our police fleet with new, vastly more maneuverable vehicles, which we had demonstrated for us in the successful pursuit and apprehension of the serial bank robber earlier this year.
The Chief also asked me to mention that the police will be hosting a charity golf outing to benefit the Boys and Girls Club at Red Run on August 5th. The men and women in blue wanted to give something back since this community has always been so supportive of them.
The second primary purpose of the public safety millage was to maintain Fire Department staffing levels and pay for needed equipment updates in accordance with the ICMA report. The last two years, 12 of our firefighters were funded by a $2.5M federal SAFER grant; those funds were sufficient to tide over the department until the public safety millage was able to kick in.
Now, the ICMA recommended a number of upgrades to ROFD systems to increase efficiency of fire suppression techniques and free up manpower in an emergency. In particular, they recommended a compressed foam air system which is able to adhere to ceilings and walls and more effectively and efficiently suppress fires. This system was retrofitted onto one of our ladder trucks, in addition to computer systems on all of our trucks which will help to relay information about traffic conditions en route, hydrant locations, hazardous materials on site, and other in situ information which will help our firefighters arrive on the scene sooner and get to work faster. This latter system grew out of joint efforts by Troy and Southfields’ IT and Fire Departments and we’re happy to have contributed to this significant region-wide initiative.
The Fire Department and our EMS service have also been working with Information Systems to install monitoring and videoconferencing equipment in all three firehouses which will increase economy and efficiency of training our guys and sending them out on calls. This will be a strong investment in the long run, because we’re already almost 400 calls ahead of where we were this time last year.
Perhaps most importantly what the passing of this public safety millage has done is to leave the general fund in a better position to do what it’s meant to do – which is to fund city services, not, or not merely, to fund police and fire payroll. One corollary to de-committing monies from the general fund is that city resources may finally be devoted to slowly rebuilding city services which we’ve had to pare down over the last four years.
Outside of city hall, we’ve finally been able to recommit to helping to fund the senior center and senior services programs through general fund contributions. Inside city hall, some of the money freed up from the general fund has been directed at restoring positions in the clerk’s office and city attorney’s office. These departments have been working together towards the implementation of the newly passed non-breed specific amendment to the dangerous dog ordinance. The Attorney’s office researched several similar ordinances from other municipalities and wrote a strong amendment that should well fit the needs of Royal Oak without discriminating against certain unfairly maligned breeds.
Last year, half of the dog bites we had in the city were by unlicensed dogs, and without a license we can’t be sure about rabies vaccination status. So in line with the spirit of this new amendment to the dangerous dog ordinance, we financed a census of dogs in Royal Oak, which seems to have had the intended effect of getting as many dogs as possible vaccinated and subsequently licensed: in June alone the Clerk’s office issued more licenses than were issued for all of last year. We’re happy that we were able to add a full-time position to that desk to assist in guaranteeing timely and quality service with most peoples’ first point of contact with City Hall.
We’ve also seen much-needed reinvestment in Building and Code Enforcement after we were forced to cut Building to the bone over the last three years. This reinvestment is going hand-in-hand with moving forward on our restructuring of the second floor of City Hall into an integrated Community Development department consisting of planning, housing, building, code enforcement, engineering, and economic development. This restructuring plan greatly streamlines the process of applying for building and renovation permits and has been lauded by everyone who has to go before us with plans for development.
And this restructuring comes just in time, too: two years ago, only 29 permits were issued for new home construction and assessed home value on existing properties dropped by almost 5%. By last year that number had risen to 90 with only a 1.5% decrease in assessed value. According to the Building Department, projections for this year are expected to exceed 110 new permits granted. Additionally, this last year has seen a number of elaborate commercial projects and renovations, including significant renovations at Art Van and Consumers Energy, which should help contribute to a recovery in taxable value on commercial property.
Now, in a particularly good piece of news, assessed value has not only bottomed out but is finally rising modestly. All told, taxable value increased by 1.2% this year after four straight years of declines – the largest city in Oakland County to be able to make that claim, according to an assessment prepared by the City of Novi. The fact of this assessment further substantiates the relative robustness of our housing market: since this time last year, median sale prices are reportedly over 40% higher than they had been!
Now, I am willing to say that the perception of Royal Oak is that it is a safe, active, vibrant, accepting community. It is this perception (coupled with our responsible financial management) which has contributed to our relatively strong housing market. This perception is rooted at least in part in the sense of pride and ownership citizens of Royal Oak have about their community and their recognition of solidarity, that - at least in part - their own continued well-being is tied into that of their community. And it is this sense of pride, ownership, and solidarity that has meant that our friends and neighbors, senior citizens, service organizations, and business leaders have willingly and proudly stepped forward to help address some of the city services we’ve had to cut, or cut back.
To suggest though that private citizens in their capacity as private citizens should be responsible for, say, mowing and maintaining city parks or financing the public library would be to repudiate the city’s obligations with respect to these public goods. Which doesn’t mean we haven’t been fully appreciative of those organizations and individuals who have helped to do just that. But it does mean it’s time for us to look seriously at our options.
To wit: Library Director Mary Karshner has been working closely with the Friends of the Royal Oak Public Library to guarantee access to information and entertainment is easy and free. Thanks to major financial support from the Friends of the Library, they are able to offer around 10 programs a week including musical performances; financial planning, writing, and parenting workshops; author talks; and programs for kids of all ages, and all of these offered free of charge.
I’ve harped on this point before so I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to bear with me. You all know that the Library is funded through a dedicated millage, but of course the value of this millage is based on assessed property values and limited by Headlee. Mary informs me that this past fiscal year, for the first time, the millage generated less than $2M towards library operating budget. Increasingly, funding to maintain essential library services is being forced to come from substantial monetary donations by private citizens. In particular, in addition to funding library programs, the Friends of the Library are now paying for a variety of library resources as well. And even still, the library is projected to have to tap into its fund balance this next year to pay its operating expenses. I don’t need to tell you that that is unsustainable.
Unfortunately in this case the Library’s dedicated millage works against it since it means their operating costs aren’t paid through the general fund. So for that reason we thank all of our citizens and especially the Friends of the Library for contributing to keeping this shared space open for everyone. More discussion will be needed going forward as to how to better address the needs of the Library and those of our citizens who rely upon it for access to information and entertainment.
Additionally, needed spending cuts on DPS the last two years have translated into minimal funding for park maintenance, and again our residents and service organizations have stepped forward to help make up the difference. This spring we had 43 community service groups volunteer for Park Clean-Up Weekend: over 600 individuals stepped up to pick up trash, rake leaves, and carry branches to DPS collection sites. In fact, five community organizations – MOMS Club of Royal Oak, People of Outstanding Purpose; The Royal Oak Area Democratic Club; the Chamber of Commerce; and Four Seasons Pre-school – have each officially “adopted” a park this year, committing to cleaning, maintaining, and improving “their” parks into at least spring of 2014.
We also saw much appreciated monetary donations from the Lions and Optimists in addition to Arts, Beats and Eats; The ROOTS Foundation; DTE; Fifth Ave; Emagine Theatre; Hamlin Corner; The Rock on Third; and Rasor Law Firm. The commitment and community spirit we’ve seen from these volunteers and business leaders makes it easy to see why so many of them are counted among the most recognized and respected leaders in this community, and I want to thank them again for their time and financial support.
Now, one of the words I always use to describe Royal Oak is green – our playgrounds and open spaces are a real source of pride for residents and help contribute to the family-friendliness of our neighborhoods – that’s clear from both the results of the recent resident’s surveys and of these ardent responses to the realities of Parks and Rec funding limitations. So we are taking some preliminary steps to reprioritize our parks as much as is feasible.
This year we’ve finally been able to budget funds to rejuvenate a few of the more heavily utilized and out-dated of our properties. These include monies to purchase new, modern play structures for Optimist and Huntington Woods Parks, and we will also be devoting funds to resurfacing at least one of the city’s tennis courts. Optimist is one of our local parents’ favorite places to take their young children so I’m happy we’re finally able to provide these kids and their parents a safer, modern play structure.
That being said, of course, while this is a step in the right direction, it is only a baby step. Royal Oak has fifty-two parks, and following several years of benign neglect and relying upon the kindness of not-so-strangers, we only have money in the budget to improve three of them. Over the course of this next year, in order to continue moving to a point where we can in fact prioritize our playgrounds and recreation areas, Mr. Johnson has recommended that we complete a thorough review of every park, examining amenities, condition, usage, and potential. We’ll consider a variety of options to rejuvenate and improve those of our parks that turn out to be good candidates. These options include expanding our “adopt a park” program, working with local business leaders to sponsor maintenance and improvement projects, and redirecting some limited city assets to establishing a dedicated parks and recreation trust fund that can be used only to acquire and improve city parks.
Finally, in the name of and for the sake of both our collective love of our public green spaces and our pride in our vibrant downtown, one of the Commission’s objectives for 2013-2014 is to explore the development of a downtown park. Both the Parks and Recreation master plan and the Downtown Task Force are looking at the feasibility of going forward with such a project. While I can’t make any guarantees, I have to say I myself would love to see this project come to fruition -- so to speak.
But unfortunately that downtown park can’t be our first priority at this point, because although we have dealt with public safety for the time being, you’ll recall I mentioned two perennial concerns in this part of the country: managing legacy costs and improving aging infrastructure. As far as the latter obligation is concerned, we couldn’t do much better than our Engineering Department, given the resources available to them. They’ve carried out needed water main improvements along Woodward and elsewhere as well as resurfacing sections of 12 Mile, Austin, and Catalpa. Unfortunately they’ve also completed a Pavement Management Study rating each road segment throughout the city according to predicted repair expenditure over the next 10 years. This report paints a grim picture for the state of our road system unless we are able to find funding to mitigate further deterioration.
So, let’s talk roads. Nineteen cents is taken in state taxes on every gallon of gas sold. That money, combined with a percentage of vehicle registration fees, are the basis of road monies available in Michigan – though most municipalities add money from their general funds to state funds received for the purpose of road work. As far back as I can remember, we have never done this: Royal Oak has not spent any general fund money or local property tax revenue on maintaining or improving roadways in decades. Instead, we have relied entirely on the funds received from the state and available grant monies.
Our tradition of funding road repair this way in fact helps to explain some of the budget shortfalls that we were able to avoid but that hit many of our Oakland County neighbors in 2008 and since. Nevertheless we recognized that there was a major potential funding vulnerability in this budgeting program, just as there are in all others. In this case, the potential risk is that if state revenue from gas taxes were to fall, our engineering and physical plant resources would decline accordingly. That is precisely what we’re dealing with right now. Since vehicles are getting better gas mileage and gas prices have remained high, people are driving smarter - and less - which results in less gas sold and less money in the hopper.
Now, as involves the disbursement of these increasingly limited road monies, the State has chosen to channel their energies – and excess funds – toward repair of major roadways rather than neighborhood streets. As you may have noticed, Royal Oak is in need of some major road repairs. And, as you might have guessed from my exposition, offering up a plan of action that works for both the City and our citizens is at the top of the City Manager’s agenda.
Like I said, we at City Hall were already aware of this funding vulnerability, which is why we commissioned the Engineering department to carry out the road audit last year. Involved in that audit is an algorithm specifically developed for road agencies to run improvement scenarios to maximize the impact of whatever funding is available. So now that we have the results of that audit, we have started a discussion on how we will make that funding available. There are a handful of feasible options open to pay for these much-needed road repairs, and the city commission will closely consider them all before the end of this year; but I am reasonably convinced that the decision will eventually be in the hands of the voters.
Our other major obligation is our so-called “legacy costs” or “unfunded liabilities”. Too often one or the other of these phrases is used when talking about our obligations to retirees. But I prefer to be honest about it and recognize that when I say ‘obligation’ I mean that these costs represent deserved compensation for city workers past and present who have time and again taken concessions and foregone wages and benefits for the sake of helping keep the city on the path to sustainable recovery – in addition of course to actually providing the municipal services that have made this city a place to be proud of. We are talking about water service, sewer, and street maintenance workers; police officers and firefighters; building and code enforcement officials; supervisors, librarians, and department heads; friends and neighbors and colleagues who have given a significant portion of their lives to this city. Many of them are here in this room. If we as a community really feel a sense of solidarity – as I insist we clearly must, given your and my and our readiness to step forward and help each other out when this region’s economic woes ushered in some fairly fundamental soul-searching and belt-tightening all around – then we ought to feel the weight of this obligation particularly acutely.
When they were hired, they were told that in exchange for earning paychecks lower than they would have seen in the private sector, they would see a pension and health care at retirement – in essence, being offered a partial IOU in exchange for longer-term security and stability. At the time, the terms of these contracts represented a great deal for both City officials and their tax-paying constituents – after all, an IOU remains just that until it’s called in. Now, with baby boomers reaching retirement, those same baby boomers who were willing to partially delay material reward for their labor so that the money would be available for the betterment of their communities, those IOU’s have come due and deferred compensation no longer seems like such a great idea.
And so some critics have responded that municipal workers are taking more than their fair share; that it is not only legal, it is positively just to slash or deny their benefits now; that operating budgets literally cannot withstand the onslaught of retirees demands, and paying out would retard if not reverse economic growth.
But folks, these are at the
very best myopic interpretations of the facts if not willful welching in the
name of clear-eyed hindsight. It may
turn out to be true that in the long run these sorts of contracts would prove
unsustainable – that they were premised upon a labor base that would grow
perennially greater than the work force that had come before, as the Boomers had the Greatest generation, and the Greatest
generation had that of the Lost
generation. It may turn out to
be the case that continuing to maintain the low tax rates and robust city
services we’d enjoyed as long as I could remember through this region’s
economic downturn at the end of the last century, affected the city’s ability
to fulfill the terms of our contractual obligations to these municipal workers.
Well, we’ve acknowledged these concerns by taking steps to modernize our contracts with current workers and modify compensation to reflect the realities of the our current financial potential. In particular, we’ve eliminated these sorts of retiree health care plans for any employee hired after 2009 and replaced the defined benefits plans with defined contribution plans for all new employees except police and fire.
But hand in hand with acknowledging these critiques, we also acknowledge in unequivocal terms that both sides of this arrangement entered into agreement in good faith and a significant portion of this city’s general fund for the last forty years has represented what would otherwise have gone to fully and properly compensating these municipal employees. And so to that last end we fully fund not only our obligations to current employees but are directing a significant portion of general fund monies towards obligations of the past, at the expense of city services.
So it turns out that some of the city services we’ve had to cut over the last 10 years may not have been ones to which we were really entitled – we didn’t really pay for them when they were received. Then the fact that we won’t be able to restore a few of them actually represents right-sizing municipal services. Either way, we have benefitted from both the fruits of these municipal workers’ labor and the advantage of their deferred wages for the enjoyment of City upkeep, investment, and expansion. That fact in and of itself should be reason enough for us to try to fulfill the terms of these contracts. The further fact that so many of these men and women were willing to forego deserved wages and benefits in order that the city could right itself when the bubble finally burst, makes it doubly so. Nevertheless, without the benefit of this historical context the numbers in question are pretty troubling. Let me quickly illustrate.
This past year we were able to budget only about 70% of our health care obligations -- barely enough to pay actual healthcare costs for retirees without putting anything aside for the future. Were our funding structure set up to deal with only present-day benefits earned, our obligation would come out to a little less than 1.5 mill. We would easily be able to pay for much needed road repairs, parks and rec improvements, and public safety upgrades. But as appealing as that scenario sounds, the facts on the ground are that we actually have to devote the equivalent of another 8 mills to fund just past obligations – that is to say, to remunerate workers for compensation they did not receive at the time of services rendered.
And even still, that rosy-eyed tax rate I cited above itself represents deferred costs to taxpayers. That is to say, in order to pay for those city services these last 10 years your tax rates would have needed to have been higher all along than they are now, after last year’s public safety millage. Instead we elected to keep tax rates low while still providing essential city services in consideration of the poor job market and consequent belt-tightening occurring across the region. Even with this consideration in mind, in recent years we have consistently managed to reduce costs and keep actual expenditures below projected numbers, resulting in a modest buffer in the general fund year to year. By reducing city services and staffing, we’ve done what we can to pay down that past debt while still insulating our citizens from the worst of the region’s economic woes.
And so I’m proud to stand amongst you today knowing that we did what we could to simultaneously keep your tax rates low during the worst of the market recession while still keeping the city on the straight and narrow path of not merely solvency, but growth. Indeed, much prouder than if our city were on footing all the more stable but with residents suffering all the more as a result. So let’s talk about what steps our vibrant community ought to take in order to continue to flourish and grow.
Remember: all that “unfunded liability” really means is that our friends and neighbors loaned us a portion of their livelihood so that we could all do better in the longer term. And since we’re in that longer term, I’d rather stand in solidarity with our municipal workers. So let’s talk about how we’re going to accomplish this. We’ll need to deal with the realities of these financial obligations differently than we have in the past because since these IOUs have come due we can no longer afford to continue as we have until now – but I’ve already highlighted some of the ways in which we’re handling things differently.
It is projected that pay-as-you-go costs for retiree health care will increase to 160% of what we’re paying this year, but by taking advantage of some provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act and the insurance exchanges it creates, we may be able to reduce costs without cutting benefits. Chicago is leading the way in examining this approach and we are paying close attention. Additionally we’re examining the option of providing an employee/retiree health clinic, which could reduce our total health care costs by up to $200,000. I also look forward to hearing the recommendations from our newly formed wellness committee about further options for cutting employee healthcare costs.
Finally because of our sterling bond rating we could consider bonding our debt to employees and retirees. Oakland County did something very similar in 2010 and in spite of extremely bad timing on their bond sale and a much higher-than-anticipated interest rate, it has worked out very well. If this option proves feasible, a bond sale to support our municipal workers would be a particularly concrete testament to the trust and solidarity we feel in and about this city. Our preliminary analysis, which was conducted before Detroit’s bankruptcy filing on Thursday, indicates that we could lock in our costs at current levels or lower. It’s far too early to know what impact this filing is going to have on the municipal bond market for this region, but we’ll obviously keep a close eye on the situation and continue to study this option.
Alright folks, I’ve held you up here long enough. I started out this address by acknowledging and paying homage to the faith you displayed in your city, your elected officials, and your fellow residents in agreeing that the public safety millage was positively necessary in laying the groundwork for future improvements throughout this community. This faith represents a redoubled commitment in ourselves and in each other to pursue the course we all have chosen together to project ourselves to the world as a happening city, a city with a heart, a city of young creative-class professionals and long-time salt of the earth. A city to have pride in and a city that stands in solidarity.
We remain a bastion because young families and business leaders can trust in our public safety and financial solvency; our residents always prove ready to step forward and make sure we remain safe and solvent. We’ve become a buzzword because we stand behind our vibrant downtown and our awesome entertainment destinations; our residents have so much pride in what we have to offer that we can even say that un-ironically.
Our face is identified with
‘fun.’ – or at least one of them [winking]; Andrew Dost of the hit band fun.
lives here, and we’re happy to claim him. But, gentlemen, I’m afraid I
have to politely demur: we’re sure what we stand for. Trust,
Pride, and Solidarity, folks. They define the heart and soul of
Brett Tillander, for example, has made it his life’s work to pass a commitment to these values on to the next generation of Royal Oakers. In the twelve years he’s been heading the Boys and Girls Club, he has stood as a paragon of leadership, personal integrity, high achievement, and community service. Inspired by his example, three of his young men and women have been named Youth of the Year for Michigan; and this year, I’m exceedingly proud that our native son Jesse Friedman will be meeting President Obama and competing against 6 other promising young people for the national title. I’m honored to have my city represented by men like Brett and Jesse, and honored to call them neighbors.
We’ve become a destination for fashion-forward, upcoming creative class professionals – these young folks are growing our economies and joining our communities. I’ve been told more than once by one or another of these young residents that they were pleasantly surprised by the engagement their neighbors and colleagues have with their community, the earnest regard they have even when describing, say, the Farmer’s Market. I embrace these new residents and I’m always happy to be drawn into one of these conversations because I’d be willing to bet that in a few years they’ll feel the same pride in the city that we do, and I know that we’ll be neighbors for a good long time.
And one of the things I’m hearing -- overwhelmingly from these young professionals, and increasingly from our long-time residents – is their support for a Human Rights ordinance in town. After all, public perceptions have evolved, the Supreme Court has spoken, and increasingly restrictive and discriminatory measures are being shot down at the ballot box compared to just (even?) five years ago. The city commission has already stood with all the people of Royal Oak to approve a human rights initiative; we feel confident that in November the voters will agree with our decision – it’s the just and the right choice and makes clear economic sense.
When the proposal was first brought before the city in 2001, I spoke in public comment before the commission. I expressed the point then that a tenet of representative democracy over brute majoritarianism is that officials are elected to represent the interests of all their constituents – and in particular minority interests – and not merely the interests of a powerful or vocal majority. In short, political liberalism rejects the notion that voters have the right to adjudge fundamental rights for a minority group – that is, in part, what ‘inalienable’ means. I excoriated the commission then for demonstrating a lack of political courage by cravenly and illegitimately evading this responsibility in ceding the conversation to a couple of particularly outspoken critics. I was disappointed but not surprised when the initiative was shot down then at the ballot box.
These same critics have rematerialized now that the city commission has stood up in recognition of fundamental rights for all our residents. They have forced the issue with a petition drive to compel the City Commission to either drop the ordinance or put it on the ballot. I will state once again that I take this to be an abuse of statutory law, that these ballot initiatives are rightly intended to counteract restrictive or improper measures by public officials, not to impose fundamental restrictions on other private citizens.
And I know I am not alone in that view. It is this understanding of the legitimate exercise of the ballot box which has motivated the younger generation to overwhelmingly come out in favor of human rights initiatives across the country; and these young peoples’ ardor is having a positive effect on their progenitors, who are increasingly coming to agree with their kids -- and actually likely to vote their minds. But beyond the issue of legitimate exercise of power, there are economic and historical ramifications of this vote for the city come November.
To wit: from a business perspective, municipalities with human rights ordinances attract business interest and investment, especially among the creative class and socially engaged entrepreneurs. Since these are precisely the young people who are looking at moving and working here, I think it goes without saying that passing this ordinance is in our best economic interest. But we’re acting within an historical context as well. We had the chance 12 years ago to help define this historical moment, and we failed to seize that opportunity.
But over just this past decade the zeitgeist has evolved. If we fail to act now, twelve years later, the story will be very different: a rejection today, in 2013, will neither be chocked up to hesitancy to radically alter the status quo, nor will it leave us in the comfortable middle area. Instead, it will cement us firmly within the ranks of the reactionary, bitter-enders, obstructionists. Folks, there are a whole bunch of towns in the deep South that are still proud of their attempts to contravene State and Federal attempts at integration; suffice it to say they’re not the ones getting the cutting-edge tech and biomedical investment.
In any case this is not the same sort of pride I am describing in my city – because we know that we’re all in this together and we all benefit when the least of us does. That is what I mean by solidarity. So once again this issue is being put in the hands of the voters. But this time I am confident that the people of this city will come together to reject small-mindedness and economically harmful obstructionism.
I’ll leave it there for this afternoon, folks. I stood before you last year and told you in no uncertain terms that if you didn’t approve a return to pre-2008 tax levels our coffers would have been emptied and even essential services cut by this point today. I want to thank you here today for trusting us and considering the common good in overwhelmingly coming out in favor of that millage. As a result of those actions, we’re in a position this year of boasting a well-funded and efficient public safety apparatus, a more robust housing market than we’ve seen in half a decade, and baby steps towards restoring sustainable city services.
Beyond the millage, I want to profess my heartfelt appreciation to everyone here today for the civic-mindedness and community spirit you and the service organizations you represent displayed in picking up the slack on some services we at the city didn’t have the resources to sustain. Now, of course we still face challenges; there will always be challenges. In coming days and months I’m sure several of us in this room today are going to lose sleep thinking about how to fund infrastructure improvement, secure retiree benefits, and guarantee fundamental rights for all our residents – but with tireless energy, careful planning, good administration, and your active involvement, we’ll find good solutions to these as well. If this past year has shown us anything, it’s that Royal Oak is always willing to step up.
In closing, I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to those that helped gather the data to allow this speech to happen. To City Manager Don Johnson, Administrative Assistant Carol Schwanger, the department heads, and the staff at city hall for collecting the information I needed to assemble the speech and finally to my wife Jodie and my son Jacob, without whose help, none of this would have made sense -- but through whose interference, it’s incredibly verbose.
Thank you for coming today.