Economic Growth: The creation of jobs was, and remains, the most important policy goal of the City. Of course, local policies only play a small role given the power of an international economy that is driven largely by private sector decisions. Still, the City has been an active supporter of economic development. While jobs are still needed, for the first time in many decades the unemployment rate in Shiawassee County is below that of the State average. I am particularly proud that the City Council wrote a first-ever policy for granting tax abatements that favored the creation of higher paying jobs by both new and existing companies. This policy, and other City efforts, have aided several local employers in their expansions. In addition, the City doubled its investment, to about $30,000 annually, to the Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership, the prime mover behind efforts to promote job growth in our community.
The Future: The City needs to continue to partner with the private sector and other entities to promote economic growth and development. Next steps need to include support for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Efforts need to be continued and expanded to creat a vibrant and appealing downtown for retail business starts. The region is also growing short on space for new industrial development and quality office space, and the City should be supportive of efforts to help create these opportunities for growth. Expansion of the Southeast Industrial Park, support for redevelopment of the Armory, and targeted brownfield redevelopments should all be undertaken.
Tax Efficiency: The City's budget has been the most difficult challenge of the last four years. The City's primary source of revenues is property taxes, and following the housing finance crisis and economic collapse in 2008, the tax base of the City has declined more than 30%. State aid and grant funds have also dropped off. To cope with this budget shortfall, the City has trimmed close to a million dollars from its budget and cut the number of employees from over 100 to about 80. You can read more about the details of the budget picture from my post this past May. The drop in property values has caused a decline in the taxes paid by most property owners, even though the City raised its tax rate slightly to pay for leaf pick-up (see Recyling below). While it receives little press coverage, City employees--top to bottom--have done a commendable job of tackling budget issues and doing much more with less.
The Future: the City's budget woes will likely continue for at least a few more years, as property values will not likely recover as fast as the general economy. Deferred maintenance on infrastructure, aging equipment, and continued demand for services will likely create difficult decisions for the next Council. One hopeful path is to encourage new real estate development and investments in property, residential and commercial, as this will increase help increase City revenues. Particular attention needs to be paid to the City's pension funding, where a declining number of contributing employees and an increasing number of retirees will likely mean either further contributions from taxpayers or difficult choices about retirement benefits and programs.
Housing: the homes in Owosso are one of its greatest assets: some are historic, many are affordable, and all of them help create unique neighborhoods which attract and support families, newcomers, the elderly, and others. At the same time, our aging housing stock (75% of our homes are more than 50 years old) presents a challenge to the City to ensure that homes are adequately maintained and don't deteriorate to the detriment of the neighborhood. Unfortunatley, some homes had already been abandoned and had decayed to the point that they needed to be demolished. In the last four years, the City has initiated rental housing inspections, expanded programs to assist homeowners make repairs, and instituted a program to register and monitor vacant homes resulting from foreclosure or speculation. These programs have helped eliminate unsafe housing conditions and maintain the quality of our neighborhoods. While the real estate market still suffers, one only look to parts of neighboring Genessee County to see that things could be much worse.
The Future: the City needs to keep its commitment to maintaining the housing stock, working with property owners to ensure its rules and programs are administered in the most effective, least costly way. There is a need, and the opportunity, to expand efforts to rehabilitate housing, both through State and City efforts as well as in partnership with community groups and volunteers. The Mayor and others have organized a "Helping Hands" group and this is a great first step; more can and should be done. In addition, the City should continue its efforts to help downtown property owners access state funding to create new downtown apartments, as well as look at ways to encourage new senior housing, as is proposed for the former Lincoln School property. Finally, as the housing market continues to improve, the City needs to revisit plans for the Osburn Lakes area as well as the new land on the southeast side of town to identify new residential development opportunities.
Quality of Life: many things make up a positive quality of life: access to jobs and shopping, good schools, cultural amenities, and recreational opportunities. Improving City parks has been one of the success in Owosso the last four years, despite budget difficulties. A new parks plan was adopted, and a new sledding hill, new bathrooms and concession stand at the Little League baseball fields, and significant improvements at Bentley Park were some of the things accomplished. Sadly, the final death of Holman Pool occurred, and while there was insufficient funds to rebuild it, a new splash pad has been added as an aquatic play feature. The City played the role of planner and coordinator, and provided some partial funding, but it was the energy of citizens, private donations, and successful grant-writing that made improvements possible. Similar congratulations to community effort can be given to the rebuilding of the fire-ravaged Lebowsky Center; a new Shiawassee Performing Arts Center is slated to open next spring.
The Future: in addition to support for parks, two other quality of life efforts need to be continued. One is the development of new bike trails and walkways, and the other is a renewed attention to the Shiawasee River as a recreational amenity. The City has an important role in defining more bike routes and make the City even more accessible to, and safer for, walkers and bikers of all ages. The existing James Miner Trail to Corunna is in need of upgrades and a better connection needs to be made to the new Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee (CIS) Trail. These efforts will require inter-governmental cooperation, something that should be pursued to make other park improvements possible as well. The Shiawassee River is increasingly attracting not only people who fish and walk along its banks, but kayakers and canoers who enjoy paddling the River. The lesson of the last four years to me is how important citizen groups, like the Owosso Community Players and the Friends of the Shiawassee River, are to making improvements. The City needs to develop and strengthen partnerships with local nonprofits as well as the service clubs who have long volunteered to make things happen. Personally, this is where I plan to spend my time after I leave the City Council.
Recycling: four years ago, burning was a contentious issue in Owosso. Even though burning is still allowed under limited situations, the problem has greatly diminished. This is due to increased enforcement by the City against illegal burning, new State laws, and curbside brush pickup instituted in 2010. This program has proven to be quite popular and, along with a drop-off site for brush, the need for burning has diminished. Unfortunately, because of its financial challenges the City had to raise a 1 mil property tax to pay for this service as well as the annual fall clean-up of leaves. The end result, however, has been a decrease in air pollution.
The Future: perhaps my biggest disappointment as a City Councilmember has been that we were not able to institute a curbside recycling program for paper, glass, plastics, and other recyclables. This is a qualify of life issue for many residents who wish to diminish the energy and resource impact they have on the environment. While in the big picture, recycling saves costs, the near term reality is that it would cost something to institute recycling at the local level. The cost might be diminished by working with a community group, and/or the costs might be absorbed by providing trash and recycling as a municipal service. However, this would probably necessitate a city-wide contract with one company, which several local businesses have concerns with. Still, reducing waste, and reducing the number of large trucks that drive on, and damage, our residential streets make it worth pursuing this opportunity.
Infrastructure: I have been interested in the seemingly mundane issues of road, pipes, and drains since high school, and I am proud that the Council took a hard look at the City's water infrastructure. We faced the facts and made a decision to make modest increases in water rates to ensure the long-term viability of the system and avoid more expensive costs later. You can read my earlier blog post for the details. In order to support economic growth and an attractive quality of life for the long term, the City needs to invest in its infrastructure. With regard to streets, the City has spent considerable time coming up with the data and the programs to ensure the most cost-effective way to maintain our transportation system. The decision by voters to reject a street bond will challenge the new Council to find ways to finance street repairs. Also, there will be difficult decisions about replacing the aging wastewater treatment plant and making investments to reduce sewage overflows into the Shiawassee River. None of these topics are easy or fun, but they need to be addressed.
Historic Preservation: one of the first accomplishments I worked on at City Council was the creation of a downtown historic district. The work done to establish the district has helped spark a renewed awareness and appreciation for the architecture that makes Owosso a special place. Importantly, the establishment of the historic district has also helped private property owners (including the Lebowsky Rebuild) qualify for state and federal assistance for building rehabilitation; six new facades are now underway. In addition, the City has helped support a renewed effort by the Owosso Historic Commission to care for Curwood Castle and other historic properties. The revived fall historic home tour has sparked wider interest in visiting Owosso and shows how historic preservation and promotion are part of rebuilding our economy.
Planning and Regulation: I was trained as a professional city planner, so I am particularly proud that the City of Owosso adopted its first, true comprehensive master plan during my tenure. It provides the basis for guiding future growth and helping future City Council's make development decisions that are in the best long-term interest of Owosso. The City has long primarily pursued planning objectives by working with the private sector and public funding programs to support new development. This should continue in the future, but development can also be guided by zoning, design standards, and other land use regulations. When regulation is done without planning, the results can be detrimental to the private sector. However, when done sensitively and in cooperation with developers and property owners, regulations are effective tools for protecting neighborhoods and encouraging growth. Owosso has had land regulations for over 50 years, but changes have been made to make them serve new community goals. Owosso does a great job developing and applying its zoning and other rules in a balanced manner, and the next Council should continue to work with staff and the citizens on the Planning Commission to ensure Owosso's future quality of life.
Communication: When I ran for office four years ago, I pledged to be open and active in communicating with constituents and have done so through this blog, a facebook page, and with an email update sent after every Council meeting. During the same time, the Council supported the updating of the City's website to make information more readily available to the community. If you have not checked it out, you should. In particular, look here to find agenda, minutes, and a synopsis of every City Council meeting that is posted shortly after the meeting. My email updates have come to an end, but the City has talked about providing such a service. You may want to encourage your City Council representative to support or initiate such a communications effort.
The Future: Owosso has a great history, and a future of great potential. I hope the citizens of Owosso continue to be engaged in local government, especially with regards to these and other substantive policy issues. Sometimes the topics are complex, the solutions difficult, and the noise around the deliberations unpleasant. But I am a believer in local democracy as the best way to tackle our nation's problems. I agree with those who are suspicious of federal government interventions, but I also agree with those who think we have a responsibility, even a moral obligation, to attend to the needs of people in our community. However, to do so requires people of good intent to be involved in the process of government as elected officials, volunteers on committees, voters, and citizens engaged in making our community better. I am appreciative of those elected officials who have served with me, and I respect highly those who make their profession one of working in local government. Forward! and Thank you for your support and involvement.