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Ypsilanti Voters Will Decide Another Water Street Debt Retirement Proposal On The August 8th Ballot

The Water Street Debt Retirement proposal will be decided by Ypsilanti voters on August 8th. Primary Election Day is next Tuesday. This is the second go-round for the tax measure. Last August, voters narrowly defeated the issue. Supporters of the new tax contend it lost in 2016 because of a lack of resources and publicity. As a result, there were cuts in city services and more could come if the measure fails again this year.  89-1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan has been exploring the history of the issue and how it got to where it is today. With a vote just a few days away, there remains disagreement on whether a new tax is the best way to address the Water Street debt. 

The Water Street Debt millage proposal is a property tax that, if approved, would generate $700,000 a year through 2031.  It would help pay off the $10.3 million dollars the city still owes on the property.  Property owners would pay $2.30 per $1,000 of taxable value.  

This year, the community group "Citizens for Ypsi,"collected enough petition signatures to place the millage on the primary ballot again. Last year's failed proposal was spearheaded  by the city.   

Adam Gainsley is the new campaign manager.

"During the last election, there were 1,500 votes for each side with a difference of only 39. This spring, when we went out petitioning and gathering signatures to put this on the ballot, we got over 1,000 signatures. Just in the couple of months that we had to get out there, that tells me there is a huge amount of people out there who are interested in this who aren't informed or haven't tuned into it."

Meanwhile, other voters are on the fence and have doubts when it comes to the millage.  Among them is Casey Kozlowski, who wants the city to move forward but has to think about her own budget,as well.

JORGE: "Like you mention, a lot of people say 'Oh, vote yes' because we need to get rid of the debt."
KOZLOWSKI: "Well, that would be true if I were a young professional that had a long career of a high paycheck coming in, but I'm a senior citizen, and I will not outlive that bill."

The 38-acre Water Street property has seen a number of proposed developments come and go.  All that stands there now is a Dollar Store that some in the community never really wanted.  Here at the corner of Michigan Avenue and North River Street, you see 36 acres of open space--some covered by dirt, other areas by grass and wild flowers.

"I am so sad because this property is going to be a tremendous asset to this community, and I thought that it would be long before now."

Standing at the Water Street property, former Ypsilanti Mayor Cheryl Farmer says she is shocked that the land remains vacant.  The property was purchased by the city for $12 million in 1997 to address many public safety concerns the abandoned lot created.  Farmer was mayor when the purchase was made with hopes of generating property tax revenue once it was redeveloped.

"There was prostitution going on over here because it was so underdeveloped, and there were all these empty buildings, and we had drug dealing going on, and we had fires in the empty buildings."

In 2001, the city hiredBiltmore Properties to redevelop the property, but after three years of putting together a master plan that included housing and retail space, the company wanted out of the project.  Then in 2006, the next developer, Freed and Associates, also pulled out of the project as a result of a bad economy in Michigan.  Farmer explains the Biltmore situation.

FARMER: "The people who own the firm didn't really want to do the project. It wasn't their thing. And also during that time, they discovered that some of these sites needed remediation. But we made it a brownfield for a reason so that they would have access to state funding to help with the clean-up.
JORGE: But didn't the city have a contract? Didn't they have a contract that said you have to do this by a certain time and if you don't we will get our money back? There was no contract?
FARMER:"I don't know how that looked. I can just tell you that city had never done this before. We were new at this."

When the city purchased the property, it knew that it was contaminated with industrial products or chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB's.  I met up with the city's Director of Economic Development Beth Ernat at the property.

"The city's probably spent on the line of about eight million over the course of the time period from '97 to now, and that's on different environmental studies."

But Ernat says that's only the environmental cost.  The city also spends about $50,000 a year on property maintenance.

"We've also made bond payments. We've also re-financed bonds. There's been a significant amount of money. All in all, we're probably looking at $30 million will be spent when the property is paid off at this point in ten years."

To help the city, 33 year-old Ben Connor Barrie plans to vote yes on the Water Street millage.  He's lived in Ypsilanti for four years now and is concerned that more budget cuts could take place if the proposal does not pass.  When it failed last year, the city announced over $500,000 in cuts, including in public safety.

"My concern is that we would see more cuts in city services. I know this year, the city had to stop contributing to the pool, the senior center, and the neighborhood center. That's a real concrete example of the continuing cuts that we are going to start seeing."

Voter Michelle Barney will vote no at the polls in part because she believes the city should've never bought the property, knowing that it was contaminated in the first place.

"It will raise my rent. I don't own property. I rent. But it will raise my rent because the landlord will get it somewhere. He's not going to give tax money for all of this tenants out of the goodness of his heart. No one would expect that."

Back at the Water Street property, I continue chatting with former mayor Cheryl Farmer as we look at areas of the property that have been fenced off.

JORGE: "What do you say to those residents who say the city was irresponsible to have purchased this land back when they did?
FARMER: "I think they're very short sighted, and they're acting like we had a crystal ball, which we did not have a crystal ball. And we did a very careful analysis of our assets and our debits, and we attacked both the assets and the debits."

Beth Ernat says she understands why residents are frustrated now, but adds, a potential new project called the"International Village" could be the big break Ypsilanti has been waiting for decades.  Many, including city officials, were blindsided by the $250 million proposal presented by the foreign group International Village Advisory.  They're interested in purchasing and cleaning-up the site.  

Ernat explains.

"At this point, we're still in a due diligence period. The project, as presented to city council, is to develop the property as an International Village, which is a gateway for people moving in to the country and also for students who are here visiting and learning and looking to stay within the country."

The proposed project, that includes retail space and housing, is great news for Eastern Michigan University, who has about 900 international students and wants to attract a lot more.  

Kevin Kucera is Vice President for Enrollment Management.

"I traveled with President Smith in early May for a two-week trip to China, and during the course of that trip, we spoke with a lot of Chinese university officials who are looking for potential relationships with Eastern Michigan and we often talked about the academics. What type of academic program to do you see being a good fit for your university? How can our faculty work for you faculty? But ultimately in the end, when students make a decision to come to Michigan and to attend Eastern Michigan, as I said a moment ago, they're kind of buying into not just the university but the entire community. And I think a vibrant Ypsilanti is certainly going to be appealing to students."

City officials say the millage is needed in case the International Village projects does not go through.  And even if it does, it would be about three years before the development would be fully taxed.

Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds says more cuts will take place if the millage proposal fails again.  And, she says, the police department will continue to be affected.

"We are losing officers because they are working mandatory overtime. They are having to go to call from call to call. They, of course, are not being able to do their community policing that they want to do, and we want to do. But really, it's being more and more difficult to attract and retain those officers we need. So of course, then you have newer officers who don't have the experience. It's a vicious cycle."

So, what happens next in Ypsilanti?  We'll have a better idea of that next Tuesday night after the votes are counted.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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