Rochester city council: four open seats
Six candidates are running for four open seats on the Rochester City Council in the Tuesday, November 7, election, with the three highest vote getters receiving four-year terms, and the fourth highest vote getter serving a two-year term.
Dean Bevacqua is the owner/national sales manager for American Newspaper Representatives, and has been involved with his homeowners association.
Stuart Bikson is an incumbent city council member, and has also served as mayor of Rochester. A special education teacher for the Waterford School District, Bikson has served as a board member on the Rochester Avon Recreation Authority (RARA) and been chairman of the board of commissioner of the Older Person Commission.
Tammy Byers is an account executive who has chaired the Rochester Historical Commission, is currently a board member and past vice chairman of the Rochester City Beautiful Commission, and on the Cemetery Advisory Board.
Lynn Campo works in sales. This would be her first position of involvement with the city.
Ann Peterson, an incumbent council member, is an owner/broker of Ann Peterson Realty Services and is a mortgage loan office. She has also served on the city’s planning commission, Rochester City Beautiful, Rochester Avon Historical Society, and 2015 Rochester Leadership.
Nancy Salvia is a senior financial analyst. She is board president of Project Beautiful Inside and Out and a board member of the Community Foundation and Dream Centers of Michigan.
Economic development in and around the Rochester's downtown area has been a longstanding priority of the city and Downtown Development Authority (DDA), with plans to revamp the types of development permitted in districts surrounding downtown already underway, as well as efforts for a possible expansion of the farmers market downtown. Do you feel the city has taken the right or wrong approach to economic development? As a city council member, how would you support economic development in Rochester, and would you seek to further the developments?
BEVACQUA: DDA’s were authorized by law as temporary tools to help “Main Street” deal with the consumer shift to retail shopping malls instead of downtown shopping areas. The Rochester DDA, (est. 1983) and its tax-capture district has been a key factor in the retail rebound and growth downtown. Now, over 30 years later, we have long since prevailed in creating a welcoming and vibrant business district. It can be argued though that while the program initially addressed essentials, it has shifted to needs, then to wants, and now to luxuries like sound systems for ambient music. We are also now seeing tax dollars supporting exploration of ventures like a $4+ million dollar, 20,000 sq.ft. indoor marketplace and commercial kitchen space requiring long-term bond debt, that may best be left to the flourishing free market in downtown Rochester.
I would like to see a revenue analysis which would provide insight into how shifting captured tax dollars back to the city and county would affect revenue, considering the savings in DDA administration costs and cross-charges, etc. If the analysis came back close to neutral, I would be in support of moving to a downtown development strategy that utilizes reasonable funds allocated by council each year to support downtown business. A mechanism could also be included which would provide for a matching commitment from those businesses to expand their reach and ensure those most benefited are helping fund them. This would allow for spending flexibility for the city in the event of a financial emergency and provide greater accountability to the citizens of Rochester when considering needs.
Rochester also needs to be proactive when considering commercial developments. We need to understand the impact that these developments will have on the overall character of our community as well as traffic congestion, noise, stress on city services and infrastructure, etc. I’m pleased with the city’s recently announced effort to use third party studies to help plan and prioritize our development needs. Ultimately, I’m all for further development if doesn’t adversely affect the residents and it is primarily market driven, with support and guidance from the city and council.
BIKSON: I believe economic development is important to the future of the city of Rochester. I also believe that we need to let the market dictate the development of Rochester. The city needs to have a strong tax base to maintain our city services and public safety departments. I believe that the city council should be business friendly and work with developers in creating responsible development. Builders, however, need to be held to strict standards and follow all regulations. I support economic development but it must be responsible to the goals of our city and respect the character of Rochester.
BYERS: Yes, I believe that city council and the DDA have been effective in nurturing economic development in the downtown area. As a council member, I will fully support efforts to generate development that enhances both the quality of life for the residents of Rochester and provides a robust economic opportunity for the downtown businesses.
CAMPO: Any step towards economic development should be welcomed, but the direction it takes needs to benefit not only the business but also the city and not cause additional financial strain on the city’s budget. The Farmers Market is rather small in size but it does attract a fair share of people to it. Expanding it may or may not bring in additional consumers but at what cost? The area is already very congested on Saturday mornings and many people I have talked to make it a point to avoid the area if they aren’t visiting the market. The city council and the DDA need to adjust their methods for attracting not only businesses in to the city, but also consumers. There are many events put on in the city that residents are unaware of that should be promoted better. There should be a better community outreach system in place to draw people downtown. There are also many fundraising programs in place to raise money that are not directed towards the average resident. Different programs should be put in place to entice the average resident to donate. No city can survive without development, we just need to be more proactive in bringing business downtown and developing our resources to be community friendly.
PETERSON: The economic development approach for both the city and the DDA has changed over the past few years because the market drove it. We were fortunate to come out of the downturn as well as we did, which was really a gift. However, as everyone has witnessed, Rochester had been slowly transforming with new residential development in place of our traditional housing and has put a strain on our existing green space. This was not always welcome. However, I know we cannot stop taxpayers or residents from building, remodeling, or change. Nor should we completely ignore development. Now our focus needs to be on sustainable economic growth to reduce the residential tax burden. The question we have to ask is, how would this new market concept in downtown help us? Will it bring enough jobs, will it change our downtown or will it enhance the character of our community, could we handle such a huge venue with the traffic, the strain on our public utilities, potential threat to our current business and more importantly, should the city manage a business within its own. This new concept of a central market will be considered a private development and would be reviewed as such. When we have a tax base where almost 80 percent of the funds come from residential taxpayers, we need to ask these questions. We need to be better stewards of economic growth to make sure we can continue providing first class services to our residents and success to our business base. Our diverse population also brings bigger challenges because we have an aging population and declining school enrollment. How do we balance the diversity to offer opportunities for all generations and still provide our residents with core services vital to the success of our community. We need mindful balancing economic growth with the appropriate sustainable growth from public and private entities to not-for-profits. We need to keep investing in our city’s needs which are a moving target ever changing with our community diversity. In real estate they say, “ location, location, location.” In city government it is balance finances, balance economic growth, balance generational lifestyles.
SALVIA: Overall, economic development in Rochester is good. We have significant, (approx. $300) in potential development. In my opinion this needs to be approached from a selective standpoint. When economic times are strong – as they are in Rochester, we should look for the best opportunities, not just to increase tax revenue but provide the quality of life we expect in Rochester. Traffic and infrastructure impact are a priority along with diversity of businesses and industries. A business plan needs to be reviewed for economic feasibility of the Farmers market concept, most likely it would require a significant private donor.
Rochester City Council's Infrastructure Committee has been working to assess infrastructure needs in the city, as well as come up with funding options for addressing those needs. That has included significant water and sewer rate increases that went into effect in July for maintenance, repairs and improvements, as well as a .75-mill tax increase in the city's 2018 FY Budget for road maintenance – yet there are still significant long-term needs to infrastructure. Do you think the city and the council's actions in regard to infrastructure have been appropriate? Were the water and sewer increases too steep, or appropriate to meet the needs of the municipality? What do you feel the city's current and future infrastructure needs are, and how should council address those?
BEVACQUA: Addressing infrastructure needs was a “must” for the current council and we should remain focused on addressing those needs as we move forward. In watching the presentations and justifications for the water rate changes and the millage increase for infrastructure, I was largely in agreement with the council’s decisions. The fact that we did not have to bond to pay for the infrastructure program and that we can reassess the program each budget year are both positives.
I do believe that these issues should have been addressed long ago when the option to phase in the increases would have been available. Many residents are having a tough time seeing all of the investment in downtown parking structures, waterfall, other DDA spending, sundial, etc. and reconciling that with a tax increase for infrastructure of .75 mills.
In regard to current infrastructure needs, I attended the public, special council meeting a couple of months ago where DPW Director Shannon Filarecki took the council members, city management and me on a tour of some of our city-owned properties and the DPW yard. There are needs that should be addressed across the board. Director Filarecki has been tasked with cataloging these needs and assisting with prioritization. I believe this is a necessary step to help provide council with the information they will need to direct and approve funding and/or determine the continued viability of the sites. As a council member I would be looking for a cost benefit analysis from the DPW justifying these capital investments, divestitures or re-purposing.
BIKSON: I believe that the city has to continue to invest in infrastructure. We need to continue to maintain and improve our roads, water systems and general infrastructure. I also believe, however, that the spending on infrastructure has to be measured and appropriate to our budget constraints. I believe that the current infrastructure spending is excessive and I voted against the tax increases that were enacted by the city council. We need an infrastructure plan spread out over time to meet our budget constraints and not to unfairly tax our residents.
BYERS: One of the reasons I chose to run was out of respect for future financial planning process that both the city and the council utilize to insure we can meet our infrastructure requirements. The water and sewer actions taken were appropriate to address local systems issues and to absorb pass-through cost increases imposed upon the city.
CAMPO: The water issue has been a sore spot for many residents for a very long time. The residents who have built on the east side of the city and are hooked up to the Detroit water system face different rates from those in the older part of the city who obtain the water from the community well. Also, the people who live in the downtown region have less lawn to water during the summer than those in the eastern region with the big sprawling lawns so their water usage is considerably less. Unfortunately, there is no way to incorporate the eastern region into the community well and it is not particularly fair to increase the rates people in the city pay to accommodate the other. Also, the people on the community water have the need for a water softener and the maintenance that goes along with it. It is a very difficult issue that will continue to divide the city. I would question as to whether the newer subdivision with in-ground sprinklers could have the opportunity to investigate alternative means of obtaining water for the outdoor usage.
The roads are a whole other issue. Many of the side streets were repaved many years ago and we all remember what an inconvenience it was at the time. It appears there are still many more to go. Raising taxes is not always the answer. Some consideration to a bond issue or other alternative financing should be explored as well as the outlays in the current budget and any cost cutting measures that could be made to free up some of the money for the infrastructure. We could also take a look at whether there is any money available either at a state or federal level. It is a convoluted issue that will take a lot of research and thought.
PETERSON: This is very interesting because as a member of the infrastructure committee and learning that we have never had proactive maintenance fund set up to maintain all aspects of our infrastructure was alarming. So serving on my first council, this task took on a new light. We needed to make sure the plan would include every aspect of infrastructure, however, that is more difficult than it appears. The costs of maintaining infrastructure changes with the growth of the nation. I feel that we had to start somewhere even though I was not in favor of the millage, I was glad we researched and found the low interest funding of the Drinking Water Fund and the Sewer Funding Grants. This type of funding for projects help the taxpayer from enduring costs and gave us the needed boost to begin this long-term journey. We dug deep and looked at all the avenues of funding and the amount of work and resources necessary to sustain a community. Not an easy task. As a resident I did not like the increases that kept coming without a plan. I always stated that we cannot keep raising rates, we needed a plan that would actually place money into accounts which could support the necessary maintenance of these vital resources. This plan is the beginning of being fiscally responsible and good stewards for our community. To be honest, our infrastructure needs are real, there needs to be an on-going plan carried out and the city administration held to these plans. Every Council will have this at the top of their agenda for years to come. We cannot ever think infrastructure will go away; it will not. Being fiscally responsible is more than having a balanced budget; being fiscally responsible means that you are planning for sustainability for the future.
SALVIA: Infrastructure is one of my priorities. From a funding standpoint, the multiple buckets of funding sources appears to be the best option at this time. My issue is, that it should have been addressed earlier when costs could have possibly been worked into the long-term budget without a tax increase. Going forward, the city/DPW needs to focus on both maintenance and reducing costs for the entire system. Although recent increases have been sharp, the research I have done suggests Rochester’s water rates are not out of line with neighboring communities.
Results from Rochester's citizen survey released earlier this year found more than 30 percent of residents who responded rated the city as "neutral," "poor" or "very poor" in the availability and pricing of housing, governmental transparency, among others. Do you believe those ratings are appropriate? What should the city and council do to improve them? As a council member, what do you believe should be done to address those issues?
BEVACQUA: There’s some basis for concerns over the rising housing costs in the area. It’s not long ago that the housing bubble burst because income levels were not in line with housing costs. Housing costs in Rochester have once again risen to those pre-bubble levels without a corresponding increase in average incomes. This is cause for concern. In addition, no-one wants to see affordable homes torn down, en masse, and replaced with homes that might more likely be foreclosed in the event of another economic downturn. There may be some ordinances that we can put in place to allow for sustainable and thoughtful growth by adjusting infill/transitional housing rules related to massing, setbacks, and providing for better relationships with existing neighbors. We could also consider developer/buyer education seminars outlining city-developed neighborhood architectural goals and guidelines that, if adhered to, could trigger incentives such as permit discounts, etc. These initiatives may allow for development or retaining of affordable housing that could attract young families and help maintain a diverse age demographic in our community.
In regard to transparency, this is one of my platform issues and I believe we should limit the number of closed door council sessions. Although sometimes necessary, these sessions do little to elicit the trust of residents. Budget transparency has been partially addressed by the current council. We have come a long way from where we were a decade ago, but there is still work to be done. Budget line items could be broken down even further to promote transparency and it sounds as if the recently acquired budget software will help to accommodate that. Enhancing the budget’s executive summary by adding more visual summaries of department budgets and overall expenditures on wages, benefits, and other primary expenditures will help translate a lot of information more effectively.
BIKSON: I believe that the housing market is booming in Rochester. I think this is very good for all of our property values. I believe that by keeping our taxes low, our city services effective and efficient and having a business friendly city council are essential elements to our housing boom. I believe in letting the free market dictate the housing market and the market says that Rochester is a great place to live. I support our booming housing market. Of course builders must follow all of our building codes and regulations, but I believe our city is thriving and will continue to be a destination where people want to live and raise a family.
BYERS: I agree strongly that governmental transparency should be the expectation of every Rochester citizen. The responsibility to insure this requirement is met falls on the individuals at city hall and on the elected council members.
CAMPO: Looking at it from a residents’ point of view, I would be curious as to why these people were not giving us a more favorable rating. I understand why some people would say that the availability of housing at a reasonable price is difficult to find as I have had many people tell me they would like to live in Rochester, but can’t afford the prices of the houses for sale here. Houses here are very expensive, and the prevailing attitude is that when you see a small 1000 sq. ft. house come up on the market, someone is going to buy it, tear it down and build a much larger house on the lot. There has been so much development in the housing market here that homeowners are no longer faced with just updating their property, they must improve the property to keep up with the neighborhood.
As for the government and transparency, I get that too. My husband and I have attended many zoning, planning and city council meetings in our 23 years here and the meetings are very formal, and the average citizen would be intimidated by that formality and choose not to speak up mostly because by the time you realize you have a comment about something that is being discussed, the format doesn’t allow for public comment at that time. If you have a question regarding something that is being discussed, the public should have the opportunity to be heard at that time. Not to interrupt the proceedings, but maybe at the end of the discussion by the panel.
I believe better communication between the people who live here and those on the council is a must. Better and more frequent newsletters. Email blasts. Someone from the city blogging during and about meetings. A website for Q & A’s from residents. Something to make government more interactive.
PETERSON: Even though it is hard to accept these ratings, they are the views of our citizens and we need to respect them. A strong leader would take this information and work on solutions to change this perception. We will need to take a good look at why we received those ratings. For instance, the pricing of housing is market driven by what buyers are willing to pay for a home. Fortunately or unfortunately this in turn changes the landscape every year. When you have demand for a community it will almost always drive the pricing upward. What does this really mean though? I feel it means that we will be expanding our community with those who love what we love here…our schools, our parks and trails, our small-town feel, our history, being a safe community and the endless opportunities for small business success. I can tell you Rochester did not plan for this growth purposefully, it is what happens when you have something everyone wants to be a part of. In my profession I move many people into our area because they love what it offers. So, with all the growth we need to be preparing for the extra usage of our resources, roads, infrastructure, schools, traffic, public utilities, hiring more employees and much more. We need to work more closely with our neighboring communities, SEMCOG and the county to get the resources and information out there to plan on the predictions of growth and how everyone will be affected. So then focus of the council would be to work closely with administration to make sure our finances are transparent, we search for ways to improve our bottom line without jeopardizing our public safety and burdening the resident.
SALVIA: In talking to residents while going door to door, this is a common theme I hear – lack of entry level homes for our community. While the city’s website and therefore transparency has improved in recent years, I plan to emphasize communication both between city employees and residents and city council. In general there are always opportunities to improve our city and I hope to have the opportunity to work on all of these issues.
In terms of priorities, what do you believe are the top three issues facing the city, and how do you propose addressing those issues as a member of city council?
BEVACQUA: 1. Strike a better balance between spending on residential priorities and business initiatives. Growing residential needs must be more carefully addressed in areas related to core city services, infrastructure maintenance, cautious development, parks, our history, noise, and traffic. To do so affordably, we will have to pay closer attention to current city budget decisions to ensure resources are being properly allocated to these underserved priorities while maintaining our current commercial success.
2. Improve communications with residents. I think there is an opportunity to engage in social media forums such as my HOA’s Facebook page in Great Oaks, and other similar forums, when considering major policy changes, tax increases or energy cost saving initiatives like the secondary water meter program. Better communication leads to better policy. This also touches on transparency. Improved communication fosters trust.