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  • By Lisa Brody

Birmingham departments plan for coming year

City department heads came before the Birmingham City Commission on Saturday, January 25, to present updates and what they would like to accomplish in the upcoming year at the commission's long-range planning session. Every department, from finance, planning, public services, engineering, police, fire, building, Birmingham Shopping District, Baldwin Library, Birmingham Museum and the city manager's office, made presentations to commissioners at the all-day session. While commissioners asked questions and commissioners and the public could comment on proposals, no decisions were made. Individual resolutions will come before the city commission throughout the year. Mark Gerber, finance director, along with Timothy St. Andrews from Plante Moran, presented the five-year financial forecast, with St. Andrews explaining that the “forecast can see a snapshot of the future and allows the city to plan,” although he cautioned it is just estimates. Seventy percent of the city's revenues come in the from of property taxes, with taxable value projected to grow six percent in 2020, but just 3.5 percent in 2021. The city is projected to use some of its general fund balances in 2020 and 2021 because of planned expenditures, including the Maple Road reconstruction project, but St. Andrews said it will build back up in 2022 and 2023. “The general fund is helping to subsidize the major and local street funds,” he noted. “The city of Birmingham, Michigan continues to be an example of strong fiscal management. With careful planning and investing, the city will be able to remain a positive model to other communities and to maintain the strong bond rating that results.” Lauren Wood, public services director, provided a parks and recreation improvement funding update, noting in June 2018, the city commission directed the parks and recreation board to review their master plan's five-year capital improvement plan to identify facility needs and to look at bonding opportunities. Ten categories of potential improvement projects, with their associated costs, were identified, and public meetings and surveys were held, indicating priorities. In November 2019, they recommended to the commission a $12.2 million recreation bond priority list, to be done in two phases. Wood said it would be best to have the bond done in two phases, but authorized once, because there are too many projects to accomplish in a three to five-year time period, which is the time limit required by the bond. “You need to spend the money in three years,” she explained. “The phasing would be based on project readiness, necessity, poll results, the master plan project list, community priority, facility condition and age, and parks and rec priorities.” The first phase of the parks and rec priority list includes $5.1 million for a needed refrigeration system and locker room expansion/facility upgrades at the Birmingham Ice Arena; $700,000 for implementation of the concept plan for Adams Park; $300,000 for Booth Park Phase III corner feature; citywide playground improvements, including accessibility and inclusive play, Springdale playground, $300,000; Crestview playground, $250,000; Howarth playground, $150,000; a pickleball court, location to be determined, $150,000; and $300,000 for improvements to the Rouge River Trail, for a total of $7.3 million for the first phase. The second phase, for a total of $4.9 million, includes more inclusive playground improvements, at Lincoln Well and Pumphouse park playgrounds, $350,000; Linden Park, $150,000; Pembroke playground/park shelter, $400,000; and St. James playground, $300,00; a splashpad, $500,000; $1 million for a new inclusive playground area and drainage improvements at Poppleton Park; an inclusive playground, ballfield developments and walking paths at Kenning Park, $1.2 million; $525,000 for new irrigation at the golf courses; and $450,000 for the Rouge River Trail, to include new trail entry plaza/ trailheads, signage, and connectivity to connect Willits to Maple. Wood said they are looking at grants, donations and public/private partnerships in addition to bonds. “We have the capacity to bond for 10 percent of debt,” city manager Joe Valentine explained. “We're in a unique capacity. Our last bonding for parks and rec was in 2001. In 2020-2021, our sewer bonds will be paid off. In 2023-2024 our parks and rec bonds will be paid off. So the opportunity is good to replace debt with new debt without replacing the tax rate and having improvements.” He said they were looking at the August or November elections if they want to do the bonding. Wood provided an update on Maple/Eton Road bridge enhancements, which the city did in cooperation with CN railroad. “I'm happy to say we got it done in about a year, a feat in itself dealing with CN,” she said. “CN had to do the work, we had to pay for it. They did it underbudget and on time.” The city had budgeted $114,000 for the project, and it cost $75,930. Lighting and final landscaping is being completed. Austin Fletcher of DPS presented the lead service action plan, noting the city was required by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) to complete a preliminary materials inventory of all water services within the city by December 31, 2019. “Of the 7,979 water service lines in the city, 731 were determined to have lead service lines,” Fletcher said. The city created a link on its homepage for additional information on testing and directing them to more information. “The city is launching a pilot program next month to remove known lead services, including the six highest known,” he said. Valentine said they are working along with other communities to reduce costs. Jana Ecker, Birmingham Planning Director, said the planning board is in the midst of an update of the 2040 master plan, looking at the city, neighborhoods, parking analysis, community vision and interactions. The first two phases have been completed; they are in the midst of the third phase, with an expected completion of the fourth and final phase in fall 2020. Public engagement continues throughout the spring and summer. City planner Nicholas Dupuis said the planning board is continuing to look at alley regulations in an effort to boost walkability, with its focus on cleanliness, signage and wayfinding, noting “there's no such thing as too much signage,” and to step up the city's code enforcement. “The next step is the planning board would like to survey alleys again,” he said. Ecker said the next training they are looking to incorporate is with green infrastructure, “how we can incorporate green infrastructure into our developments, how do we help shift uses of transportation?” DuPuis said many other communities are doing the same thing, and the planning department has begun writing a green newsletter to inform residents of things such as “that the city is making it easier to put solar panels on your home. Historic preservation prevents waste and preserves walkablility. We're beginning to dip our toe into green infrastructure.” Planner Brooks Cowan said the department has received repeated requests for three things in the downtown overlay district: quality materials not fit under the category of any materials listed in zoning ordinances; boutique fitness studio, specifically related to yoga and pilates. Currently, uses such as yoga, pilates and pure barre are classified as a health club/studio use, or “big box” gyms. “Specialty studios such as yoga and pilates tend to be much smaller than commercial gyms and have less capacity to create the same amount of traffic as a big box gym,” Cowan said. “Another issue is that the ordinance does not allow flexibility for mixed-use uses that combine a health club/studio with retail or a food and drink establishment. Applicants have requested to place athletic wear clothing and a smoothie bar in the front of the space to meet their retail requirement while hosting yoga classes in the back. This experience-based concept of retail, food and yoga was denied because health club/studios are not permitted downtown. A third issue is that building owners have requested to occupy smaller spaces in their basement and upper floors with a health club/studio use but have been denied due to the ordinance use standards. The first floor retail was occupied by a premium paying retail tenant but the owner had to find a different tenant for the smaller basement and upper floor spaces due to the ordinance.” He noted New York City recently dealt with the same issue, of fitness gyms versus yoga studios, and amended its zoning ordinances. The third issue they are facing is building lobbies, what qualifies as a building lobby, and how big they have to be. Assistant city engineer Austin Fletcher gave an update on the second phase of the Maple Road reconstruction project, scheduled for this spring and summer. Maple Road will be reconstructed between Chester Street and Woodward Avenue with the exception of a small section on either side of Old Woodward, which was completed in 2018. In addition, Maple Road between Southfield Road and Chester Street will be resurfaced and the Southfield/Maple Road intersection will be re-aligned to make in perpendicular to Maple Road. “During construction, Maple Road between Chester Street and Pierce Street and between Old Woodward and Park Street will be completely closed for the duration of the project,” Fletcher said. Traffic will be re-directed north and south utilizing the ‘Ring Road System’ – Oakland/Willits and W. Brown. Pierce Street and Old Woodward will remain open and accessible for the duration of the project. At some point during the project, Southfield Road at Maple Road will be closed for several weeks, the timeframe is unknown until a project schedule is provided by the selected contractor. During the closure, Southfield Road traffic will be re-directed to Chester Street and W. Brown Street with two-way traffic maintained on Maple Road.” Completion is anticipated to be late July or August 2020. Birmingham Fire Chief Paul Wells said, “In 2019, the Birmingham Fire Department set a long-range planning goal of achieving a reduced ISO rating. The Fire Department has identified several areas of improvement in order to reduce the risk of injury or loss of property. These areas for improvement are emergency preparedness, fire prevention, injury prevention, and early CPR/AED administration. The department has assigned a firefighter to help oversee a new Community Risk Reduction Program that will address some of the hazards that have been identified for needed improvement.” He said with the increased amount of extreme weather emergencies, the community needs increased awareness in order to prepare for a long-term shelter-in-place situation, noting large scale emergencies will use up a majority of the fire department and city's resources. For fire prevention, firefighters check each business and home they visit to confirm the occupants have the recommended amount of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. If needed, the fire department will install a detector or two for residents. Injury prevention, especially for seniors, continues to be a focus. Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence reported that in 2019, the department began the process of investigating how to become an accredited department through the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police (MACP) Accreditation Program. In February of 2020, the police department will formally apply for admission. Once approved, the police department has 24 months to complete the process. “Accreditation acknowledges the implementation of written directives, policies and procedures that are conceptually sound and operationally effective,” he said. Part of the effort includes converting all current policies and procedures from written to electronic form within a new program designed to facilitate a move to an all- electronic management system for the police department. “It is no secret that the issue of active shooter response (ASR) has been and will continue to be a primary concern for our country and for law enforcement. Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly,' Clemence said. “The police department must remain vigilant regarding prevention efforts and aggressively train to better respond to ASR incidents. In 2018 and 2019, the police department assisted the Birmingham Public Schools and many private schools in adopting the most up to date and comprehensive ASR response methodology, the ALICE system. The police department has two officers who are fully trained in the ALICE system and provide training to local businesses, schools and religious institutions.” In 2020, he said, the department will conduct at least two ASR tabletop exercises, one with the fire department command staff. Bruce Johnson, city building official, said the building department continues to issue anywhere between 5000 to 6000 permits per fiscal year. In 2018, the department implemented online inspection scheduling, allowing permit holders the convenience of 24-hour scheduling on their computer or smart device. For 2020, he said, to expand on these efficiencies, and in response to a multitude of requests, the building department would like to broaden the scope of services it provides and add online permit acceptance. The third phase of Baldwin Library's long-term building project will improve the front entrance and circulation area, upgrading a space that has been largely untouched for 40 years and “helping Baldwin to offer amenities that are competitive with other local libraries that already have a café space and an accessible entry,” Doug Koschik, library director, explained in a memo. “To support this project, we are asking for a continuation of the library’s existing millage.” Baldwin is in the midst of the second phase of its building project, expanding and improving the Youth Services spaces. Koschik said the third phase is anticipated to cost approximately $2 million. The Birmingham Museum will focus on updating its strategic plan for 2021-2024, museum director Leslie Pielak said. “Through public programs and other active engagement, the Birmingham Museum has developed a broader reach, which has increased our physical visitation and visibility as well as donations of artifacts and funds,” she said. She said public program attendance and site visits have increased by 20 percent, and donations of historically valuable artifacts and documents are up significantly. The final stages of detailed design for the Heritage Zone Landscape Plan is in process, Pielak said. The plan would restore elements of the historic landscape and enhance the area around the Allen and Hunter Houses, which is the most heavily used by the public. Expected cost for construction of these improvements is approximately $35,000. Fifteen thousand dollars has been raised thus far to complete the project, and the museum board and Friends of the Birmingham Museum are planning a major effort during 2020 to raise additional funds. The last presentation was from the manager's office, with assistant manager Tiffany Gunter providing an update on unimproved streets, noting 30 percent, or 26 of the city's 90 miles of streets are unimproved. An unimproved road is a gravel road, with or without curbs, that has been maintained with chip or cape seal to provide a relatively smooth and dust-free driving surface. “These unimproved streets exist due to the majority of neighborhoods being subdivided and open for development prior to 1930. During this time local streets were built with gravel roads with no provision for storm drainage,” Gunter said. “Residents with unimproved roads often experience issues with flooding and deteriorating road surfaces as a more common occurrence than their neighbors with improved roads.” The ad-hoc unimproved streets committee has been meeting to study this. “The process will likely take three to six months to complete, depending on the intensity of the engagement. A recommendation will be made for commission consideration regarding an updated policy on unimproved streets to reflect the feedback of the committee and the public,” she said. The city is addressing the growing senior population with a continued interlocal agreement with NEXT, whose membership is approaching 2,000, Gunter said. Valentine said the city is looking at an enhanced public notification system. “Over the past few years the city has made considerable enhancements with public communications through improvements to various electronic tools. The effort has involved social media applications and the enhancement of the city’s website to include email and text notifications for various initiatives. A direct engagement approach has proved beneficial, but we are limited to those that sign up,” he said. “With the ability to directly communicate with the public on timely and relevant issues, we have explored a new approach that will allow the city to directly target the public for public notices, emergency alerts, special events, neighborhood projects and numerous other information residents may find helpful.” He said they're working to collect further email addresses in order provide for more effective communications. Looking at the future of the long-term parking situation in the downtown is being continued by the advisory parking committee, Gunter reported. “Staff is currently working to develop a draft survey for review by the committee in February. The survey will inquire as to whether the six key focus areas are still relevant and the level of priority to be placed on each of the proposed action steps,” she said. They will address structural assessments, mobile parking applications, parking permit waitlist reduction and a systemwide technology evaluation, noting “The primary complaint received by parking staff involve the entry/exit gate machines in the parking garages (difficult to use and traffic backups), inability to read the display on the parking meters, and time it takes to read the credit cards at the meters,” Gunter reported. “Staff is working to determine alternatives that will result in a comprehensive and fully integrated system that will best serve our users. Over the next several months, staff will conduct the research on the available technologies and bring a report to the advisory parking committee in the spring with a recommendation on a plan for technological upgrades in the parking system.”

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