Birmingham's long-range plans discussed
By Kevin Elliott
The Birmingham City Commission met for more than eight hours on Saturday, January 22, to discuss long-range planning needs and forecasts with each of the city departments.
Commissioners hold the special Saturday planning session each January, which includes a five-year financial forecast; a recap of public services; engineering projects, updates from the planning department, the Birmingham Shopping District, police, fire, the library, museum, and administrative departments.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said the meeting was one of the most comprehensive discussion of long-range plans and projects in the city, with insight from every department. Overall, he said this year is expected to be a slow year for recovery for all cities, as they face a tight labor market and low unemployment.
In terms of tax revenue, the city should see an increase in property tax revenue spurred by new development as property values rose about 5.5 percent over the past year, and are expected to grow another 5 percent this year, said Birmingham Finance Director Mark Gerber.
Oakland County Commissioner Chuck Moss, who spoke as a citizen during the public comment portion of the meeting, questioned what the city intends to do with unused office space that has gone underutilized since the pandemic.
“If people aren’t coming back – and they aren’t – what is going to be our base,” he said. “The idea that neighborhoods need to be addressed is pre-COVID. The real question now is what is going on with downtown and the offices?”
The topic came up for discussion when Birmingham Shopping District (BSD) Executive Director Sean Kammer discussed challenges facing the district, as higher rents place a strain on existing tenants, which may not be able to cope with costs.
“Available retail space is running low,” he said. “Although a low vacancy rate is something that any downtown should strive to achieve, this change in circumstances presents its own set of challenges. It signals that the BSD must shift its policies in accordance with the new environment in order to stay relevant. The shortage of available retail space and existing high demand results in high rent rates.”
Commissioner Clinton Baller recommended the city look at ways of expanding retail to second floor locations in the shopping district as a way of opening up additional retail space in the district.
The city’s engineering department presented updates to several capital outlay projects, including the backyard sewer and water master plan, which is expected to be complete by 2024. The city has also replaced nearly half of all lead service line connections in the city, with 398 connections remaining. The city, which has 20 years to replace all lead service lines, is on schedule to be completed within four years.
Additional capital projects include the third and final phase of the Old Woodward reconstruction, scheduled for this summer; the city’s concrete sidewalk and sewer rehabilitation programs; as well as paving about a mile of unimproved roads.
Birmingham resident Paul Regan pressed commissioners to consider bonding additional money to undertake unimproved roads in the city, rather than relying on special assessment districts.
Markus said a bond would complicate the matter, as improving those roads includes additional elements, such as water and sewer lines, sidewalks, streetscapes.
Other projects in the works were presented by the city’s planning department, which included an update to the city’s 2040 Plan and long-range master plan, as well as planned pedestrian safety upgrades for Woodward Avenue.
Planning Director Nick Dupuis discussed the Birmingham Green strategy that was formalized in January 2021, which uses a green approach to sustainability and environmental protection. The strategy focuses on green stormwater infrastructure, historic preservation, encouraging solar energy, investing in parks, open space and tree canopies, and the Rouge River.
“Pushing this green strategy in the community is very important,” Markus said, following the presentation. “We are already behind the curve, and we need to be a leader with this.”
In terms of staffing, the city is facing issues related to succession and development planning. Human Resources Manager Joseph Lambert said the city has had significant staffing problems.
“Many of our filled positions have no realistic pathway to a succession plan,” he said. “The city has had significant staffing challenges due to the high number of departures and retirements from all levels of administration, technical and management. The non-union division had 11 resignations or retirements since 2020.”
While the city hired 22 new full-time employees in 2021, the majority of administration/management employees have under five years in their roles. As such, the city has an opportunity for education and training.
Succession plans were a point of discussion with Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence, who said the department will be losing four command staff over the next year, including his own departure in January 2023.
With a new parking manager on staff at the city, the wait list for parking structures has been pared down to less than 600 people, with structures currently having an average occupancy of 55 percent.
Markus encouraged commissioners to undertake a strategic plan to address some of the current issues facing the city and address some of the long-range planning issues. He said such a plan could be developed by a professional facilitator to guide the process.
“A strategic plan has a goal as it relates to what gets recommended in the budget. It’s different than a long-range plan,” he said. “There’s no better time to be doing this, with new commissioners on the board and those with some terms ahead of them.”