Dr. Missy Stults, the city of Ann Arbor’s sustainability and innovations director, brims with ideas as she outlines the city’s proposed budget for its recently approved Community Climate Action millage. Dollars will be set aside for programs as diverse as monitoring air quality, expanding a reusable take-out container program, distributing emergency preparedness kits, increasing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, creating an educational app to help people take care of their trees, labeling locally sourced food on menus, and starting an energy concierge service — which Stults describes as "a one-stop shop for residents to figure out, how do you navigate all of these things?"
The money, $6.8 million per year for 20 years, starts rolling in on July 1 after city voters approved it in the November election. Now the city is figuring out exactly how to spend it.
"In this window we’re in right now, the budget has to be approved by [city] council, so we’re working on all of the logistics — and then of course we’ve got to set up all of the administrative systems to make sure these dollars can flow," Stults says brightly. "I have ideas, but I haven’t written all the policies, and I haven’t gotten all the procedures approved yet."
However, she has a solid grasp on the broad strokes of the millage budget, which will broadly mirror the city’s A2ZERO climate action plan
Instead of using items temporarily and then trashing them, the concept of a circular economy asks consumers to reuse, repair, and share, treating the dumpster as the last resort. Ann Arbor is home to a growing network of circular economy collaborators, such as Live Zero Waste
, Bring Your Own Container Co.
, and Buy No Things Ann Arbor
. To further facilitate reuse and sharing, the city has created a pilot program of neighborhood swap days; the next one will take place Feb. 4 in the Bryant neighborhood. Stults says millage dollars will be used to scale swap days throughout the community.
Ann Arbor Public Works Manager Molly Maciejewski.
For those items that necessarily end up in compost and recycling bins, the millage will fund expanded services — diverting approximately 2,400 tons of recyclables and 1,500 tons of compostables from landfills every year.
"It’s going to put us in step with our circular economy goals to get more materials out of landfill, which is all of course moving us towards carbon neutrality," says Ann Arbor Public Works Manager Molly Maciejewski.
Maciejewski adds that Public Works is using the months preceding the arrival of the millage funds to inventory its containers, shore up its staff — and research buying a new truck to service recycling dumpsters.
"With the passage of the millage, we’re going to be doing expanded education and outreach and trying to get more users to sign up, particularly in multifamily and commercial properties, for recycling," Maciejewski says. "So if you live in a multifamily home right now and you don’t have recycling, feel free to call the city."
Renewable energy and resilience
Millage funds will also help bolster renewable energy hubs like the Northside Community Center, a squat, homey building with cream paneling, sage-colored shutters, and a roof layered with solar panels. Derrick Miller, executive director of the Community Action Network
, is bundled in a thick jacket as he shows off the center’s solar array. Behind the building, another row of solar panels sits behind a chain-link fence, photovoltaic faces tilted expectantly toward the sky.
"Back in 2020 is when we established our first resiliency hub in the city of Ann Arbor, and that’s here at Northside Community Center," Miller says.
Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller at the Bryant Community Center.
The hub is home to two 10-kilowatt lithium-ion batteries and a 23.53-kilowatt solar system that generates and stores enough electricity to power four Michigan homes. In case of a crisis — like flooding, a severe winter storm, or a heat wave — resilience hubs can stay open to distribute resources and services. Starting in July, millage dollars will fund development of the city’s next two resilience hubs, at Bryant Community Center and the Ann Arbor Senior Center.
"This is the city being proactive in terms of building in that resiliency within our community so that not if, but when
the next crisis happens, we’ll be positioned better to deal with it," Miller says.
Energy efficiency, weatherization, and equity
Miller shares a story of a Bryant neighborhood resident who was struggling to pay her utility bills. After weatherizing her home and installing solar panels, "what used to be a $150 utility bill is now $30," he says, beaming.
"Through solarizing, it’s multiple wins," he continues. "You are now, for at least the next 20 to 25 years, permanently reducing that person's energy burden. … You’re also now adding clean energy to the grid, and so you get that win and the carbon reduction that comes from that. If you take it a step further and add batteries, you’re now creating mini-resiliency hubs as well."
Multiple wins notwithstanding, not everyone can afford the transition to energy efficiency. The millage will fund cost-saving bulk-buy programs for solar panels and solar energy storage devices, help expedite the process of transitioning affordable housing sites to net zero energy, and pay for weatherization and energy efficiency for seniors as part of the Aging in Place Efficiently program. There are also proposals in place for a suite of rebates to help cover the cost of installing solar, but Stults recognizes this isn’t necessarily the most equitable solution.
"A rebate means that you get the money back after you’ve spent it," she explains. "It implies you have to have the money up front, and we know many people don’t."
Solar panels on top of the Bryant Community Center.
She’s currently investigating the feasibility of paying contracts up front, as well as ways to make the rebates go further by stacking them with the Inflation Reduction Act.
"There’s three values that guide A2
ZERO, and equity is one of them," Stults says. "That does not mean that we do it right all the time, but that fidelity to equity has to be a north star for us in our work."
Asked if the millage might fund a proposed solar farm situated on a capped landfill next to Ann Arbor's Wheeler Service Center, which could produce enough solar energy to power 4,000 households, Stults sighs. Although the millage could support the project, she says, it’s not enough to finish
"It’s designed. It is ready to run, and it has suffered from inflation and supply chain issues like almost everything else has," she says. "I’m trying to unlock some additional revenue. But we’re really close. In football terms, I would say we’ve got two more yards to punch it in and get it done, but those two yards can feel like a mile."
Non-motorized transportation infrastructure
Ann Arbor Transportation Manager Raymond Hess says the city will also use millage funds to upgrade infrastructure for non-motorized transportation. That includes creating safer crosswalks, putting in streetlights where there are none, and upgrading existing streetlight fixtures to positive contrast lighting, which Hess describes as "streetlights that shine a little bit in advance of where the crosswalk is, so that it provides a good visual for pedestrians at night." All new light fixtures will be LED.
As for bike infrastructure, Hess says the emphasis will be on "higher comfort facilities. … If you go back in your time machine 20 years or so ago, a bike facility that was adequate was just a single stripe on the road with a bike symbol. We called that a bike lane and we thought we did an awesome job. Well, the profession has evolved, and we recognize that that type of facility isn’t comfortable for everyone."
The protected bike lane on S. First Street in Ann Arbor.
Higher-comfort facilities, then, are those that create more separation between vehicles and bicycles. Hess says the city will be looking for opportunities to upgrade buffered bike lanes (a space marked with a painted stripe) to protected bike lanes (which incorporate vertical elements, such as curbs or bollards, to create a physical barrier between bikes and cars).
The last big project for the millage dollars is leveraging them for larger federal grants. The city submitted a $22 million U.S. Department of Transportation Safe Streets and Roads for All
grant proposal in September, which Hess says would unleash an unprecedented funding stream for these initiatives.
"If that grant comes through," he says, smiling, "then the world is our oyster."
Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and recent transplant to Belleville. She first visited Ann Arbor on a cross-country bicycle tour; you can read that story (and more!) in her first book, "Lucky."
Photos by Doug Coombe.