Harpoon Notes for February 27, 2019

President Greg rang the Rotary bell, and the assembly rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which PP John Ackenhusen, on piano, played with particular elan. Indeed, John’s prelude earlier had deftly lulled the lunching Rotarians and guests into a meeting mindset. Barbara Niess-May then came forward for the Inspiration: “In [commemoration] of our speaker, I would like to share a poem by John O’Donohue —

“‘For a Leader: May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.

May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service…

May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue as a servant of the frontier
Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And you never become a functionary….'”

Shelley MacMillan, today’s songstress, led us gleefully in a spirited rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris,” sung to lyrics of “I Love Ann Arbor.” It went something like this: “Ev’ry time I look round at this timeless town, whether blue or grey be her skies/Whether loud be her cheers, or whether soft be her tears…more and more do I realize…that…
I love Ann Arbor in the springtime. I love Ann Arbor in the fall….” Beautifully done, Shelley, though we in the ‘chorus’ performed perhaps more rend than rendition!

Returning to the podium, Greg greeted all Rotarians and guests, and was just noting the week’s member birthdays when a prospective member, Lynda Carter, who had been introduced again by Art Williams, roused everyone with “Let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Dr. Art Williams!'” Whereupon the whole ballroom rose in unison (never underestimate the adaptive powers of a group of well-fed Rotarians) and belted out the song quite respectably. Greg, in perfect deadpan, eyes like a hawk peering down his nose, merely observed: “When you become a member, we’ll tell you a few things [laughter]. I run things from up here.” (No Cossack ever quelled high spirits more effectively.) “Now, the birthdays…We already know it’s Art Williams’s birthday!”

Greg then asked Kristy Bacon to make an announcement. “The annual Fourth of July parade is coming up. We had great representation last year, so please consider marching with your fellow Rotarians — and joining our planning group!”

Greg returned with some very sad news: “Walt Hancock passed away this morning, and Ingrid Deiniger also, over the weekend. Please stand for a moment of silence.” Memories of Walt’s perennial smile and unrestrained friendliness were joined by images of Ingrid, a lifelong healer of others’ wounds, who received her humanitarian baptism during the ferocious Battle of Berlin, in 1945, when, her parents dead, she protected her siblings and rescued people from collapsed buildings. To your faithful reporter her greeting was always a hearty “I just love your smile.” Every person, no doubt, who came to Ingrid’s and Walt’s attention received a similar homage, benediction, and was enhanced by it.

“Mary Avrakotos will speak about our Global Grant Project,” Greg announced by way of moving things forward. “We raised $142,031 for projects in Sierra Leone,” Mary began. “This was made possible by 17 Rotary clubs serving in our area…This is really the story of Paramount Chief Charles Caulker, who believes that education is the key to changing lives — and to women driving economic development.” Mary highlighted her report with photos and video taken during her visit. “We were treated royally: everywhere we went, we were greeted by dancers and children, who lined the side of the road with signs reading (as you can see): ‘Thank you, Ann Arbor, for your support!'” She remarked on the success of the orchard and vegetable projects in igniting an entrepreneurial sense. Land is cleared and the produce sold, mainly by the women. “The trees are fruiting now. ‘Orchards for Education’ will earn $50,000 by 2021. Chief Caulker wants everyone to have an education.” And the proceeds from this burgeoning agriconomy are paving the way. Indeed, the sign Mary showed said it all — “From Subsistence to Self-Reliance.” Mary concluded by exclaiming “Thank you for everything you give to help these incredible people.”

Speaker: PP Collyer Smith came beaming to the podium, as if he were the torch that would rekindle the Alexandria lighthouse; so warm and expansive was his Rotary greeting — “Good afternoon!” The response must have seemed anemic, for Collyer repeated his felicitation. This time, with the ribs of the ballroom shaking, the audience got it right. “I am delighted to introduce our speaker, Mayor Christopher Taylor. Mayor Taylor is serving his second term…and has an interesting background.” Collyer enumerated Chris’s creative and professional background, “an Interlocken alum, with a B.A. in English and a Master’s in history, Chris has served on numerous non-profit boards — and he loves Roman history. Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Chris Taylor.”

“Thank you for having me here,” the mayor began. “Rotary is known for being there whenever needed. Now [the kind of speech I prefer to give] is when you interrupt me. I’ll just keep talking til you do” [laughter]. “Where are we in the City? Okay, I’m largely happy with it, but we have a lot to do.” Chris emphasized the City’s fiscal success in “balancing the budget every year,” which is helped by “budgeting a year ahead. The city administrator [fellow Rotarian Howard Lazarus] will present his budget soon for approval. This will be voted on and become law in May.”

The Mayor then went into a brief explanation of Ann Arbor’s ‘power structure’, as old political scientist, Floyd Hunter, would say. “The office of mayor is a part-time job. I’m an attorney by profession. Overall policy and direction is set by the city administrator….” He then remarked on taxes: “Taxes go up by the rate of inflation. Property taxes are capped until a house is sold. But the costs of providing services do not get capped,” Chris noted. “Costs are going up faster than the growth of our revenue.” At this juncture, Greg raised his hand. Grateful for the interruption, the Mayor listened deeply to Greg’s question about the impact of removal of taxable real estate by the University’s ongoing purchases. Chris acknowledged the disadvantages to the City and its citizens of the recent loss of the Fingerle Lumber “assemblage of lots,” in addition to the massive old Pfizer estate (“a gigantic loss — 5% of the City budget”). Greg also mentioned the contested use of the property next to the downtown library. Frankly, Chris’s answer struck many of his listeners as a milquetoast: “They can do this; the University can do what it wants.” Perhaps inadvertently the Mayor likened Ann Arbor to “a factory town,” one where the best that can be hoped is to slow the U-M’s inexorable march into the City’s income-producing mantle and core.

“The relationship between the City and University is one of peculiar tension and cooperation,” Chris admitted. “The University can do things that no one else can do [culturally and in real estate development]: It’s great to see the students and [the vibrant] life in the City…It’s benevolent — we’re going to work together. We will move forward.” Two possible solutions are the establishment “of a 1% income tax on residents, and a 1/2% tax on non-residents, the commuters, who benefit every day from our amenities.” (The issue of renters’ tax responsibilities remains obscure.) To Ann Arborites the levy would be “offset by a reduction of property tax.” However, he noted that imposition “of an income tax would cause dislocations.” ‘Dislocations’…really? Granted all the cultural and infrastructural amenities — but factory town? To your reporter it sounded more like a McConnellsville coal town. One can always argue perhaps about one’s bill with the clerk of the company store.

And some big bills are coming down the pike. “We need to provide an infrastructure,” Chris declared in regard to the ongoing road repair. “We’re doing a ‘wellness program’ for our midlife roads — sealing cracks, anything to prolong their life. Another subject is the water treatment plant, “which has existed for 80 years. We need to change. Rates will go up if we want an up-to-date treatment plant.” He also touched on affordable housing and public art: “I think the City needs to be disruptive [about affordable housing]. If we don’t do something, we’re going to be known for segregation rather than our aspiration…Disrupting neighborhoods — that will upset some folks.” [Note: As used by politicians, the word ‘folks’ is the equivalent of losers in a political debate.] “We have a public arts commission,” made up of a group of committed residents. In spite of the Commission’s desire to enhance the City’s profile through public art, Chris acknowledged that current and upcoming fiscal needs preclude moving the issue to the front burner.

At the conclusion of the Mayor’s engaging speech, more than a few in his audience perhaps recognized his (and the City Council’s) dilemma: how to economically provide for the growth and well-being of Ann Arbor’s citizens while navigating the irrefutable influence of a beloved though aggressive academic behemoth. Yes, the City needs to be disruptive — but to the general aggrandizement of its residents. Otherwise, Ann Arbor could transform into a bloated Ithaca, New York, home to another great university; a city without a residential middle class; its constricted and tithe-laden population comprised of academicians, physicians, trust fund kids, and, of course, renters.

Greg thanked the Mayor warmly, then turned to the assembly with his parting words: “The life you lead is the lesson you teach.”