Roundup: City Commission approves budget, zones for restaurants & bars

Published on May 22, 2020

City Commission Roundup image via remote cameras

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Grand Rapids City Commission on Thursday unanimously approved the fiscal year (FY) 2021 fiscal plan and established social zones to help restaurants and bars in their COVID-19 resiliency and recovery efforts. Here’s a recap of the online meeting:

FY2021 budget

The commission’s adoption of the fiscal year ordinance establishes a series of operating, debt service and capital appropriations for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The $531 million spending plan reduces the City’s property tax millage rate from 8.9011 mills to 8.8070 mills. It is $22 million less than last year’s adopted budget and is $8.9 million less than the preliminary fiscal plan proposed by City Manager Mark Washington on April 28 due to the dynamic financial impact of COVID-19.

The plan, however, maintains essential City services, supports roughly $75 million in capital projects – including $18.9 million for neighborhoods of focus – and $14.2 million in investments that advance equity, furthers the City’s ability to implement strategic priorities and ensures financial stability. The general operating fund portion of the approved budget is $142,892,121. Neighborhoods of focus are 17 Census tracts that have concentrated poverty and unemployment.

Unlike past years, the fiscal years 2021-2025 plan is built on reduced revenue projections that have required rapid changes in planned expenditures due to COVID-19. The strong foundation of the City’s strategic plan has allowed leaders to pivot rapidly amid the changing dynamics of the pandemic response. What remains unchanged in the fiscal plan is the City’s commitment to advancing its strategic priorities, outcomes and objectives and its values of accountability, collaboration, customer service, equity, innovation and sustainability. These continue to shape the City’s work as it responds to the pandemic, economic crisis and the community’s recovery.

“I want to express my appreciation to the City Commission and all those who helped to prepare the fiscal plan,” City Manager Mark Washington said. “This budget was challenging to finalize given the evolving economic and public health impacts of this pandemic. It is sensitive to the economic conditions and feedback from the commission and community and is aligned to our strategic plan. This is a long-term financial recovery. We are actively monitoring and managing our operating and financial performance, and we will be prepared to make additional adjustments if needed.”

The City’s strong fiscal sustainability performance and recently achieved operational efficiencies helped position it heading into the COVID-19 crisis. The City will save $5.2 million in FY2021 in employee health insurance costs and an additional $1 million in other operational savings.

Washington said City leaders made hard decisions that included impact to personnel. The approved FY2021 budget maintains nearly all regular staffing levels but eliminates 160 temporary jobs, freezes roughly 50 jobs and eliminates 6.5 positions in the 61st District Court.

Other adjustments include:

  • Reduced DASH and Rapid Route 19 service
  • Reduced initial planning investments in the Grand River walkway phase II
  • Deferred a heavy rescue vehicle purchase to next year
  • Reduced employee travel and training costs across all departments
  • Closed its three pools and 14 splash pads for the season – aligned with public health guidelines

“We’ve made these reductions yet have maintained our commitment to essential services, such as public safety, streets, water and sewer,” Washington said. “Investments in community-police relations were preserved by funding several safe community efforts. These include hiring a future non-certified recruit class of 10 officers and maintaining our police department’s community engagement unit, the combined police and fire Homeless Outreach Team, police women’s summit and the newly proposed expungement program.”

The City also is investing $29 million in Vital Streets projects and $22 million in water and wastewater capital projects, $8.2 million in LED street lighting and $5.7 million in mobility projects. Parks capital projects and the forestry sustainability plan, which includes tree removal and tree maintenance, also are maintained.

The City is investing a total of $5.4 million in economic resiliency and recovery for residents and businesses. This includes:

The City will dedicate $750,000 of the federal funding and housing resiliency investment to Third Ward equity investments as part of recommendations from the City’s economic resiliency and recovery work group.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said the work related to the budget would not end with its adoption.

“This is an unprecedented time. We have a lot of work going forward,” Bliss said. “There are a lot of unknowns as it relates to the economic impact of COVID-19, and I anticipate we will get staff budget updates periodically as conditions change.”

Social zones

Based on a recommendation from the City’s economic resiliency and recovery work group, the City Commission unanimously approved the creation of a special event – June 1 to Nov. 30 – to help restaurants and bars once the Stay Home, Stay Safe order is lifted. During that period, “social zones” can be established by permit on public property, streets and sidewalks to encourage expanded outdoor dining and socialization space.

The move allows Grand Rapids-based organizations and business owners to request social zones in appropriate locations throughout the city once restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc. resume dine-in service.

The work group, which includes representatives from the City, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, made the recommendations to the City Commission acknowledging the stress these businesses have operated under over the past two months. The work group also recognized that indoor occupancy initially will be restricted to half of pre-COVID-19 levels. Previously established outdoor dining areas – both on private property and on adjacent public sidewalks – will be inadequate to meet the anticipated increased demand. The need to increase physical distancing requirements also will limit seating capacity of those areas.

Here’s a breakdown of the social zones:

Public property

These social zones will be established through the City’s special event approval process. Details of the approved resolution include:

  • All areas of the city are eligible to request social zones as part of the special event
  • The city manager or a designee may approve social zones as part of the special event for specified periods of time on City-owned property and rights-of-way
  • The City will set provisions for lighting, sound, heating and pets
  • A single entity must assume responsibility for coordinating each social zone
  • The social zone must provide continual access in and out of buildings and maintain emergency vehicle access
  • Social zone operations must have an approved plan and adhere to the following:
  • Provide trash and litter removal
  • Prohibit smoking
  • Maintain placement of furniture and equipment
  • Follow strict sanitation, exposure control, physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks
  • Follow requirements of the Kent County Health Department and the governor’s executive orders
  • The city manager or a designee has the authority to permit consumption of alcoholic beverages within a social zone subject to Michigan Liquor Control Commission rules and regulations
  • The city manager may reduce, waive or otherwise modify normal fees
  • Social zone coordinators must work with the City and organizers of other special events to not detract from those special events

Private property

Expanded outdoor dining and socialization space on private property will be handled through the zoning ordinance temporary use permitting process for the same June 1 to Nov. 30 duration.

City staff will work with businesses and property owners to temporarily re-purpose parking and other areas for outdoor seating based upon temporarily reduced parking demand, availability of other nearby parking facilities and other factors.

City staff and partners are working to finalize an online guide, resources and application forms. These are expected to be ready early next week.

“Restaurants and bars can start thinking about their desired amount of outdoor seating and where that seating may be placed and talk to their neighbors about their ideas,” said Lou Canfield, the City’s acting assistant director of design, development and community engagement. “Groups of businesses that want to work together on a joint plan for a multi-business social zone should connect with their business association or another organization willing to serve as the coordinator for the zone.”

The commission’s action follows its Tuesday approval of transportation and infrastructure investments to further assist businesses, residents and employees in their COVID-19 economic recovery efforts.

Watch the full commission meeting in English HERE and in Spanish HERE.

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