An In-Depth Interview with Bay City\'s New Mayor CHRIS SHANNON On Tuning Up the Instrument of Government

    icon Jan 13, 2011
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Bay City's newest Mayor, Christopher Shannon, is no stranger to the spotlight. For two decades he has performed as a singer/songwriter with his band The Swaggering Rogues throughout the Great Lakes Bay Area; and in 2006 he was first elected to the 1st Ward Commission seat on the Bay City Commission.

With a professional career in workforce development through the Saginaw Valley Rehabilitation Corp, Shannon has a solid family with his wife Elise and an 8-year old daughter, Sidney; and loves to restore old cars and homes; one of which he bought that actually led to his interest in politics.

He also worked with the rock band R.E.M. in the early 90s when he lived in Athens, GA, birthplace to the B-52s and several other seminal rock bands; and he also recorded for Geffen Records with guitarist Buren Fowler.

But mainly, Chris is one of the most affable, thoughtful, and committed individuals that you will ever meet. With the City of Bay City facing a $1.66 million budget deficit, challenging times loom ahead.

So it was on a sunny yet cold morning in early January that I sat down with the newly appointed Mayor for an in-depth discussion on a variety of topics ranging from challenges Bay City faces for the future, political success stories that have informed his posture and rekindled his hope, and his passion for traditions that reinforce the strengths of a community that he holds close to his heart.

Review: So let's start with your involvement in politics. How did you transition from your professional career with workforce development through the Saginaw Valley Rehabilitation Corp and your creative work musically with The Swaggering Rogues and decide to engage and become politically active?

Chris Shannon: I was first elected in 2006 to the 1st Ward Commission seat, which is one of nine representatives on the Bay City Commission. Unlike Saginaw where city government is determined by 'at-large' elections, we have wards and a precinct situation, which I feel is a good system of local representation where each neighborhood in the city has somebody looking after their interests. I really enjoy the old traditions of Bay City that have survived and one thing I'm passionate about is holding on to old ways that were good that the City Founders put into place.

Like anything, once you start looking at your wallet and wondering where your money goes, you start asking questions; in my case I bought a new 'old' house that really increased my tax bill. I started asking 'What am I really getting for all these taxes?' But mainly I started paying attention and the decisions that I saw being made frustrated me, apart from what I saw coming down the road. I began looking at our infrastructure and asking why are our roads falling to pieces and why do utility rates keep going up?

Bay City has their own power and those rates run about 15 percent lower on average than rates from Consumers Energy, yet we're accused of high utility rates. But that's not because of electric but the sewer side of life, which has a lot of mandated things through the State and Federal government, and also old legacy issues like PCB contamination that is left over from the Industrial Era. Old cracked pipes need to be replaced and don't last forever. But anyway, that's how I got involved. I started looking at things in the city and the decisions being made.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is and do something about it. We're one of the highest taxed communities in the state of Michigan, yet one of the lowest communities in terms of income per capita. None of these things make sense and when I started looking into it more and more and comparing Bay City to other like sized communities, what I saw didn't stack up for a good future.

Review: Bay City has a population of about 36,000 people and in 2007 studies showed it was trending down towards 34,000, yet is still has a solid core downtown and fortunately has survived the blight of many similar sized cities in Michigan. Yet all cities are fragile in today's age. When you first got involved with city politics what were your impressions? It's always appeared to me that there are a lot of entrenched power groups and 'old school' politics that are resistant to change.

Chris Shannon: That is exactly right because you are dealing with a unionized government. You can call it special interests or whatever you want, but one thing that became immediately apparent was special interests vying for shrinking and limited resources. And they were prepared to battle it out.

Battles were fought within the media somewhat, particularly with the Police when we asked them to negotiate reasonably and they put up a billboard saying everybody was going to get shot and killed if we laid off a few officers.

But strong labor organizations within the city date back to the lumbering era. There is a placard in downtown Bay City that says '10 Hours or Now Sawdust'. They were asking for 10 hours of work at six days a week and weren't asking for Saturday off, just 10 hours of work, which in today's environment is amazing. But there is a deep tradition at work here and many are descendants of those folks, but now its different. Many unionized groups in government are compensated better than the average citizen, which is simply stating a fact. And these are the kinds of things that hit you – bam in the face – and you ask how are we going to deal with this?

Review: So in your four years on the Commission before becoming Mayor are there any victories or areas that you were able to impact that increased your credibility?

Chris Shannon: What I learned is that every time you do something that is moving things forward there will be detractors. One of the things in particular is that we have a $19 million dollar General Fund budget, with an overall budget of $137 million including enterprise funding, electric, and stuff that draws into funding which is dedicated.

Essentially, police and fire protection consume 76% of the general fund budget, so 34% of the budget is for everything else. We're operating two major bridges and that is basically where the street fund goes.

You start picking these things apart and coming up with creative solutions or ideas and start to bounce things off people and talk to your State Reps. I told them that something had to be done because the bridges are killing us. M-15 comes up to Center Avenue and in reality that traffic goes across a residential street on that bridge, yet the Gas Tax or Public Act 151 is flawed because it doesn't dedicate additional funding to a bridge, it simply treats it like a mile-long road, yet these are regional assets.

Review: Not to mention all the damage that trucks do to roads, yet there is no penalty or surcharge levied against them because, once again, they have such a strong lobby.

Chris Shannon: Absolutely. Residents and streets are getting hammered. I sat on their porches and talked with them, but I'm only one guy and one vote.

Review: So what were you able to accomplish in your first four years?

Chris Shannon: Well, it's hard to move a mountain, but the fact I was exploring these types of things caused people to take note. I looked at the Fire Department that consumes $6 million dollars annually. Currently we have 3 firehouses and when I came on-board we had four with 56 fire fighters, which is now down to 52.

Then I started looking at Monitor Township, Bangor, Frankenlust, and our neighbors that were operating 'paid on call' fire units very successfully and operating with limited resources. I identified that as an area we could make headway upon, which of course was met with fierce opposition. They didn't even want to sit and talk about it, which is just wrong. It didn't matter if you were bringing Jesus to the table things were that entrenched.

So I literally set about documenting and studying this issue like a college student doing a thesis. I took my own personal vacation time to meet with Troy and sat down with Chief Nelson, their fire chief, and saw how they ran their 'paid on call' department. I also met with Independence Township in Southern Michigan, a suburbia community, that were operating a paid-on-call hybrid and had full time firefighters and additional paid-on-call guys. In short, I put together legitimate viable examples of what could happen and started putting a plan together to integrate paid-on-call into the Bay City firefighters stations.

We were able to get this passed, but it hasn't been implemented yet, so the savings have not yet been realized. But what it will do is add firemen to the existing budget. The fire guys see it as minimizing the fire efforts, but I see it as maximizing efforts and bringing in more bodies. The more I learned about it I discovered that paid-on-call are trained to the same standards as the full time guys, they're just not getting paid to eat and sleep.

Review: I'd like to explore that a bit with you, as when I was on the Saginaw Charter Commission trying to address these issues in the City of Saginaw, one of the things we attempted to propose was rescinding Public Act 78, which determines all-or-nothing public safety arbitration, and actually moved to combined Public Safety Department encompassing both police & fire services. In Saginaw you have these little fiefdoms with duplicate Sheriffs and under-Sheriffs and combined public safety departments have actually been successfully implemented in areas like Petoskey and even Essexville, which is right at your doorstep. The City of Saginaw spent thousands of dollars on a study that recommended fire personnel actually start doing data entry for the police department, to better maximize resources.

Chris Shannon: You're really opening the door here, Bob. It's such a battle. They come on meeting nights and fill the gallery with themselves and their families and children, one after another, saying we're going to kill people and scaring little old ladies. It's maddening. Nobody has to lose his or her job here and I certainly don't want to put a worker out on the street.

But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I'm a non-partisan guy. I don't ride a donkey or an elephant and I drive a Toyota. I made a conscious effort to not involve myself in partisan politics at the city level, because I don't feel it has a place. I'm a fiscal conservative yet a liberal on many issue. It depends upon the issue.

Review: I'm curious as to what you feel are the three key issues facing Bay City?

Chris Shannon: First would be declining property tax revenues, which is a common concern of many cities. For several years property tax revenues have been adversely impacted by foreclosure related sales, which are undervalued.

Second would be the decline in state revenue sharing. Since 2000 Bay City has lost more than $2 million in state shared revenues, and we lost $535,000 this year alone.

Third would be unfunded liabilities. The city has two of these, one is the Municipal Employees Retirement System defined benefit unfunded liability of approximately $25 million. The second is the 'Other Post Employment Benefits' unfunded liability of approximately $123 million for retiree health care.

One example of something we improved upon is health care for retirees. For one group we got a new plan and got away from Blue Cross Blue Shield, whom we are currently in a lawsuit with over a separate issue. It was very difficult to get that done. With change you have fear and I think we did a good job making all the information available to ease that uncertainty. We saved $750,000 annually, which is huge for a city our size. For the most part they're being taken care of just as they were, with maybe a little more effort in terms of paperwork, which are little bumps in the road as they get used to the program.

Review: Let's discuss the impact of 'The Power Fund'. That's a resource that many cities do not enjoy.

Chris Shannon: Ah yes, the Power Fund. In the good old days when energy was cheap the city was able to purchase raw power cheaply. At the end of the year fund balances were developed that were put into an account and the Commission would decide to utilize them as an economic development tool. Before I cam on board they used these for Gap Funding and riverfront development, which is all good and has its advantages.

But by the time I came around in 2006 that had all stopped. Today it's a $1 million fund that we set aside and decided not to use anymore for Gap funding. We've decided to use it for our power infrastructure, which is really where it should go. There's a big powerline that crosses the river that goes to Vets Park and uptown to River's Edge, where there's a huge Brownfield between these huge towers. We've set that money aside so that if we were to attract a developer that wanted to do something on that site, we could potentially put the powerline under the river. That's the tentative idea we've got for the Power Fund.

A lot of folks would like to see it given back to the ratepayer, but how do you do that? The ratepayer that paid into it is different than the one paying it into it today, because power isn't as cheap as it once was.

Review: What is the mindset of most businesses in Bay City? Many owners I talk with say they are down 15 or 20 percent from last year and bars & restaurants have been hit hard with the smoking ban. With areas like Midland Street that has to be a concern. What are your thoughts?

Chris Shannon: Perhaps we should repeal the smoking ban? Florida did it – at least they modified it. But there are some good things happening. To say its all doom and gloom would be incorrect. Our GLBA region has lower unemployment than the rest of the state and there are some credible anchor companies developing that are doing well, fostering new industries.

On in particular developed a patent and received the blessing from Dow to make a synthetic wood product that is different than petroleum based wood products and based upon the mineral talc, which is the main ingredient, so no oil is going into it. Its properties are incredible and they are setting up shop, so there are bright spots on the horizon.

The State of Michigan is cutting back on revenue sharing, which is always a moving target to the last minute. I've met our new Governor Rick Snyder and I'm glad he's there because he has a proven track record of private sector success, which is what we need. He's not afraid and not entrenched in the special interest politics that nobody needs. He's pledged to have the state budget done by June and he gets that in order for a healthy Michigan you need to have healthy cities.

In Bay City we're a water rich community that should be our ace in the hole and we've screwed it up so bad, in many ways, not by faults locally but by putting these burdensome regulations on how we have to treat it. It's become our Achilles heel. Rather than have an attractive place to do business if you need water, many times business doesn't go there because they can't use the water because its priced so high because of all the regulation.

Review: Speaking of the environment, what's your take on the proposed Karen-Weadock 'clean coal' plant? Opponents feel it's a misnomer to label it as clean coal because mercury is still discharged into the environment; which is ironic, because you have bans on mercury in toys but not on mercury going into the environment.

Chris Shannon: Well, with Karn-Weadock you have 50-year old technology and the plant isn't going anywhere if you don't do anything else. It's not going to stop blowing smoke. The key is cleaner coal, not clean.

One of the most curious things I saw in the past year was with ex-Governor Granholm who was at SVSU making an announcement about Hemlock Semi-Conductor expanding their operations. This is the single largest electric user in Michigan based here in Saginaw County and the reason they are able to operate is because they can get affordable electricity powered by coal.

So Granholm is on stage literally jumping up and down yelling 'You Hoo!' this is our future! And then next week she puts a moratorium on coal fired electrical generation in Michigan. What is it then? How can you expand that type of operation if you can't power it with affordable electricity? I don't know. I understand the pros and cons, but lets talk about it and not stand on stage and yell You Hoo about it and then invoke a moratorium a week later, which eventually got rescinded and she took hell for.

How do I feel about it personally? It's there; it's 50-year old technology, and its not going anywhere. If Consumers wants to invest in a better plant than what's sitting there now, is it going to go away if you say you can't improve the plant? I don't think so. Better they build new generators and retire the old, probably. In the meantime, they're employing thousands of people, so it's a tough one. I do understand the other side. It's a trade off and a lesser of two evil situation.

Review: Okay, let's talk about your musical career with The Swaggering Rogues. I interviewed you guys 20 years when you were tearing up the scene and you're still playing.

Chris Shannon: Yes, we play once or twice a month on weekends. I'm the only original member left, but we still do a few originals. I'm still writing a little bit. We met for a few beers to discuss our plan of attack for the New Year and would like to get something recorded, but it gets more difficult as you get older, especially with the responsibility of raising an 8-year old daughter.

Review: A lot of readers probably don't know that you were the electrician for Michael Stipe from the rock band REM. What was that experience like?

Chris Shannon: Yes, back in the day I lived in Athens, GA from 1993 to 1996 and helped wire Michael's home, plus I acted as his 'art gardener'. That was a neat time in my life. I freelanced doing lights and sound and there was this old movie theatre that was converted into a live performance venue called the 'Georgia theatre'. I remember getting a call one night asking if I could work sound for this new band coming in called The Dave Matthews Band. I'm like, who's that? I thought it would be a guy with a banjo.

Then another time this group called Hootie & the Blowfish came in and their drummer turned out to be from Saginaw. But those were great days. All the guys in REM would be coming and going and hanging out. I remember hanging out with Counting Crows at Michael's house.

Review: Whatever happened to that cool Persian rug that The Swaggering Rogues would haul around to every gig?

Chris Shannon: I don't know what happened to that rug! Marc Beaudin had it and was living in some attic situation and asked if he could use the rug. He disappeared and so did the rug, which was unfortunate, as that rug was at least a hundred years old.

Review: Well, best of luck on everything, Chris. You've got your work cut out for you.

Chris Shannon: You asked me early on why I'm doing this and why I'm attracted to it and basically, I just want to raise y family in a community that is doing the right things. I want to live in a community where you can raise families. Really, that's what it's all about. I think I can help make a difference, it's that simple.

Bay City is one of the safest communities in Michigan, given its size, and it goes back to these traditions. I'm no social scientist, but it goes back to simple things that you can see and feel – good strong families.

It doesn't have to do with wealth, it has to do with wealth of the soul and things that are very valuable that don't cost money.

We've got that in Bay City.

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