Bay City has taken a couple of turns as a Boomtown. Its first peak was early; with the manors on Center Avenue still representing an era when lumber was king. Less stately reminders of the City's more recent industrial heyday as a center for manufacturing dot the cityscape, many a shell of their former selves, if they are operating at all. In many ways it represents a microcosm of all the challenges facing mid-sized communities across the Rust Belt.
The other thing Bay City has is a tradition of politics. From the legend of Teddy Roosevelt's launch of the Bull Moose Party to the myths surrounding Old City Hall, the local lore is filled with colorful figures and the occasional bare-knuckle battle.
It is fitting that this year's Mayoral race features two well-known figures in Bay City politics, Kathleen Newsham and Chris Shannon. Both have served in many capacities in City government and they are regulars on the boards of local non-profits and organizations.
Newsham has been a resident of Bay City for 50 years, is a homemaker, and works part-time at Simmons Jewelers. She has served as an 8th Ward City Commissioner for 6 years and was elected Mayor back in November 1997.
Current Mayor Shannon has served in local government in Bay City since 2005 and his background in the private sector reflects a track record of successful management and growth in the telecommunications industry and in workforce development.
The other thing they have in common is the set of challenges in front of the next mayor. The Review posed a number of questions to the candidates, so the readers can see where they stand on key issues. Here are their unedited answers.
Review: Bay City residents have seen significant increases in the utility rates over the last few years, particular for water and sewer. What do you believe are the underlying reasons for the size of these increases? How would you propose that rates be managed in the near term? Do you believe the current model of city-owned utilities is sustainable in the longer term?
Shannon: First I think it's important to remind folks that our electric utility remains extremely reliable and stable. Bay City Electric customers enjoy on average of 20% lower rates than the out City competitors'. Bay City's water rates are also lower than many of the out City Townships at $3.18 per CCF. The sewer rate is where we have a big challenge ahead of us.
I am committed to keeping rates as low as possible and my voting record proves this. It's an injustice to the people of Bay City not to do all we can to cut costs and avoid rate increases, particularly in these times of economic stress. The underlying reasons for high wastewater treatment costs are complex, but the biggest driver is MDEQ and EPA regulations demanding extremely tight constraints on pollutants in the effluent. The mandated tertiary treatment process to address this cost $40 million to build and the legacy cost associated is high. It remains very expensive to be good stewards of the environment.
Finally, I will veto any rate increase that hasn't had proper diligence done in finding ALL available gains in efficiency.
Newsham: The reason behind the recent increases for our water and sewer is the City was forced to absorb a $43 million dollar upgrade/mandate by the Federal and State regulatory commission. This was an unfunded mandate. We needed to clean out the contaminants in our system. Over the past 40 + years we have had minimal increases and were using general fund monies to cover our operating expenses.
I recently voted for a 9.5 % increase and the Mayor vetoed this in favor of a 15.8% increase, which passed recently. I voted against this larger increase, as I believe it will be higher. I do not believe an increase of $1.50 -$3.00 a month is a significant increase. That is less than the average person spends on bottled water or a Gatorade from the store.
(Editor's Note: Mayor Shannon denies this allegation. He responds: “I would never be 'in favor' of a 9% or 15% increase. I think my record has been extremely consistent to keep water rates low. I will veto any rate increase without proper diligence as to cuts.”
Kathleen Newsham in turn supplied The Review with a copy of the two resolutions and the following statement:
"The smaller increase in our water/sewer rates I voted in favor of was vetoed by Mayor Shannon and the second increase request for a higher rate was passed by the Commission, MINUS my VOTE and upheld by the Mayor. That is public record. I have suppled the copy of the resolution that CHRIS SHANNON did not VETO the larger increase. This is one more reason I have decided to become a candidate for the office of Mayor. The people need to have someone who will be honest with them."
Shannon rebutted this with the following:
"It takes six votes to overturn a veto. There were 8 votes for and 1 against in the most recent increase that she refers to. I believe the reason for this shift is because this resolution included the low income discount piece which a "veto proof" majority favoured. The fact that I didn't veto doesn't mean I support it. I just know that the Veto would have been over turned. Newsham states in our exchange that "Bay City needs a Mayor that will unite not separate." I agree with her and this is proof that the better 'unifier' might be me.' It's clear she is posturing to make it appear that she is "suddenly" in favour of fighting for low rates. Her voting history is the real proof of her position, which has supported rate increases consistently without a fight. Now, who's being honest with the people?
Newsham concluded this exchange with the following:
"Chris clearly states that he will 'VETO' any increase! Other Mayors, including myself as a former Mayor, have vetoed actions by other sitting commissions, even with "A veto proof vote'. It is called 'Courage'.
Newsham: The residents I come in contact with on a daily basis understand that we have lost millions of dollars in Revenue Sharing that has been cut by the Governor. The housing market crash has reduced the residential property taxes, the loss of population and the Industrial and Manufacturing jobs have been outsourced from our community. All of these issues have devastated our general fund dollars. This trickledown effect on how we provide services includes our public safety, as they are funded from the general budget. I personally would rather pay a little more for my water if it means keeping more police and fire fighters on duty.
I do believe Bay City/Bay County can and should provide these utilities. I will continue to seek and find better ways to manage cost. Working with the outlying areas and with the County Executive, I believe we can consolidate our resources to share cost in the near future.
Review: Many of the City's streets are in serious disrepair. Part of this is due to the significant costs of maintaining and operating the two city owned bridges. What would you propose to improve the conditions of local roads? Similarly, how do you believe the bridges should be managed going forward?
Newsham: Not only do our City streets need repair but our entire infrastructure has been eroding for years. Currently we have a millage question on the November Ballot before the voters to fund a street repair program over the next several years. The cost of operating the bridges does have an effect on our general funds. Governor Snyder has directed local communities to consolidate and share services where possible. Currently we are looking at some alternatives for funding that include a few options. One would be to work with the surrounding townships to help share the cost. Another option is turning over the operation of the bridges to the County Executive. The last option would be for the City to close the bridges. I do not endorse the closing of the bridges except as a last resort to avoid more cutbacks in our public safety.
Shannon: You can't talk about Bay City's streets without talking about the city's bridges. The City alone operates and maintains two of the most expensive machines in the County - Liberty and Independence Bridges. Even though these bridges carry regional traffic, most of which are not city residents, the city taxpayers carry the entire tax burden to keep these two bridges open. Funding for these regional assets comes out of the city's streets fund and leaves little left for reconstruction of streets.
As you know, I've worked extremely hard to get Lansing's attention to this problem and with the help of Senator Green have secured $1/2 million dollars this year to fund the bridges. This has resulted in the reconstruction of Walnut St. this year. I continue to work with Senator Green to find permanent funding from the State including reopening ACT 51 (the gas tax) to include bascule bridges.
Review: On the subject of the expenses, the upkeep of the historic City Hall has become a significant expense. The re-roofing project has, unfortunately, been a real time lesson in Murphy's Law. The new HVAC system will cost well into seven figures. Is City Hall is certainly a treasure, but is it a luxury the citizens can afford at this point?
Shannon: Bay City Hall is "the" most significant building in all of Bay County and it belongs to the people. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been judged as one of the 50 most significant architectural structures in the state. It still serves quite well as a modern working seat of municipal government.
Bay City Hall was built at a total cost of $164,386 in 1896. Now, having served Bay City over 115 years it's fair to say that the building was a good investment. I am confident that future generations will find the forthcoming expenditure a wise investment as well.
By far most of the expense of renovating City Hall will be covered by insurance.
Here's a layout of additional costs not covered by insurance to prepare the building for another 100+ years: Original roof project- now complete - $1.6 Million (This should cost much less after construction delay penalties are assessed). Modern high efficiency HVAC system - $1.5 Million (includes replacing both boilers). Acoustic treatment in Commission Chambers - $35,000. Commission Chambers Sound System - $90,000 (these two will allow for quality web casting of meetings and cutting edge multi media tools). Commission seating - new chairs - $33,000 (mostly covered by insurance). Restoration of original ceilings (remove drop ceilings) - $45,000. Infill's on railings on stairwells - $30,000 (safety issue in public areas). Demo of wall. $3,100
Newsham: Regarding the use of and maintaining city hall is the easiest for me to answer. Yes I believe we should maintain and keep that building now and into the future. I would not want my name associated with the destruction of such a beautiful and Historic Building. I cannot imagine the members of St. Stanislaus or the First Presbyterian Church on Center Ave or any of our Historical Homes being demolished because “they are too big or too costly to maintain”.
Review: What are your views on consolidation of services with Bay County? Do you have any specific measures you would like to see adopted?
Newsham: The City of Bay City is currently having conversations regarding Consolidation of services with the outlying areas and with the County Executive/Board of Commissioners. In addition we have been working on consolidation within our own City Administration. Over the past few years, our employees have been asked to more with less, accept wage concessions, pay a percentage of their benefits and some still face losing their jobs. Those are the people providing the services. People still want and expect to have a police officer show up when they need one. People expect the Fire Department to respond if their house is on fire. People expect someone from the water / sewer department to show up if their water line breaks. We currently have some City workers who are cross-trained.
Shannon: I have an ongoing conversation with Bay County Executive Tom Hickner about consolidation varying from complete City/County unified government to merging water services and other component pieces. Much of the conversation is about what other communities are doing and have done and we continue to keep our eye on the collaborative ball.
I've created a committee that is meeting on a regular basis with Bay County officials in an effort to consolidate water services in Bay County. These efforts have led to a resolution from both parties to go forward with more detailed plans. Further, I've been meeting on a regular basis with Saginaw and Midland's Mayors not only on joining with them to provide water services, but to look for other ways to collaborate regionally.
Review: Finally, why do you want to be Mayor?
Shannon: It's not really that I want to be Mayor but rather, I feel compelled to step up when leadership is needed most. These are some of the most difficult times in Bay City's history and many have said "how could anyone want that job these days". There is no longer a margin for error. Good leadership is absolutely required to see us through. One day when I approach the gates of heaven perhaps Saint Peter will say, "Go on through son, your penance has already been served"
Newsham: I am seeking the office of Mayor because I am the most experienced and qualified candidate. Bay City needs a Mayor that will unite not separate. Bay City needs a Mayor that will maintain integrity and bring back a positive environment to City Hall. I was the first woman to have been elected and serve out a full term as Mayor in Bay City. I have voted on and have made the tough decisions as a commissioner. My vote is based on facts, not politics. I have no agenda or special interest other than to do what I believe is right to move Bay City forward.
16th November, 2023