If I had a nickel for every time somebody…
Wait a minute here. This isn’t about griping, this is about making the record as clear as possible about what I will term the “hogtied pic post.”
If you’ve read this space regularly over the years, you are probably aware that back in September, 2017, in the run-up to the council election that gave us (most of) our current council, I made a public apology for an ugly, ill-considered image I posted as a joke in a conversation on the Sterling Heights Local Politics group.
Let’s get it out of the way and post the image right here for the world to see:
This was a big deal for me and still is
People being what they are — human — and not all of them lining up for their very own Geoff Gariepy Fan Club membership cards — have continued to circulate this story to this very day. Every so often someone or another will stand up at a council meeting to complain about why I’m still allowed to be involved with the city having posted that awful image; it’s almost become a tradition for a couple of the frequent fliers at council meetings; head on down to the corner of Utica and Dodge Park, wait for the Communications from Citizens portion of the meeting, stand up, take a swipe at the mayor and/or his wife, sling a barb or two at a “liberal” member of council, remind all of them who they work for, and then finish things off with a few choice words about that terrorist ISIS member on the Planning Commission, Geoff Gariepy.
Now I am not complaining. I bought and paid for the notoriety that went with posting that image, and I own it. That’s what happens when you make a mistake in a political environment and you aren’t everyone’s friend. I made another mistake earlier this past week concerning Mrs. Early’s statement on the outcome of a court case. Compared to image-gate, that one was small potatoes, but I apologized for it because it was the right thing to do. I make mistakes. I try to own them and learn from them. It’s what you do.
Political opportunism rears its ugly head
Yet, there’s no denying at this point in time that the thing has taken on a life of its own. Today I was in a disagreement with candidate Early over on the Nextdoor social media site, and she apparently felt she needed to add a little juice to her side of the argument, so she trotted out a screen shot of the hogtied image to shock the people reading along with the back and forth. Today she even linked the news article. I was so happy to see her dedication to thoroughness in taking a swipe at me. Somehow she overlooked the opportunity to post my apology, but I don’t expect any better.
Now, for my part in this argument with Early, I have taken her to task for her opposition to a Mosque on 15 Mile Road. It’s the same issue that was in play when the hogtied image was posted, and she’s been using it ever since. If I have one confession to make, it’s that I have not been gentle with her over on NextDoor; she’s got a well-deserved reputation on the issue, and most moderate conservatives such as myself agree that the reputation isn’t a good one. Suffice it to say, she must have felt she was on the ropes, so she went with the nuclear option. Whatever. If all you have is a dried-up two-year old debacle caused by willfully misinterpreting something, well, you’re not doing too well, rhetorically speaking.
I’m not hiding anything; this post is still up
My response to accusations that I should part ways with the city has been thus: yep, I posted it, and yep, it was a really poor attempt at humor, and yep, I needed to apologize for it, and so I did. I own the responsibility, and I own the consequences.
But I was also careful to point out that there was never an attempt made to hide the post despite many accusations; after nearly two years it’s still visible if you go into the search box on Facebook while in the Sterling Heights Local Politics group and type the words “hog tied” in. There’s never been any attempt to take it down; I figure if it’s going to keep coming up, why not keep it around to show everyone what really happened?
Part of this has been because the post as typically circulated by people on the political fringe has been edited to remove the context. I always thought this was unfair, but if anyone should know one thing about the Internet, it’s me: when you post something on Facebook that can be used against you, it will be seized upon and you take your licks for such things.
Not only did I apologize, I also offered to resign.
I made a terribly callous joke. I apologized. I have been told by a lot of people I should not have apologized. According to this theory, I should have reared up on my hind legs and fought.
But it was important to apologize, and so I did. It was not easy. Go have a look for yourself.
But there was more to it than just that.
This hasn’t been public information up until right now, but I also offered my resignation from my post with the Planning Commission to the mayor the day after this blew up. I felt like if I was going to be a liability to his campaign, that was not in either of our best interests, so I broached the subject with him.
My offer was rebuffed, thankfully. I have enjoyed my time on the Planning Commission immensely, I feel like I have found a place there that I can make a good contribution, and I am glad he was able to see beyond that very moment and tell me no. I truly appreciate it, Mayor.
For those of you out there saying I should have resigned, well, the mayor saw that coming, and fortunately for me, he headed me off at the pass.
I can’t live in the past; I can only live in the present and hope the best for the future. Basically, whether it’s behind the rest of the political yahoos in town or not, it’s behind me. News flash: I’m not going to resign from anything. If the political scene changes and the new rulers of the roost decide to give me the hoof someday, then that will be that. But until such time as that happens, I will remain as long as I feel I’m making a contribution.
Facebook does not age well
But, as it turns out, time erodes Facebook, and less and less of the original post, and thus the extenuating circumstances of the hogtied image’s true context is slowly disappearing over time. With it being election season again, people are renewing their efforts to try to capitalize on this. If the original post is slowly going away, right now it is important to preserve it for what it was, in all of its awful glory, just to keep the record straight.
Fortunately, my friend Malcolm McEasy captured screen shots of the exchange shortly after it happened and blew up in my face. The man has a library. He graciously made a copy of the images available to me within 10 minutes of my asking him this evening.
There are 11 individual screen shots; they follow the conversation roughly from beginning to end, and you can see that what really was going on.
Plain and simple, the exchange of words and images was a silly game of one-upsmanship: a few of us were discussing putting time limits on the Communications from Citizens segment of the regular council meetings, some of us were for it, some against, and as it entered its twelveth or thirteenth hour, late at night, it got silly. Kim Jong Il appeared in a CERT vest. Somebody posted a pic of a person with their mouth tied shut with steel wire. The flag of the Republic of North Korea had the Sterling Heights city logo superimposed over it. And then I went for the gusto and one-upped them all: I found a picture online of a group of Muslim prisoners, hog-tied and hanging from a swingset, apparently waiting to meet whatever their horrible fate was, and captioned it “In a perfect world, this would be the line waiting to speak at Communications from Citizens.”
Dumb, dumb, dumb. Callous. Stupid. Insensitive. Idiotic. Believe me, you can’t beat up on me any harder for this than I beat up on myself. And I’m still being reminded of it at least monthly, if not more often than that.
Well if you visit the thread today, some things have changed. Some of the other images have up and disappeared for reasons unknown. The context in which the post was made is slowly eroding. People have likely come and gone from the group, and as we all know, what is posted on Facebook is not our own.
A look at today’s version of the thread is about three quarters the original length, if not less.
So in order to preserve my sanity by showing the world that I may occasionally be stupid, but at least in this case not evil, and having had this thrown in my face yet another time by a third rate candidate looking to gain an advantage over her opposition in an argument, tonight I requested a copy of the original archived images from Mr. McEasy.
So, without further ado, here are the archival images. Note that the times of day depicted in the screen shots are inaccurate. The conversation started in the late morning, and went on for 14 or 15 hours, late into the night. The images started flying around somewhere around 1-2 AM. I get loopy at that time of night. I showed poor judgement.
Note that I’ve taken the liberty of inserting a comment here and there as captions to help explain what was going on. There’s certainly some jagged edges in some of the screen shots, and it appears they were taken from two different screens with different resolutions, but here’s the best I can do to reproduce Facebook circa September 2017, a surprisingly difficult task.
Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see
Simply put, the image was a terrible joke. But in the end, it was simply a joke in a conversation that was showing signs of getting out of hand right from the beginning. Candidate Early would have you believe otherwise. Charles Jefferson threw such a fit in the lobby of the Police Department on the day he discovered this, which happened to correspond with a Planning Commission meeting night, that a protective detail was sent over for our normally very sleepy meeting. I had no idea what was coming until I showed up at the meeting; I had completely forgotten about the image, the conversation, and the entire thing; it was just a harmless bit of fun, or so I would’ve thought. When I saw Jefferson’s copy of the image, distributed to all of my fellow Planning Commissioners along with a shouted demand that they remove me from the commission that night, I noticed right away the text had been edited by the mayor’s opponent in the upcoming election, Jeffrey Norgrove. And it all became very, very clear what had really happened.
Jeff Norgrove, and his good friend Jazmine Early
You see, Mr Norgrove had been taken to task by the mayor for posting images of a nude woman on Twitter. He had also repeatedly posted anti-Islamic messages on his personal Facebook page. It had blown up in his face, as it rightfully should have. Here’s a sampling:
By the way, take a gander at who is agreeing with “J Ivan Norgrove” in some of his posts.
Are things starting to become clear?
I blundered into providing the perfect political payback in a dispute between two mayoral candidates. My ill-considered attempt at humor? An easy deflection of the public’s attention from Candidate Norgrove’s mysogyny and anti-Islam stance. And look who is right there with him when he’s making his anti-Islamic statements: Jazmine Early.
Jazmine, you DO owe me an apology. Not that I ever expect to get one.
Correcting the record: Jazmine Early did NOT lie about the appeal currently before the U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals
Earlier this week, i committed an enormous error in accusing Jazmine Early, candidate for Sterling Heights City Council, of lying to the public regarding the outcome of a court case regarding the proposed mosque on 15 Mile Road west of Mound Road that has been the subject of controversy for several years now.
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Early did not lie. Instead, I made a mistake in my research and confused two different court cases with the same title as being one and the same. The error and the unfounded accusation of Mrs. Early’s deceitfulness are my own, and I regret them.
The research I did revealed the outcome of the case that has been decided already; the audio Mrs. Early linked to was to the appeal. Unfortunately, I confused the two, and I drew the wrong conclusion. The activity I have recently seen at the site of the proposed mosque reinforced my mistaken belief that the case was settled, and so I found myself convinced of something that was not the case.
I apologize, the mistake here was my own. Mrs. Early is entitled to fair treatment by me and the other people who comment on her candidacy, both for and against. I treated her unfairly because of this error, and I am sorry that it happened.
I will be more careful in the future regarding matters of fact such as this. Although it was an honest mistake, I would have been well advised to leave this matter alone since it was difficult to ascertain the source of the information she provided as being different from the case that has been settled.
Once again, Jazmine Early, I am sorry for my error and for accusing you of lying.
Today a news article ran in the press about the City of San Francisco enacting a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes within its borders.
I took this article to Facebook and asked members of the Sterling Heights Local Politics group whether or not Sterling Heights should consider such a ban.
Most of the responses were negative; respondents overwhelmingly felt like a ban would be inappropriate.
The Surging Popularity of Vaping
Vaping, in case you don’t know, is now extremely popular with teenagers. In fact, e-cigarettes have swept through the schools of Sterling Heights and the surrounding area like a wildfire through a California August. I personally believe that more kids are vaping as a percentage than ever smoked. It is extremely widespread, and it is relatively easy to hide an e-cigarette addiction from adults.
The Sterling Heights Drug Free Coalition, of which I am a board member, lists as one of the things it focuses on as being the reduction of vaping by minors. This informs my interest.
An Appropriate Role for Government?
Is it appropriate for government to act in the interest of public health and ban a product such as this? What authority would it have to do so, and how would it be justified?
The Surgeon General has opined that e-cigarettes are dangerous to our youth, and the FDA has created the ground rules for their sale.
My instincts tell me that when enough time goes by for all of the studies to be completed it will probably be proven that e-cigarettes are just as unhealthy as regular tobacco cigarettes, and perhaps in new ways.
Can Government Protect us from Ourselves?
Bans have proven highly problematic in the past.
As a conservative I would rather go with a hands-off approach: education. Unfortunately, the people I’m most concerned about are not mature enough to make responsible decisions about their long-term health. Their brains are not fully myelinated yet, and as such their frontal lobes where risk vs. reward evaluation happens are not fully “wired up.” They cannot always make an intelligent risk vs. reward decision, and thus they fall prey to marketing and peer pressure.
Even worse, studies show that teenagers are particularly susceptible to forming strong addictions very quickly.
Right now it is illegal to sell vaping materials to minors. Right now minors still acquire and use vaping materials regardless of the law.
It’s not just nicotine!
The other sad twist vaping brings is that THC-infused vaping oils are widely available. When consumed in an e-cigarette, there is no detectable odor from what I am told. Kids are doing the 2019 equivalent of smoking pot in the classrooms of the high schools, and it is going undetected or being ignored.
Of course, being in possession of marijuana-derived stuff is illegal for minors, but nobody has yet passed a law that prevented crime from happening with 100% success; mostly laws just create consequences after the fact.
Do you make it more difficult for little Johnny or Suzy to get their hands onto these dangerous products by implementing some sort of ban? It’s being tried in California, which automatically makes me suspicious, and our collective experience suggests that a black market would quickly form and fill the market demand.
The Role of Education
That being said, I am dubious about the efficacy of education as the only approach. Certainly it needs to be provided, but as a preventative measure I think it will fall short. Kids have been taught in school since my own children were Kindergartners that cigarettes are the same as drugs. My kids are 20 and 17, respectively, so that has been happening for quite awhile.
Yet, I still see kids smoking cigarettes. I still see young adults smoking cigarettes. Obviously education is important, but it is not 100% effective in stopping the behavior alone.
Tobacco-related health issues have even been a problem for me. I was a heavy smoker when I was in my late teens to around 30 or so. I had all of the education everyone else did; I did the stupid thing anyway. So far, 21 years later, I haven’t developed cancer, but I did find out that I stunted the development of the growth of my bones, especially in my chest.
It is a little known but common effect of smoking in your 20s: you’re really not done growing yet; your body is still developing up until you’re about 25, just in non-obvious ways. So I discovered in my 40s that I screwed myself up, and there’s no going back. What will the effects be? I don’t know, but my ribs and sternum are not as thick as they should be, and I’ll probably be a fragile old man if I live long enough.
Morality and Government
I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about the morality of the things government does. They are not easy discussions; there are particularly strongly-held beliefs that different groups of people have, and getting them to think outside of that box ranges from the difficult to impossible.
Is it moral for a government, in an attempt to preserve the health and welfare of young, vulnerable citizens, to ban something and create a black market for it, in the process enabling criminals and violence to once again have reason to enter our city?
No, it’s not. We’ve got enough crime, and the attendant pain and suffering and financial loss that goes with it already, we don’t need more.
But we don’t need any kids with lung cancer, popcorn lung, or dying when their jaws are blown out by exploding cheap Chinese lithium batteries, either.
We need to work with Retailers
In the end, the people who are against the idea of a San Francisco-style ban on the sale of e-cigarettes and the associated materials are probably right. Bans are blunt tools used in a situation where precise instruments are required.
So without a ban, should we start a campaign to persuade retailers to stop carrying these materials of their own volition?
I think so.
Does the guy who owns the 7-11 franchise down the street from me really need that revenue to keep his business afloat? Would it be a hardship for him to stop selling this poison to people who will in turn supply it to children who cannot buy it for themselves?
I suspect that 7-11 would continue to be profitable without selling JUUL cartridges. I think that if the company and others like it are at all ethical, they will voluntarily stop selling vaping materials. We need to ask them to do so, and be prepared to persuade them why it is a good idea.
The Thursday, June 13, 2019 regular meeting of the Sterling Heights Planning Commission proved to be a frustrating one for me. At the end of the meeting, and over my numerous objections (although ultimate acquiescence), Sterling Heights approved the location for a new automotive performance shop, Prestige Performance Motorsports, Inc., at 43677 Utica Road. In the process, the city’s Planning Commission lost sight of its purpose. Further, I think we may have established a precedent which we will later come to regret.
Although I am undoubtedly going to be accused of beating a dead horse by taking to the blog today to present this opposing view, I think it is important for the residents and the city administration alike to understand this case, because it has a direct bearing on how the Zoning Ordinance itself is viewed and understood. I think it is also important that the Planning Commission consider its role in the city in light of the law which established it.
Before you’ll understand my objection to how the meeting went and the outcome of the vote, you’ll need to understand a few dusty little corners of the city’s Zoning Ordinance, as well as a few things about the aftermarket automobile parts, service and repair businesses. As far as the Zoning Ordinance is concerned, you might need an attorney to explain some of the finer points, and I’m not qualified. As far as the aftermarket automobile parts, service and repair business, the details will probably only be familiar if you are either an automobile enthusiast, as I am, or someone in the automobile parts, service and repair industry, which I was in my early career. I’m going to try to make this as straightforward as possible for those readers who are neither lawyers, gearheads or mechanics, but I admit right up front that this is a case about the details, and the typical resident, from all indications, simply doesn’t care about the details until, say, a mosque is being built or a concert venue is being proposed.
Regardless of that, let’s take a gander at how the sausage is made, shall we?
Prestige Performance Motorsports, Inc.
Prestige Performance Motorsports, Inc. is a new start-up business which wishes to locate in Sterling Heights at the above address. According to the City Planner’s Staff Report,the owners of the business intend to operate an automotive service facility which “conducts tuning and calibration inspections and testing for automobiles. The business performs engine modification, repairs and maintenance related to said testing, which can include supercharging and other services connected to the engine. The company expects to service 15-20 cars each month.”
These sorts of requests come before the Planning Commission in the form of something called a ‘Special Approval Land Use’, or SALU.
What is a Special Approval Land Use?
A SALU is a use defined in the city’s zoning ordinance as one which “may be necessary or desirable to allow in certain locations in certain districts; but because of their actual or potential impacts on neighboring uses or public facilities, there is a need to carefully regulate them with respect to their location for the protection of the community.”
The SALU process stands in contrast with the more typical cases of development within the city which are for “permitted specified uses which are mutually compatible,” e.g. building a house in a residential zone. For example, you don’t need the Planning Commission’s special approval to build a house in a residential zone; that is a permitted specified use.
On the other hand, certain uses are spelled out in the law as requiring the developer, land owner or tenant to go through the process of obtaining approval from the Planning Commission before they can proceed to do as they wish. The idea is to protect the existing uses nearby from new uses whose nature are so much more intense that they would be disruptive and possibly have a negative impact on the lives and property values of the people and/or businesses adjacent to the new use.
What is the M1 Light Industrial Zone’s Intended Use?
In this particular case, 43677 Utica Road is zoned M1, a.k.a. ‘light industrial’. The M1 zone is intended for ‘industrial activities whose external effects are minimal and in no way detrimental to surrounding districts, plus wholesale, warehousing and intensive service activities of a nature such as not to justify their inclusion in the commercial use district, but whose external effects also are nondetrimental’ (Sec 19.00, Intent). Included in the M1 zone as special approval land uses are both “Auto service centers and reconditioning establishments” (Sec 19.02 D) and “Automobile repair garages. (Sec 19.02 E).
In particular, Automobile repair garages are subject to the following condition:
The site for any such use shall (except for frontage on a public street) abut only land within a commercial or industrial district.
In other words, an automobile repair garage cannot be located on property that abuts a residential zone. 43677 Utica Road abuts a residential zone. It’s in the fine print: you can’t have a repair garage next door to a place where people live. It’s not allowed.
What’s at issue here?
The question is this: is an automotive business that installs superchargers rightfully considered to be an “auto service facility” or an “automotive repair garage” under the law?
This is the crux of the case in my view. Does the use fit the law or not? Is this an auto service facility or an automotive repair garage? Is the Staff Report from the City Planner accurate or not? Is this a request for a service center or a repair garage?
When you try to understand the difference between the two classes of automotive businesses, sometimes it is helpful to have examples. A typical “auto service facility” does minor, everyday maintenance to cars and trucks. They change oil and other fluids, replace tires, perhaps install new batteries, perform detailing services, and maybe swap out a minor component like a radiator or brake pads. Good examples of such places include the oil and lube facilities at places like Walmart, Uncle Ed’s Oil Shop, and the like.
On the other hand, an “automotive repair garage” is a more intense use, with a more complete set of services. They are noisier, and they tend to produce noxious fumes and hazardous materials which can be flammable or poisonous. We are talking about collision repair facilities like Gerber Collision & Glass, new car dealership garages such as the one found at Buff Whelen Chevrolet, or independent repair shops such as Sterling Car Care. You will notice where such places are located: far away from residential areas.
Remember the Buff Whelan Fire?
You might recall the fire which destroyed Buff Whelan Chevrolet’s garage a summer or two ago. The intensity of the fire that resulted from an accident in handling spilled gasoline provides all of the evidence I need to know there is solid reasoning behind locating these places far away from where people make their homes. A building made of concrete and steel collapsed, and the damage resulted in a loss of tens of millions of dollars.
My philosophy as a Planning Commissioner
The primary issue for me when I consider a SALU is the impact on the residents. My philosophy is simple and familiar: a man’s home is his castle. It doesn’t matter to me if a man’s home is a mansion, or if it is a house trailer, at the end of the day the two ought to be viewed equally under the law.
Of a secondary nature is the impact of an SALU on nearby businesses. Occasionally we will see a case where a proposed SALU might have a negative impact on a neighboring business. Usually under those circumstances, the neighboring business, if it is successful and likely to stay in business for the foreseeable future, can afford to hire legal representation to help it make its case against the SALU if it feels it needs to do that.
This is not necessarily so for residents; lawyers are costly, and a resident hiring an attorney can’t write it off as a business expense. Unfortunately in our society, justice tends to go to the party that has the best representation, and the best representation tends to go to those who have the means to pay for it.
So as a public official, this is something in the back of my mind as I consider these cases. I am not biased in favor of the residents, mind you, but I am more inclined to allow for the fact that they can’t show up with an attorney representing them, and thus their argument against something may not be nearly as polished as the argument being made by the attorney who was hired to represent the interest that is for it.
So what’s the big deal about installing a ‘supercharger’?
Most of us, I think, have some idea of what a typical automotive service operation looks like: we’ve had the tires changed on our car, or the oil changed, or perhaps some minor engine work like having belts or the battery changed. What’s the difference between this and installing a supercharger?
First, a supercharger is a device which forces a high volume of the air and fuel mixture into an engine under pressure. The engine burns this mixture to produce mechanical power, and the more of it coming into the engine, the more power the engine will make. They are significant “power adders” which can increase the speed the vehicle can accelerate at dramatically.
In an automotive servicing operation, often you can stand in the waiting room at the ‘auto service facility’ and look through a window and watch the mechanics as they work. The jobs take very little time and are relatively inexpensive. In fact, much of the time you can just sit in your car while they climb down into the grease pit underneath and change your oil. These minor procedures, aside from the screech of the occasional air gun, are not very noisy, nor do they produce much in the way of toxic or flammable refuse.
Let’s contrast those types of service operations with the typical supercharger installation. This is best done with a current example.
Supercharger Installation Example
Many will recognize the Chrysler 300C as a popular, V-8 powered passenger automobile common on the streets of Sterling Heights. Many tens of thousands have been produced.
As it turns out, a certain percentage of the people who own this model are performance-oriented customers, so supercharger installations are not an uncommon vehicle modification.
Here’s a short video which depicts the installation of a name-brand, Whipple supercharger on a late model Chrysler 300C:
Interpreting the Video
Even for those of you who are not mechanically inclined, watching the mechanics in this video removing the front bumper cover of this vehicle in order to install the water-to-air intercooler system probably starts to give you the idea that this is not a 15 minute oil change or a tire swap. In fact, it is not a typical “service” operation at all.
For those of you who might be a bit more mechanically inclined, you’ll notice that the mechanics remove and install a significant part of the fuel system of the vehicle, including the upper and lower intake manifolds, the fuel rails and fuel injectors, replace the engine’s throttle body with a new unit in a different location, modify the belt accessory drive system, attach an intercooler, and then button everything up before taking the vehicle over to the chassis dynamometer and testing.
Not depicted in the video are any additional services that are common, such as replacing the vehicle’s exhaust system, tuning the new fuel system with a computer, chassis modifications to lower the vehicle and install more powerful braking components, and the like.
So is a supercharger a simple bolt-on accessory? No.
Now that you’ve seen a typical, common supercharger installation on a popular vehicle model for yourself, I think you may agree that somebody who stands at a podium and tells you that “modern superchargers are simple to install” and are “just a bolt on accessory” is either:
- A. Very new to the process and doesn’t understand what is involved, or
- B. Not telling the truth.
Here’s the truth: supercharger installation is an intricate vehicle customization costing thousands of dollars which includes many separate but related modifications to the vehicle from its stock form.
Although not terribly dangerous, per se, it does involve disconnecting the fuel system and dealing with the flammable gasoline that remains behind, and it requires some modification to the vehicle’s body components.
If the vehicle is not a popular model such as the Chrysler 300C, a generic supercharger may be installed, and there may need to be modifications made to the hood and other parts of the car body front end in order to make everything fit.
If the vehicle is an older vehicle, made sometime before the mid-1980s, it is very likely that the entire fuel system will have to be removed, modified, and replaced in order to update it to accept the type of “modern supercharger” that Prestige Performance Motor Sports intends to sell.
This would include removing and modifying the entire fuel tank and the fuel lines running from the rear of the vehicle to the engine compartment. This will have to be done in order to support a change to a modern supercharger’s fuel injection system rather than the carbureted fuel system that older vehicles came with.
Without a single doubt, this is a modification that should be done in an “automotive repair garage.”
I need to remind you that this sort of modification — removing and modifying a fuel tank — does not come without a certain risk of fire, as was the case with Buff Whelan Chevrolet.
Problems with the Zoning Ordinance
It is very common that laws such as the city’s Zoning Ordinance spell out, sometimes in great detail, what the definitions of the terms used in the law are.
I have not been able to complete an exhaustive search, but from what I can tell the terms “auto service facility” and “automotive repair garage” are not defined in the text of the city’s ordinance. This poses a nearly insurmountable problem for the Planning Commission: it is difficult to nigh on impossible for non-automotive oriented members of the commission to understand these terms without a clear set of definitions. This is why I opened up my questioning with a question to the municipal attorney, Clark Andrews, asking him to define the difference between the two. He struggled with this a bit, but in all fairness I didn’t tell him in advance that I was going to be asking a question on an intricate, fine point in the law.
How do other places define the term?
For an example of a city defining these terms at the zoning ordinance level, we look to The City of Covina, California. It defines these two terms simply in its code of ordinances as follows:
- 17.04.072 Automobile repair garage.“Automobile repair garage” means a building enclosed on not less than three sides by walls, except when fronting on a dedicated street or alley the building shall be enclosed on all sides by walls and/or doors, and used for the servicing of motor vehicles, including tube and tire repair, battery charging, storage of automobiles and supplies related to the servicing of motor vehicles, engine overhauling and automobile upholstering. (1964 Code Appx. A § 0.30.)
- 7.04.075 Automobile service station.“Automobile service station” means a business which offers for sale gasoline from pumps, tires, tubes, batteries and lubricants, and which may offer, in addition, such related services as battery charging, tube and tire repairs, nonmechanical auto washing, lubrication services, minor motor tune-ups, brake services, wheel alignment, and where otherwise permitted in the zone where located the rental of trailers, cars or trucks from the premises where parking stalls are provided for the storage of such vehicles. The storage of merchandise for such sales and for the performance of such services is included. This definition does not include major motor tune-ups, automobile repairs, body and fender work, overhauls, painting, upholstery work, auto glass work, welding, tire recapping or auto dismantling; nor the sale of trailers, cars, trucks and boats stored upon the premises. (Ord. 1574 § 1, 1984; 1964 Code Appx. A § 0.30.)
Closer to home, it seems fairly standard for the city to look to the Michigan Compiled Laws for guidance in circumstances such as this.
The Motor Vehicle Service and Repair Act, a.k.a. Act 300 of 1974, MCL 257.1302, in Section 2, Subsection (m) seems to offer some guidance:
(m) “Facility” or “motor vehicle repair facility” means a place of business that is required to register under this act and that, for compensation, is engaged in the business of performing, or employs individuals who perform, maintenance, diagnosis, vehicle body work, or repair service, or, beginning July 1, 2016, BAIID service, on a motor vehicle. The term does not include any of the following:
(i) A person that engages only in the business of repairing the motor vehicles of a single commercial or industrial establishment or governmental agency.
(ii) An individual who is repairing his or her own or a family member’s motor vehicle.
(iii) A business that does not diagnose the operation of a motor vehicle, does not remove parts from a motor vehicle to be remachined, and does not install finished machined or remachined parts on a motor vehicle. This subparagraph does not apply to a motor vehicle repair facility that engages in the business of performing, or employing individuals who perform, vehicle body work.
(iv) A BAIID facility described in section 625k(14)(d) of the Michigan vehicle code, 1949 PA 300, MCL 257.625k.
Further, in MCL 257.1302a (e), we find the definition of “Minor repair services”:
(e) “Minor repair services” means lubrication; oil changes; installing, changing, or otherwise servicing the antifreeze or other coolant; body repairing, except for unitized body structural repair; or the replacement, adjustment, repair, or servicing of any of the following parts and assemblies:
(i) Air cleaner element.
(ii) Accessory drive belt.
(iii) Air pump hose.
(iv) Twelve-volt battery.
(v) Ground cable for 12-volt battery.
(vi) Hold-down strap for 12-volt battery.
(vii) Positive cable for 12-volt battery.
(viii) Battery-to-starter relay cable for 12-volt battery.
(ix) Crankcase vent air cleaner.
(x) Crankcase vent air cleaner hose.
(xi) Engine oil filter.
(xii) Exhaust pipe, muffler, catalytic converter, or tail pipe and associated attaching parts.
(xiii) Fuel filter.
(xiv) Fuel line flex hose or line.
(xv) Fuel tank, except for a tank that contains a fuel pump.
(xvii) Heater hose.
(xix) Idler pulley, adjust only.
(xx) Ignition coil output wire.
(xxi) Lightbulb or headlamp.
(xxii) Motor or transmission mount.
(xxiii) Ornamental accessories.
(xxiv) Positive crankcase ventilation control valve.
(xxvi) Radiator hose, upper or lower.
(xxvii) Radiator reserve tank.
(xxviii) Rear spring, leaf or coil, except a MacPherson strut-type assembly.
(xxix) Shock absorber that is not built in combination with other parts of the suspension.
(xxx) Analog speedometer.
(xxxi) Vapor canister hose.
(xxxii) Wheel, except alignment.
(xxxiii) Windshield washer hose.
(xxxiv) Windshield washer tank.
(xxxv) Wiper blade.
Not being an attorney of any sort, much less a municipal attorney, I am not qualified to tell you if the City of Sterling Heights or its Planning Commission is bound to use the same terminology as the state while it attempts to decipher what the intent of the law as written in the Zoning Ordinance might be.
Common sense, however, would suggest that it would be an excellent place to start.
What is my role as a Planning Commissioner
When I joined the Planning Commission to replace Al Kollmorgen, I swore an oath to uphold the law, from the U.S. Constitution and the Michigan Constitution right on down to city ordinances.
When I was reappointed to my own term this past year, I was required to take the same oath once again.
I don’t take this lightly. It is my duty to perform according to the way I was sworn to.
Upholding the Law
By “uphold” I understand that the oath I took means that I don’t get to legislate. My role is to interpret, in a quasi-judicial capacity, yet from the perspective of a resident in the community, what the law means and how it is to be applied. In my view, I am beholden to act within the law, not circumnavigate it, creatively interpret it to mean things that it doesn’t, or to ignore it if convenient while the cameras are pointed at me. If there is an authority on the law present, I am duty bound to accept his or her explanation of the law because I am not an expert in the law.
What the Michigan Municipal League Says
According to the Michigan Municipal League’s “Planning Commissioners Handbook”, (page 3, §5) “Decision makers must, within the constraints of the law, allow for development which is consistent with the existing or planned character of the community and reject that which is not.”
Also pertinent on page 17 of the same document is the statement: “Your job is to follow the standards and requirements of the zoning ordinance. You are obligated to protect the interests of the applicant, the neighbors and the entire community.”
One of the statements my fellow commissioners made to me during the back-and-forth on this topic was enlightening as to the perspective of my fellow commissioners. She asked (and I am paraphrasing), “what is your objection to the installation of superchargers, anyway?” My response to her was that we were not there to decide whether or not the law was correct – i.e. determine that a practitioners of an activity should be excused from constraints in the law against it because the law doesn’t make sense.
Instead, our job is to try to determine what the law is, what it means, and how it should be applied as fairly and consistently as possible. If a use doesn’t fit in a particular place because of something that is in the law, whether explicitly or not, it’s our duty to vote it down. We, of course, have some discretion, much as a police officer has the discretion to decide to NOT ticket you for going 2 MPH over the limit and just warn you instead.
To me, the question as to whether or not the proposed facility is in fact an ‘automotive repair garage’ seems to me to have a very clear cut answer. It is. And the law is very clear on the rule of where an ‘automotive repair garage’ can be located and where it cannot.
If this seems to be a pedantic view on the Planning Commission and the duty it is charged with, that is because it is. The Planning Commission is not the place to make it up as you go along.
This Decision Shouldn’t Stand
43677 Utica Road is, according to the law, not a suitable place for an automotive repair garage. Prestige Performance Motorsports, Inc., is in fact an automotive repair garage because they will be selling and installing automotive superchargers.
The decision the Planning Commission made on June 13, 2019 on the case known as “PPCM-1216 Prestige Performance Motor Sports, Inc. 43677 Utica Road” is incorrect.
It should be officially reviewed by the Planning Commission and changed.
I am unsure as of this writing as to whether or not this is possible. I recall an instance in which a Member of City Council recanted an earlier yes vote on something and changed the direction of the decision on a 4/3 vote.
This vote was not close; regrettably, and in my frustration with the process, I declared that I knew when I was beat, and instead of forcing the commission to vote my motion down with my amendment, I withdrew the amendment and voted “yes” on the suggested action as given in the City Planner’s Staff Report.
If I had it to do again, I would accept my defeat and would stand on principle by going on record as having been voted down, rather than meekly withdrawing my amendment. Alas, that’s a decision I don’t get to take back.
However, I think that if nothing else comes of this, the zoning law needs to be modified, and soon. Definitions of terms need to be added if they are to vary from the definitions the state uses. The entire thing needs to be modernized in light of the Master Plan we commissioners approved more than two years ago now.
And I think we as Planning Commissioners ought to seriously examine what we think our purpose in serving on this commission should be in light of the law. I heard a comment from one commissioner who stated “it’s not the law — it’s just an ordinance!” I believe a little remedial education might be in order, especially if he is not the only one who feels that way.
View the meeting replay for yourself
If you care to watch as I beat a dead horse for more than an hour, feel free to visit the video replay of the meeting.
Over on Facebook, someone was complaining about the proposed 45 cent per gallon tax increase that has been the source of all the rage directed toward Lansing lately.
OK, I get it, 45 cents per gallon sounds like a lot of money.
Or maybe not, if you really analyze the truth and the facts of the matter.
The complaining party accused me thusly: “I see you want that 45 cent gas tax increase.”
In general, if you don’t want to pay to maintain Michigan’s road system, you’re going to have to perform a few minor tasks:
1. End inflation.
2. Get all vehicles weighing more than 20,000 pounds off the road.
3. Make it stop freezing in Michigan in the wintertime.
Since none of the above are going to happen, it’s time for a few facts:
Gas is cheap right now
The highest price a gallon of regular unleaded ever hit in unadjusted dollars was $4.25 on May 4, 2011.
Adjusted for inflation, that same 2011 gallon of gasoline in 2019 dollars would cost $4.84 There has been a cumulative rate of inflation of 13.8% since 2011.
Had this new gas tax increase been in effect in 2011, when it might have done some good, we would have paid $4.65 in 2011 dollars. Today if we were still paying the highest price for gas ever, it would have been $5.29.
Today, the average price for a gallon of gas in Michigan is $2.65/gallon. Adding the proposed 45 cents to that, we come up with $3.10/gallon in 2019 dollars.
Pfft. Some increase. I paid that last week.
Inflation is killing us
We all hear about what grandpa used to pay for gas back in the old days, right? Prices well below a dollar, right? Prices that seem like, well, a dream from yesteryear.
Have you ever heard of this thing called inflation?
It’s where the U.S. Treasury borrows hundreds of billions of dollars every year via T-bills, prints the money up, and then cuts Congress loose with the checkbook. Congress then spends it into the economy by the truckload.
Every single borrowed dollar they spend into the economy devalues every dollar you have in your pocket. That’s what inflation is: your money becoming worth less every year until at some point in the future it becomes worthless.
Our friends and neighbors in the federal government think this is a good thing. They try really hard to make sure that your dollar is worth at least 2.1% less every year. They call this “low inflation.”
It’s great if you’re a banker, a stock broker or a government purchasing official. For the rest of us? It’s not so great.
Gasoline Inflation Is…Strange
The economy is complex to the point where you can study economics as a professional for your entire life and still only have a partial understanding.
Gasoline is, itself, somewhat resistant to inflation despite inflation’s effects on the rest of the economy.
One of the reasons could be that the pricing isn’t set by pure supply-and-demand. Gas prices are based on futures markets, and the futures are traded on markets by people who are mostly hoping the prices always go up. A sharp increase today in the price for an option to buy a certain quantity of gasoline six months in the future will likely result in a sharp increase at the pump today. But today’s supply hasn’t changed much, if at all: the price increase in the futures market and at the pump is a reflection of an emotional reaction to what it MIGHT be at some point in the future. That drives the price up at the pump, and in turn, causes the value of the futures options to go up. Sometimes.
It’s a whole different topic, but this is what’s at the root of why we’ve got the Navy sitting near the Straits of Hormuz in the Middle East, why Iran is supposedly public enemy number one, and why we have people who want to blow up buildings in the United States. These things are complex, inter-related, and on balance, poorly understood by everyone (myself included.)
Inflation = An Unstable Currency
One effect of inflation is that your memory of prices from years ago can’t be directly compared to prices today.
In other words, things a long time ago only seemed less expensive.
Here’s what a sampling of the average gas prices were in “the old days”, and what they would be today adjusted for inflation:
1939: 15 cents ($2.76 in 2019 dollars)
1949: 23 cents ($2.47 in 2019 dollars)
1959: 28 cents ($2.46 in 2019 dollars)
1969: 33 cents ($2.30 in 2019 dollars)
1979: 88 cents ($3.10 in 2019 dollars)
1989: $1.06 ($2.19 in 2019 dollars)
1999: $1.22 ($1.88 in 2019 dollars)
2009: $2.40 ($2.86 in 2019 dollars)
What does this do? Well, for one thing, it destroys your confidence that a dollar you have today will be worth a dollar tomorrow. This is the very essence of an unstable currency.
The Effects on the Economy
Another effect of inflation, of course, is that your savings are devalued over time. So if you’re a retiree on a fixed income, your nest egg’s real buying power decreases each and every year.
Our personal income growth tends to lag behind the rate of inflation. Sometimes by quite a bit. In my case, this year in terms of purchasing power, I am (not) enjoying a substantial decrease, despite the fact that I received a monetary raise. The raise was lower than the rate of inflation. This year I am poorer than I was last year, even though my paychecks are bigger.
In response, Americans have done the sensible thing: they’ve stopped saving money. Instead they spend it, because today’s bird-in-the-hand is better than tomorrow’s “no bird at all, you can’t afford it.”
If you think that the $37,000 average price of a new car today is too expensive, you better suck it up and buy it now. In a few short years, it will be well over $40,000. By then, you and I will be even further behind the curve. So go ahead, finance it for 84 months. The bankers, along with their willing accomplices in the U.S. Congress, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve, have engineered things to ensure it is the smartest financial decision you can possibly make…for them!
The same thing is true for local governments.
If you’re a local government, your tax revenue’s buying power decreases every year as well. Local governments, you see, can’t print money like the Federal Government does. They’re at the same disadvantage as the rest of us.
“Saving money” is a bad idea. If you need new police cars, you had better buy them right now. Starting to get the picture here?
45 Cents Ain’t Gonna Do It…Six Bucks A Gallon Might
I know inflation isn’t easy to understand, so let me sum it up for you:
- Right now you’re paying about the same amount per gallon of gas in constant dollars we have paid since the late 1930s. My dad turns 81 in a month. He’s paid pretty much the same amount per gallon, in constant dollars, on average, for a gallon of gas for his entire life, with a few very short-term exceptions.
- The 45 cent increase? It’s nothing. In fact, it’s worse than nothing: 45 cents per gallon will simply kick the can down the road and make the roads worse in the medium-to-long term.
County Chief Executive Mark Hackel just told us a few weeks ago that the entire state’s worth of increased revenue might just about pay for the road improvements needed in Macomb County alone. We’d have to probably double the price of gas to fix the roads under the current funding scheme.
Gariepy’s Gone Crazy Again!
I know what you’re thinking: “Gariepy’s lost it again, he wants to pay SIX BUCKS PER GALLON to fix the roads!”
Nothing could be further from the truth. What I really want is a little honesty coming from the politicians in Lansing about how screwed we really are, and for them to have the courage to completely revamp the way we pay for our roads.
Of course, expecting honesty in the current partisan environment in Lansing is foolish. Lansing is where the talking points are all that count and the facts don’t matter.
And courage? Courage is anathema to the partisan political class. It will take a truckload of courage to actually tackle the road problem and fix it.
Because having courage would mean we stop subsidizing the special interests to which the Lansing and DC politicians are beholden by continuing to prop up the current, failed funding-via-fuel-consumption-taxes scheme.
That model is horribly broken–beyond repair.
I don’t see this situation changing, however. The politicians are not going to sacrifice each of their respective party’s special interests or talking points for the public good. It never happens.
See ya in the line at the tire store.
Many people are familiar with the story of Boaty McBoatface, a $287 million polar research ship built by the British government. The name, according to a New York Times story, was the clear front-runner in an Internet contest to name the ship. As the title of the story suggests, unfortunately this is what you get when the Internet names something for you.
Here on this side of the Atlantic, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, Sterling Heights decided to dub its half of the section of M59 running through the north edge of town ‘The Golden Corridor’. Even a brief perusal of the city’s website will tell you the true ‘Golden Corridor’ runs right up between Van Dyke and Mound Roads. In my opinion, that’s where the name should have stayed. It wasn’t up to me, though, and they needed a moniker for a marketing effort being directed towards M59.
The strip, although heavily travelled, has fallen on some hard times as of late with Lakeside Mall’s troubles and the decay slowly becoming apparent on the Shelby Township side of the street. With 100,000 vehicles passing through the area each day, the city decided to try to capitalize on the commercial potential of their half of the strip.
So they appropriated the name, had some signs built, and for the pièce de résistance, approved the construction of a 35 foot tall golden ring designed to be the anchoring monument of the city’s marketing effort.
Unfortunately, the plans didn’t include a name for the giant golden ring.
Everyone knows nature abhors a vacuum. Everyone also knows the average mental age of the typical Internet user is 14. As we all know, ring was quickly dubbed ‘The Golden Butthole’ on Facebook, and it was derided far and wide as an example of government waste. Many drums of newspaper printing ink have already been devoted to the topic of the resident backlash, and I don’t care to repeat the gory details here.
Now, I’m a computer programmer, not a marketing expert. I must confess I wasn’t paying terribly close attention to what the city was up to back when this came up for a vote. I’m not sure I would have foreseen the problem caused by not getting in front of the naming effort which we all now know was inevitable. If asked, I would have opined the ‘Golden Corridor’ moniker belonged elsewhere, and certainly doesn’t belong on a strip of road of which only half is within the city limits. But my kvetching aside, the Golden Corridor is on M59, and we’ve got, um, a 35 foot tall Golden something-or-another to show for it.
The question is, what next?
From all appearances, the city is trying to just be a good sport about it and suffer through the joke. The mayor has rather sheepishly taken the ribbing in several interviews on the topic, and he’s defended the ring as having served its purpose of drawing attention to the area. Rightfully so, as it turns out: my 79 year old Aunt who lives on Long Island asked me about it the other day. But a few people connected to City Hall whom I’ve spoken with privately tell me there has been some consternation internally over the blunder. So far, nothing has been said about how the city plans to move on from here.
We don’t have a lot of appealing choices. But given the city’s equally unappealing situation of having its new monument deemed a golden, um, orifice, maybe some damage control is in order.
The city could retroactively name the silly thing, have a ribbon cutting party in the spring, and just try to put the entire experience behind it. In time, it might even work; fifteen or twenty years from now most people will probably have forgotten about the ‘Golden Butthole’ debacle and will just call the thing by whatever its official name is supposed to be. The trouble with this is the city has a short time preference on this one: they want their marketing effort to work, and they need it to work in order to give the maximum amount of lift to the very substantial, hopefully much better thought out effort to design a PUD ordinance for Lakeside Mall which we all pray will kick off the redevelopment so badly needed there.
Another option is to simply if not explicitly embrace the ‘Golden Butthole’ name, not bother to give the ring another official name, and hope the whole thing blows over. The research ship I started out telling you about will never shake the “Boaty McBoatface” moniker regardless of what the Brits decide the official name is, so throwing good money after bad on the ring might be ill-advised. Maybe some enterprising individual can sell T-shirts with an image of the ring emblazoned with the saying “Hey, leave our butthole alone!” There’s probably an upside there of a few kilobucks. Somehow this solution seems less than satisfactory. Look, we all make mistakes, and regardless of the official party line, this was a big one. It deserves fixing.
The city could simply admit their mistake and have the thing torn down. It would be hugely embarrassing, would give their political enemies more than ample ammunition for the upcoming election on how the current administration spends wastefully — even though it doesn’t — and make national news. Out of all of the unappealing choices, this one is the worst.
My suggestion is a redesign. The golden ring concept as a symbol to represent ‘The Golden Corridor’ wasn’t the best idea I’ve seen come from the minds in City Hall. Considering that we have some serious artistic talent in this town, a re-think of what the finished product looks like could be an economically feasible way for the city to save face, and it could even be spun in such a way to show that even though no organization is perfect, our city’s administration is not too proud to admit it has made a mistake and that it is capable of both recognizing that and then making a well considered effort to, um, rectify it.
If it was up to me, I’d solicit redesign ideas that reused the existing structure in whole or in part which could be achieved at a modest cost. I am certain this can be achieved and that the result would be much more appealing. I don’t know what I’d actually change, but I’m not an artist after all.
This accomplishes a few things: it puts “the Golden Butthole” behind us, it refocuses the visual part of the marketing effort so it is more to the point, it minimizes any additional cost, and it allows the city to gracefully admit its mistake, fix it, and move on, thus defusing the issue.
In my view, we either redesign this thing, or find a really large proctology office that’s looking for a new monument sign at a heavily discounted rate!
After a decade of careful study, I have determined the following rules about local government to be axiomatic and therefore unassailable by either conservatives or liberals alike.
Compliance with the following rules is not only expected, but mandatory, as they are as well-accepted as the Constitution and as incontrovertible as the Law of Gravity.
If you dare even consider an alternative viewpoint, ye shall be cast in with the followers of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Illinois Nazis, supporters of the FBI actions at Ruby Ridge and members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Since I am being kind enough to save you a decade of your own time figuring this out, you may render your payment in gratitude for the education via Paypal to email@example.com.
Gariepy’s 20 Axioms of Local Government
1. The sole legitimate purpose of local government is either road maintenance or the organizing of volunteer fire departments. Take your pick.
2. Tax increases are enacted in secret, and the public will not be informed before the vote is taken, especially if it is to be put to a vote by the public.
3. Every product or service purchased by a municipality is either unnecessary, substandard, inefficient, more expensive than if purchased by the private sector, or all four.
4. Taxpayer-funded services provided by local government are always inefficient and are readily available at lower cost to individuals paying out of pocket in the private sector.
5. Any public expense costing more than $2 in annual property taxes is wasteful government spending, and you’ll be threatened and harassed until you pay it! The money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).
6. The purpose of public art projects is to create personal monuments to the politicians who voted for them. They are wasteful government spending and the money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).
7. Support for any tax or tax continuance renders an individual a ‘tax and spend liberal’ and any prior acceptance of that person as being a conservative is rightfully revoked.
8. Support for any legislation designed to protect the rights of vulnerable groups renders an individual a member of the extreme left wing.
9. Most large scale public works projects are merely the outcome of a personal vendetta between an elected official and resident, or a group of residents. They are wasteful government spending, and the money should be spent on road maintenance instead (See #1).
10. Major decisions cannot be entrusted to elected officials and must be decided by a public vote because we live in a democracy.
11. Professional, paid police officers and firefighters are overpriced luxuries the public can ill afford. (See #1)
12. No taxpayer-funded, outsourced public service shall be provided by the public sector for any reason. To do so is emblematic of socialism.
13. Municipal budgets are exempt from currency inflation, as are the personal budgets of municipal employees.
14. Public meeting attendance is a license to harangue public officials. Cab drivers get first dibs, then former politicians, then folks who couldn’t get elected. Ideologues come next, followed by the merely insane or terribly confused. The public meeting is also the perfect place to harangue the supporters of the public officials, and additionally demagogue, libel and slander them! Yay!
15. For the purpose of any budgetary discussion, municipal government is the moral and fiscal equivalent of the federal government.
16. The First Amendment mandates maximum public speaking times of at least fifteen minutes.
17. Policies you disagree with can only be usefully discussed while on camera at a public meeting.
18 People and places of worship associated with Christianity are welcomed and encouraged. The presence of other faiths causes property values to decline and violent crime rates to increase.
19. ALL Politicians are lying, overpaid sociopaths who seek election only to aggregate personal power for themselves in order to swindle the public out of its hard-earned money.
20. Any public official who defends his opinion on a controversial issue is disrespectful to voters and should at be kicked out of office and possibly prosecuted for a crime.
Remember, folks, political careers are made of this stuff. Any transgression of the axioms usually results in at least four new politicians running for office during the next cycle, each claiming they’re “not a politician” and that they’re going to “drain the swamp.”
Over on the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook Group, much ado is currently being made out of how much firefighters get paid. One of the local looney tunes has gotten his hands on the city’s 2019 budget and apparently thinks that a proper salary analysis consists of taking the total budget for salaries and then dividing it by the number of employees. This sort of thing, predictably, leads people to conclude that firefighters, a group of working-class and middle-class people if there ever was one, are somehow rolling in the dough, making an average of $180+K per year.
Let’s clear this thing up, shall we? Click the link below and you’ll have the most recent contract I can find, which, by the way, appears to have expired on June 30th of last year and hasn’t yet been renewed:
Labor Contracts are Extremely Complex
If you can be troubled to read the contract, you will learn that labor union contracts spell out in excruciating detail how much every job classification gets paid, what bonuses, if any, are given on an annual basis, how frequently employees can expect raises, and what supervisory employees are paid in terms of a percentage on top of what the people they manage are paid.
Reading a labor union contract such as the one linked above doesn’t require a law degree, but in order to follow what’s going on, you have to not only absorb the content of the pay tables given in Appendix A, but also the details in the other parts of the contract that modify those wages. These details are complex, because they describe a complex set of duties, what they consist of, how they are classified, and what modifications, if any, someone with that job classification has to the base wage scale. For example, a firefighter in the Extinguishment division who is also a licensed paramedic gets a 6% increase over his or her base pay. Someone who is trained and qualified to be a fire engine operator (FEO) gets a 4% increase. If a worker is on the Hazmat or Technical Rescue teams, they get a 1.5% increase. There are rules about how many of these increases can apply; I believe from my reading, for example, that you can’t be on both the Hazmat and the Technical Rescue team, so you can’t “stack” the increases to 3%.
In addition you have to understand the concept of “steps.” Steps are a system by which the workers are progressively paid more, i.e. given raises, as they put in their time over a period of months and years. As it happens, in the firefighter contract, each “step” corresponds to six months on the job. This is similar to getting a salary review twice a year in the private sector. Some steps have larger increases than others; these are negotiated when the contract is written, just like everything else. Negotiating a contract is a balancing act: both sides have to act in good faith, and both of them have to get what they need out of the negotiation without taking too much away from the other side. It’s tricky business, and it requires skills that most people, myself included, do not have.
In addition to “steps” there is also the concept of longevity pay. You see, there are only so many steps spelled out in the contract, and if it isn’t in the contract, you cannot proceed to another, higher step. After a worker rises to the highest step, the only way he or she gets a pay increase is via either an annual cost of living increase that is specified in the contract, by continuing his or her education and acquiring new certifications or college degrees, or by going off somewhere and finding a new career! So in order to entice the most senior people to stick around, they also get annual bonuses for longevity which start at 5 years of service, and increase at 10, 15 and 20 years of service.
For example, a 20+ year employee will get a $2,700 annual bonus on top of his or her regular pay. Now it is important to understand something: 20+ year employees are the exception, not the rule in the fire service. There are 40-hour employees like inspectors and some of those folks might have some grey in their hair and qualify for the 20+ year annual longevity bonus. On the other hand, fire extinguishment is, by and large, a younger person’s game.
Just like with any demanding, physical job, a firefighter’s body starts wearing out, and the number of still working employees in their late 40s are far fewer than people in their 20s and 30s. This mirrors what we see in professional athletes; there aren’t too many who make it past 40. There probably aren’t many, if any at all, in the Extinguishment division who go running into burning buildings who are enjoying the 20+ year bonus — they would be at an absolute minimum 38 years old, and hired directly into the department at 18, and that just doesn’t happen at SHFD. I haven’t surveyed the employees to find out the counts of how many qualify for each level of longevity, but suffice it to say there are not a lot who handle a hose getting that 20 year bonus, if any.
Another thing to know is that there are pay modifiers for fire fighters who have certain levels of education. The primary modifier appears to be whether or not they are certified in Advanced Life Support (ALS), but there are increases for other certifications depending on job class, as well as increases for people who hold college degrees from accredited institutions. These bonuses aren’t large, they amount to several hundred dollars per year at maximum, and more often $100 or $200.
Suffice it to say, you don’t figure out what the average guy is making with simple long division.
So what DO they get paid, anyway?
But enough of all this. I’ve gotten the basic idea across that firefighter pay is complicated stuff and you have to really read and understand the contract to know what they get paid. If you really want to know all of the details, you’ll have to sit down and read it for yourself. Let’s answer the basic question: what does a firefighter get paid?
Turn to Appendix A, and look at the pay levels that came into effect in 2017, when a 1.5% cost of living increase was applied over the previous year. (Note, by the way, that 1.5% is a measly increase compared to the private sector, which averaged 3.0% from 2016-2017.)
A brand new firefighter, assuming he or she was trained in Advanced Life Support, started at $15.00 per hour, or $43,708 per year. After five years on the job, assuming they don’t move up to Fire Engine Operator and get that 4% bonus, they will top out at Step 10, which pays $26.69 per hour, or $77,728 per year. They will then qualify for the five year level longevity bonus of $1,300 per year, so they’ll make $79,028 per year before taxes. That is, assuming they like the work, don’t get injured, perform up to some rather high expectations, and the city doesn’t go through a budget crisis like it did in 2008-2009 and lay a bunch of them off.
Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains make more, but it isn’t a whole lot more. The top step for an ALS-certified Sergeant is $28.02/hour or $80,793 per year. An ALS-certified Captain — and there aren’t many of those folks — tops out at $33.46/hour, or $97,433 per year. Presumably, once they rise to that level they are getting some other bonuses for education, certifications, and longevity as well, so their base pay, not including any overtime, might break into the low six figures. In other words, they’ll be at the top of their profession, and making roughly what a 5-year I.T. programmer makes in the private sector in California.
Where are all of the $180K Firefighters?
Now you and I can debate about whether or not that is too much, but realize this: it isn’t $180K/year no matter how you cut it. The city has to pay some employment costs for training and the like. It also is paying for at least a portion of the health insurance, and from what I can tell it is not nearly the equivalent of the health insurance I enjoy in the private sector. There are also deductibles and co-pays, which once upon a time were unheard of for union employees. There’s dental coverage, vision coverage, etc., and all of these things are at the city taxpayer expense, but you have to realize that the city is not operating in a vacuum: if they don’t pay a competitive wage, they won’t be able to get people to do the work. It’s the same everywhere, whether you’re in the public or the private sector, working behind a desk like I do, or driving a fire truck and saving lives and property.
Would you risk your life every day for $79,000 per year?
This might not sit well with a lot of people, but, personally, they couldn’t pay me enough to do that job, so I don’t have much of a problem with the 5-year firefighter making $79,000 before taxes. I don’t run into burning buildings, I don’t perform CPR on resident’s kitchen floors, and I don’t cut people out of wrecks in the middle of the road. And true, while I am in my fifties and in my peak earning years, the biggest injury I’m going to suffer is eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, yet I make a hell of a lot more money writing code than those guys do for saving lives. I never have to leave my house in the wintertime, I have much better medical benefits, and I am eligible for bonuses that put the ones that these guys get to shame. If I don’t show up for work, somebody’s software might not get fixed that day. If a firefighter/paramedic doesn’t show up for work, somebody might die that day.
Nowhere in my employee handbook does the company I work for feel the need to describe what will happen if I have the bad manners to suddenly die on the job. I can purchase life insurance through my company cafeteria benefit plan, but that’s about it. You see, computer programmers usually die of old age; typically they don’t risk electrocution via their keyboards; there just aren’t a lot of occupational hazards in that kind of work that are fatal. For firefighters, it’s a different story, and there is a rather sobering section of the contract that spells out what happens to provide for the firefighter’s family should he or she get killed on the job.
When you get through the entire contract, consider what these people are asked to do every day, and then consider the potential consequences to their health and well-being, I think they’re paid fairly. And it’s nowhere near the crazy number that you’re reading online.
But Isn’t A Hundred Grand Per Year Wealthy?
And for those of you for whom $79,000 sounds like a lot of money? It isn’t. It’s a middle class wage at best, and not an upper middle class wage. If the firefighter’s spouse is also working, and the firefighter gets a great deal of overtime, then yes, they can do pretty well for themselves. Remember how I’ve told you that I make considerably more than a firefighter? I’m still taking out loans to put my kid through college, I drive vehicles that are eight and eleven years old respectively, I’ve got a mortgage like everyone else, and bills to pay. The price of entry into the upper middle class — where you’re truly comfortable — probably starts around $175,000 per year for a family of four leading a modern lifestyle in a modestly well-appointed home in a place like Sterling Heights. Nobody working for the SHFD is in any danger of becoming wealthy. Not even the Fire Chief.
If you want a crazy high salary, go get a senior management job at GM or FCA.
Over on the Nextdoor.com, a social media site for neighborhoods, a resident of the Cigarette sub asked whether or not it was legal to raise a few chickens on his property for the eggs. He stated that he wouldn’t keep a rooster, and the chickens would be ‘treated as pets, housed in a coop and run, not allowed free roam of the yard.’
In Sterling Heights, part of the zoning ordinance covers this. Here’s the relevant section:
Ordinance No. 278-NN, § 5, 1-6-09, in part, states: “SECTION 3.01. PERMITTED USES. The following uses shall be permitted, subject to the limitations of this ordinance: A. One family detached dwellings (subject to section 28.08); B. Agriculture, provided that on parcels of less than eight acres, there shall be no raising of livestock, fowl or other animals;” ….
Another poster to the site then said words to the effect that such a law was ‘ludicrous’ and mentioned the fact that people keep large dogs on their properties here, so what’s a few chickens. He commented “If you cant keep chickens, get them working on changing the rules. It’s ludicrous that people can keep like three St. Bernard’s on a residential lot, that poop a lot more than a few chickens, can maul people when they get out, bark at all hours of the day and don’t make you breakfast but…you can’t keep a few hens for eggs?”
Well, here’s where the trouble usually begins.
Somebody wants to do X. Someone else says “the law says you can’t do X”. Then yet someone else says “by golly, you should have the right to do X! It’s an injustice! Look, there are people doing Y! If you can do Y, then you should be able to do X! Get the law changed!”
Although I understand where the person arguing for changing the law is coming from, I would recommend to ANYONE wanting ANY sort of change to the law that a confrontational tone is not necessary nor will it be helpful.
Most of these laws have been in place for a very long time, and the current members of council quite frequently weren’t even in office when they were enacted. You might feel the law is ludicrous, and depending on who you ask, you might even find someone on council who agrees with you, but you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Trust me on this one: starting from the standpoint that a change to the law is your right is the wrong place to start.
In this case, this guy would be asking for a change to the zoning law. At a minimum this is a complex process. It is not impossible, but it wouldn’t be something that happens overnight. I am not sure how the council members would feel about changing the ordinance to allow raising fowl on lots in the city smaller than 8 acres; but he would need a majority of them (4 votes) to change the law.
With something like this, you will find that factions will quickly form within the city, and there will likely be just as many people opposed to the idea as are for it. It is very typical for people to react negatively to changes in the rules which affect their neighborhoods, I see it as a Planning Commissioner each and every month. Council members, in general, try to serve the residents as best they can, and if there is overwhelming opposition to something, it usually (but not always) doesn’t pass.
Changing something like the zoning law is unlikely at best, but not impossible. To be successful, a person would want the support of their neighbors. They would probably also want to have formed a group of residents also interested in changing the law and willing to stand with them in public meetings to show their support. They would have to be familiar with the current law, why it exists, and have some good reasons for wanting to change it. They would need a strategy for dealing with the opposition. I guarantee there would be opposition, and it would be powerful, so they would have to be very persuasive.
To sum up, if you want to change a law, you will need to have all of the facts at your disposal, have a plan crafted to persuade the powers that be to make the change, have a plan for dealing with (or better yet, compromising with) the opposition, and then you need to approach members of council to persuade them to make the change you want.
If, by some chance, you persuaded them to propose a change, the city attorneys would become involved in writing the ordinance change. When that was finished, there would be a minimum of two public hearings on the issue: an ordinance introduction, and a final vote, during two separate city council meetings.
If this sounds like a big project that will take a lot of time, effort, and perhaps not insignificant expense, you’re getting the right idea. This is not red tape or an unnecessary burden, by the way; this is how modern societies make peaceful decisions on how people can live among each other. This is much, much better than the alternative.
I am in my 11th year of being involved in city politics. I have seen a lot of ideas come and go, and I’ve seen some unlikely stuff succeed, but it is rare. What I do know is that an educated resident who is reasonable, persuasive and willing to become involved in the political process has a good chance of having an influence on what goes on in this town. It has happened for me. I have lost as many times as I’ve won, but I have managed to make a few small differences here and there.
I encourage everyone who reads this to educate themselves, learn about their local government, its elected officials, and become involved. It is best when this is not done as part of a crusade on any one particular issue, but rather as part of a sincere effort to become involved for the good of the city as a whole.
So… if you want to raise chickens in Sterling Heights, there’s a guy over in the Cigarette sub who might be right there with you. Go join Nextdoor.com and see if you can connect with him. I wish you luck.
Some local residents have made much ado online and at a recent city council meeting regarding a trip being made to Lakewood, Colorado by members of the Planning Commission, City Council, city administration and others. The official reason for the trip is to determine how the site made its successful transformation from a dying mall (similar to Lakeside Mall) to a thriving destination in metropolitan Denver, and to parlay that information into a PUD ordinance to be publicly heard and voted on by the Planning Commission and City Council this fall.
The PUD ordinance will lay the groundwork for developers to come in and pitch proposals for how the site might be redeveloped. We anticipate that the current owner of the mall will work with nationally known developers to redevelop the site; having the legal framework in place for them to do so is an important step of the process.
The residents I mention have spoken out against this trip as a waste of taxpayer dollars in a technological era where distance learning is possible via remote presentations and meetings. It is an interesting question, and one that I have been giving consideration myself.
One prominent resident, Jazmine Early, a candidate for office in the Michigan Legislature, has taken to Nextdoor.com, posing questions about the trip, implying the trip is unnecessary. Since the Nextdoor website is inaccessible to non-members, I will reproduce her initial post here:
I would like to take the opportunity to respond to Jazmine with some questions of my own via the following open letter:
It appears you have convinced yourself the Partridge Creek concept is similar enough to the Belmar site that you wouldn’t need to travel to Lakewood, Colorado to get a sense of what it is like.
It seems this sentiment resulted in your making a judgement call as to whether or not the trip to Colorado by city officials is worth the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
I find your conclusion interesting. Since at least some people share your sentiments, I would like to ask you, as a prominent citizen and candidate for public office, for some information and advice.
First, I would like for you to provide your thoughts regarding the wording of the PUD the city will be preparing and presenting in public forums this fall.
If you have been certified as a Michigan Planner, as I have, I would be especially interested to hear your thoughts with regard to the mixed uses that are being contemplated for the PUD for the Lakeside site, and any input you might have regarding the proposed layout, building materials, setback requirements, parking requirements, building heights, traffic flow, and other design aspects to be encoded in the PUD.
Further drawing upon your planning expertise, could you please give the other readers of this site a summary of what a PUD is, including what the provision in the law seeks to do and why it is a useful in a Planner’s arsenal of strategies?
While you’re at it, I would appreciate your informed commentary on how the Partridge Creek development is doing financially and how that relates to the Lakeside site; please include sourced information regarding the revenues, targeted markets and demographics, as well as a comparative analysis between Lakeside and Partridge Creek. (Of course, as a candidate for office and a tax paying resident, you are privy to this information, right?)
Could you please provide me with the cost of your proposed remote site tour vs. the cost of the tour that will take place next week? Which vendor(s) might be able to put together such a remote learning presentation? Please include the itemized costs for aerial photography, teleconferencing from multiple sites, and a narrative explanation of what we are seeing.
Can your preferred vendor also arrange for a teleconference with public officials, representatives from the Belmar site, and members of the public in Colorado during the business day for questions? Please include the costs for that as well, if possible.
With regard to the people we would be meeting in person, and the visibility of all of the design aspects in person vs. via teleconference, would you please provide a cost/benefit analysis comparing the two approaches?