Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — Traverse City has been pretty tight-fisted with the Brown Bridge Trust Fund since it was established in 1978, and that’s the reason it now sits at a very healthy $13.2 million.
Even in a day of trillion-dollar national deficits that’s a lot of money, particularly for a city of less than 15,000 people.The trust fund comes from oil and gas wells at the municipally owned Brown Bridge Quiet Area. Royalties from the 1,300-acre property are deposited every year into the trust fund, and interest income is transferred into the city’s general fund.
The city has only tapped the trust fund twice — in 1987 to purchase property on West Bay owned by the C&O Railroad to create what is now West End Beach, and in 1994 to buy additional property near the Brown Bridge Quiet Area. It takes a 60 percent majority of city voters to approve withdrawals.
The city commission is looking at another withdrawal now with two projects in mind — upgrading municipal parks, including West End beach again, or to boost restoration efforts at the Brown Bridge Dam area.
It could easily be argued that both projects could use the money. The city has 34 parks in all, with Clinch Park, right on West Bay, the crown jewel.
Clinch is undergoing a $3 million face lift right now that will include a splash pool for kids, a new bathhouse and a new concession stand and more.
Lauren Vaughn, parks and recreation superintendent, said there’s a need for upgrades to several neighborhood parks, including West End.
“We desperately need (an upgrade) with the West End Beach bathroom building,” he said. “It definitely needs replacing or serious upgrading.
That’s not all. “We want to do some more with our neighborhood parks like Clancy Park, Indian Woods and Ashton,” he said. “There needs to be an upgrading to some of the play equipment or other portions of the parks.”
There is also conversation that if the city is going to tap the trust fund, the biggest need is still one the city commission has been focusing on in recent years - the dismal condition of many city streets and sidewalks. The city is spending well over $1 million a year on streets and sidewalks, and could no doubt spend a lot more - probably the entire trust fund, in fact.
But the best question hasn’t been fully answered: Why? Why does the city now, at a time when tax revenues are slowly creeping back to pre-Great Recession levels and a substantial amount is already being spent on streets and sidewalks and parks aren’t in a crisis mode, do we need to tap the trust fund at all?
If the bathroom building at West End is crumbling and the city can make a very good case for work at the Brown Bridge area, then perhaps some of the interest from the trust fund could be diverted for a year or two to do the work.
But a decision to dig much deeper seems premature.
Yes, it’s the taxpayers’ money. But it isn’t as though letting it make some interest income is squandering it, either.
City Commissioner Jim Carruthers had it right. “If we are going to go to the voters, we need to be able to say, ‘These are the projects we are funding, this is what it’s going to cost and here’s how we are going to go about it,’” he said.
The rest of that explanation, though, must focus on the why; why we need it, why we need it now, and why spending the money is better than letting it sit.
In short, it must always be up to the city to make a compelling case for any such use, including work at Brown Bridge, and that hasn’t yet happened.
That doesn’t mean it can or won’t.
But the city has to make a compelling case, with lots of detail and be ready to explain not just how, what and when, but why.
If they do, voters should be ready to make the investment.