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Aging in A2: The good, the bad and the inevitable

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By Julie Halpert

Is the graying of Ann Arbor a good thing? That’s the question that worried Tony Derezinski, a former city planning commissioner and City Council member, after he learned that by 2040, roughly 25 percent of Washtenaw County’s population will be older than 65.

“We wanted to make sure we were prepared to deal with the changing population,” Derezinski said. So he and Kirk Westphal, also a city planning commissioner, joined with AARP Michigan to help organize an Age Friendly Communities Conference in February 2013.

The conference focused on impacts in three areas: health care, transportation and housing. The verdict? Seniors aren’t a resource drain. In fact, Derezinski said, they’re a boon to their community.

Even though they have specific needs, that’s outweighed by their significant purchasing power. Plus, they fuel growth in new housing targeted to empty nesters. Like 414 Main, a new downtown development where, Derezinski points out, all the units were sold or contracted for before they were even built. “We see the attraction of older residents as an opportunity to us,” he said.

Pamela Simmons, who supervises the Ann Arbor Senior Center, said older Americans have more leisure time and spend more time — and, often, money — attending concerts and museums, taking classes and using the parks, so “I can’t see that it’s a challenge for the city.”

Christopher Taylor, a mayoral candidate and City Council member, said senior citizens are often high-level participants in civic life. He sees this firsthand; his parents retired here from Chicago in 2000, drawn by the city’s arts, education and culture.

But, as more boomers decide to age “in place,” there are downsides, including limited tax growth.

Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, explained that under state law, property tax increases for long-term residents are limited to whichever is lower: 5 percent or inflation. For the 2014 tax year, inflation is 1.6 percent.

When a long-term owner sells a house, the new owner must pay taxes at half the assessed value. Thus, the taxable value gets reset to a value closer to the sales price, which is bound to be higher.

Absent a reduction in the millage rate through the “Headlee rollback” — designed to keep taxes from increasing more than inflation — the city is better off from a property tax collection standpoint when properties turn over or are regularly sold, versus a community that is more stagnant economically with fewer property sales, Crawford said.

Sally Petersen, also a mayoral candidate and City Council member, said the city needs to start planning for the increased number of seniors.

For example, this winter there was much talk about the city ordinance requiring people to remove snow and ice from their sidewalks. Peterson said this can be a problem for the elderly. She doesn’t think they should be in danger of losing their home because they can’t do it, so she and City Council member Jane Lumm are working on an ordinance that would have resources in place to help those who have difficulty with clearing their sidewalk.

Petersen, who also sits on the Disability Commission, said the city needs to plan for universal access, anticipating that mobility problems will result with more aging residents. She points out that Gallup Park’s dock area was recently remodeled to make it more accessible and that a universal access playground is planned there as well.

But Els R. Nieuwenhuijsen Eldersveld, an adjunct research investigator for the U-M Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who is working on a national project for the Unitarian Universalist Association to develop an Accessibility Certification Program for people with disabilities, says much more will need to be done — on a broad scale — to address the problems that inevitably come with age, like impaired vision and hearing and balance problems.

She points out that wood chips, pervasive in Gallup Park, make it difficult to use with an electric scooter or walker. Public buses will have to run late enough to bring home older concert-goers. She says someone she knew recently had to wait an hour in front of Hill Auditorium, alone and in the dark, with no bench to sit on, until a taxi arrived. “We need to have chairs and benches to rest” in public places, she said.

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