Dexter City Council incumbent Ray Tell has long been a wild card in his community’s government, often quietly listening during council meetings and only speaking when he has a strong opinion on what’s either being voted on at the time or being discussed in order to craft a proposal or proposals that will be voted on further down the road.
While the recent transition from village to city is what comes to mind for most Dexter residents when they think of differing opinions on local governance in their community these past few years, Tell came back into office for a second time after serving in the early 90’s, at a time when his community was going through considerable growing pains. Dexter was then transforming into what the 2010 U.S. Census would designate as the fastest growing community in Michigan by population as measured by percentage growth.
“I remember being up on the stage when I first ran for office and Roy Edwards (former employee for The Ann Arbor News, now deceased) was moderator and one of his first questions to me was, ‘Why do you think there’s such a split in the town,'” Tell recalled. “I told him that I think all towns have got divisions. We just happen to be a little more vocal and hard-headed here.”
Tell characterizes himself as an in-between public official — not quite the sort of Dexterite who sits down with friends and family to discuss inter-familial relations spanning back to the late 19th or early 20th century, but also not quite new enough to a duck out of water like many new transplants to Dexter can feel like in a community with strong community roots and old families whose blood goes back generations.
But in the newer crowd of residents, he recognized individuals with fresh ideas and strong managerial acumen that had been developed in successful suburban communities outside of Dexter, such as Northville and Plymouth.
“There are a lot of people in the newer parts of town that are very involved in the village, and I don’t think we would be where we are without that influx of new blood,” he admitted. “Jim Seta (former village president), Shawn Keough (current city mayor), and Joe Semifero … Joe’s the smartest guy I know.
“Hell, I want to take everything I can from them, as a Dexter resident. These people are big managers, so they can understand a city from a business point of view, so I thought that was an asset, and I wanted to be able to use their abilities and their civic duty to the good of the village.”
Serving during the last Dexter boom
Tell served on the Dexter Planning Commission at the request of Seta, before running in 2006 alongside current City Councilmembers Jim Carson and Donna Fisher. The three ran unopposed for three open four-year terms, despite the stir in public discourse over the future of Dexter in the face of exploding residential growth in the boom-years buildup to the nationwide financial collapse of 2008.
“We had just brought in all the new subdivisions and there were a variety of new ideas with the influx of new people,” Tell explained. Luckily enough, government works in a way that Tell believes most people don’t understand, in that ordinances determine the available paths a community can take, rather than mostly or entirely the will of a small gathering of elected officials.
“It’s not about anything personal or agendas … it’s all about what the ordinance says — what’s the law. It’s real simple.”
Tell also gave a great deal of credit, some might say most of it, to the administrative folks behind the municipal operations of Dexter, specifically City Manager Courtney Nicholls (and before her Donna Dettling), Community Development Manager Michelle Aniol (and before her Allison Bishop), and Finance Director Marie Sherry.
Thanks to their guidance, the council has been able to steer the community with their informed decisions on the best choices towards a place of current fiscal health and in years past through some great opportunities despite hard economic times.
“Back during the downturn there was a lot of state and federal money available, but you had to have 20 percent (matching funds), and we were fortunate we had all that and a lot of places didn’t,” Tell explained. “That’s why we got a lot of our stuff built, because we had the plans and we had the matching funds. That was just good planning from the council, the previous councils and Marie Sherry.
“With a lot of the future stuff, you just don’t know. You don’t know — you try to plan for the future, you try to plan for future growth and you try to do the right thing. We’ve been very fortunate — our fund balance is in pretty good shape, our bills are paid to date, our bond rating went up and we’re going to be paying more into employee benefits as per the state requirements for budgeting and non-funded liabilities.”
The next wave of development
With new developments being proposed by familiar Dexter developers, such as Peters Building Company, and elsewhere in Webster Township, Tell believes that the future council has some important decisions to make, given the new relationship that the city has with surrounding townships and the limitations of the resources and services that are available for the city to utilize and offer.
But there’s still plenty of unused residential unit capacity in existing Dexter developments, according to Tell.
“Right now my plan for the city is try to infill everything we got left over before we open it up to anything else, and I’m not really sure I want to open it up to everything else,” he said, explaining that what was placed before him would have to be “very compelling” or “something so mind-boggling” it’s going to cause a sea-change in his thinking.
For the time being, Tell is waiting for an inter-local accord between the city and surrounding townships on handling future growth.
“Look, we’ve got the infrastructure and we have the services … let’s work some kind of bargain where we will allow everything to build around the village and try to keep the township more pastoral, but you’re going to have to subsidize some of this somehow,” Tell explained, adding that Dexter’s fresh water aquifers are a valuable bargaining chip in a world where freshwater is quickly being looked upon with more desire than oil.
“Everybody’s looking at our water (in the state of Michigan and the nation as a whole), and I’m not sure I want to share. I think water’s going to be the commodity and we’re sitting in the driver’s seat.”
Of course, in the case of Peters Building Company bring a new development to bear, Tell doesn’t expect to see anything come before him until the company’s owner Jim Haeussler reaches an agreement with Scio.
“I think Scio has to sign off on him even before he can approach the village or before I’ll give him serious consideration,” Tell said. “Scio’s already lost the entire village as revenue, so I can’t believe they’d be willing to give up more and I don’t believe we have the capacity to really even want to bring them into the village.
Tell asked, “Where does it end?”
“Do we just take everything from Main Street to I-94 as the city?”
He concluded that he looks for additions to Dexter that will last “50, 60, 80 or 100 years” when he considers what to throw his support behind.
Corrections: Shawn Keough was referred to as “village president,” instead of “city mayor,” although Tell does refer to Dexter as a village in his comments given during the interview — possibly out of habit. A reference to Tell saying that Dexter has “unused capacity” in terms of available residential units and parcels in existing developments was clarified to differentiate from Tell’s comments about “capacity” from the perspective of village utility and service resources.