A Lot Happened at City Council Last Night

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The posted agenda for last night’s East Lansing City Council meeting was a bit of a sleeper. But – as has often been the case with this Council – the back-and-forth conversation included some significant information about ongoing controversies and the City’s looming budget crisis. Here’s a rundown.

Discussion of budget hints at plunging revenues and possible coming cuts.

Most of the meeting was taken up with the City Manager and department heads walking Council through the “Priority-Based Budgeting” software tool being by the City since former Council member Shanna Draheim pushed for its adoption several years ago.

Priority-Based Budgeting (PBB) is meant to show how spending aligns with articulated priorities. The City of East Lansing’s articulated priorities are: economy; environmental; infrastructure; recreation; safety; and good governance. Staff are asked to categorize cost-incurring activities to fit into one of these priorities. Then the software generates graphics that shows how costs have been categorized. (Find the City’s system, budget overview, and a place to submit comments to the City here.)

Last night’s PBB presentation focused on a budget that had been created pre-Covid, and so the discussion was peppered with reminders that the numbers shown did not reflect what’s actually happening here economically.

And there are some big hits happening to the budget because of the shut-downs.

For example, yesterday afternoon, the Downtown Management Board (DMB) was advised that staff are putting off $450,000 in scheduled maintenance on the City’s parking ramps because the parking system is bleeding money. Parking staff have warned that the failure to wash down the decks on schedule will mean the concrete degrades faster, ultimately costing more.

Alice Dreger for ELi

Two of East Lansing’s four downtown parking garages.

The DMB was also told that normally-scheduled cleaning and deodorizing of the ramps’ stairwells and elevators are not happening because of money problems.

East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro said that calls to ELFD, including for ambulances, are down about a thousand in number over the last year because the City’s population has dropped and the absence of big games means far fewer calls.

That means that ELFD income that is normally generated from medical insurance payments for ambulance calls is way down. But expenses are not down; personnel still have to get paid and trained, and equipment still has to be maintained.

Talifarro also said that the big new developments were costing extra because of the need to have personnel repeatedly review and approve site plans and site plan revisions. He called this “labor intensive.”

East Lansing Public Library Director Kirstin Shelley warned that the library’s revenues are down significantly. The library has decided to suspend fines and is seeing revenue drop significantly because fundraisers are stymied by the shut-downs and penal fines (including traffic tickets), which normally provide about 8 percent of total library revenue, are way down. (See ELi’s prior report on this.)

Shelley told Council that the library building needs over a million dollars in infrastructure repairs, including for the HVAC, electrical system, sidewalks, and roof. She said that money will be pulled out of fund balance (savings), decimating that savings account.

Shelley noted that the library’s two millages expire in 2022. City Manager George Lahanas told Council they can vote to renew one of the millages without consent of the voters, but the other property tax for the library would take consent of a majority of voters. (ELi previously reported how the library millages were used to prop up the City’s General Fund.)

Many East Lansing citizens have been expressing weariness over taxes and high water/sewer charges. Council member Dana Watson asked what if voters don’t pass the library millage renewal.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The front entrance of the East Lansing Public Library

City Manager George Lahanas answered, “That would be bad news.”

Shelley said it would drop the revenue so much, the library would have to lay off a lot of staff. Shelley recommended voters be asked for the renewal soon so that if they reject it, there is another chance to convince them to pass it before it expires.

Summing up the budget situation, Lahanas said this will be a “pivotal year” for East Lansing and referred to “tough conversations” ahead. He plans in the near future to show Council what amendments to the current budget are necessary and what he proposes for next year’s budget. At that point, we’ll know some real numbers.

Kathy Boyle is named to panel on policing.

The Council’s posted agenda had shown plans to name Kathy Boyle and Ed Rushton to the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, but Mayor Aaron Stephens acknowledged he had the numbers wrong and Council could only name one person (not two people) to replace Tonya Williams, a former ELPD officer who resigned from the Committee to take a new job with ELPD.

Raymond Holt for ELi

Kathy Boyle at the Sept. 11, 2019, meeting of East Lansing’s Planning Commission.

Stephens chose Boyle, a labor attorney who has worked with police unions, over Rushton, an MSU student and racial justice activist. The rest of the Council supported that decision. Stephens said he believed the Study Committee must not have vacancies as it completes its work on recommending to Council a structure for an independent police oversight commission.

Babcock says she’s been exposed to Covid 19 and is getting tested.

In her “Council member comments,” Lisa Babcock called out members of her extended family network for exposing herself, her household, and potentially her 78-year-old mother to Covid-19 by not wearing masks over the nose. Babcock said she’s going to get tested. Council member Watson wished Babcock’s household a speedy recovery and offered to bring them food.

Bacon praises ELPS and the City staff.

Council member Ron Bacon used his open-comment period to praise ELPS and the district’s Athletic Director Nikki Norris for helping with the “logistical challenges” of finishing the Trojans’ football season during the pandemic.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Bacon also said the City staff’s work in 2020 had been so amazing, “there should be books written about it.” He also told City staff, “I’ll forever be in your debt for what you’ve done for the City and you have my unfettered support for anything going on.”

Watson objects to the deer cull.

In her comments, Watson objected to the City hiring sharpshooters to kill deer in the City’s parks and said she does not believe this is an issue that should be decided by majority rule.

Lahanas countered that the issue had been debated for eight years before the last Council voted in February 2020 to kill deer in a 3-2 decision. We’ll be bringing a separate report on this issue, as it took up a fair bit of discussion time at Council and has been causing a lot of debate around town.

Gregg remains concerned about businesses.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg used her comment period to urge people to donate money to the City as part of the crowdsourcing campaign aimed at “activating” public spaces to attract more customers downtown. She encouraged people who are crafters and growers to apply to be part of the winter market expected to open in mid-Feb in the basement parking ramp under the Marriott Hotel.

She noted that the Governor plans to push back indoor dining to at least Feb. 1, and called it “a devastating blow to our restaurant community.” She urged people to order take-out and Stephens reminded people to do so by directly calling restaurants so that they do not have to pay a chunk of the bill to a third-party app company.

MLK Day Resolution passed.

Council passed a resolution recognizing the history and ongoing efforts behind MLK Day and urging citizens to watch the special programming planned for WILX, during which the Dr. Martin Luther King J. Commission of Mid-Michigan will welcome Dr. Bernice King. (Details here.)

New policy over mug-shot releases?

At last week’s Council meeting, on January 5, Lansing-based racial justice activist Farhan Sheikh-Omar said that charges had been dropped against a man for alleged crimes at East Lansing’s Deerpath Apartments, including first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, assault with intent to do great bodily harm, and felonious assault.

Sheikh-Omar asked why ELPD would not release to him requested materials related to the arrest given that charges had been dropped.

Mayor Aaron Stephens at the Aug. 11, 2020, virtual meeting.

As it turns out, he was incorrect. We checked with Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon’s office and Scott Hughes responded on January 6 that “the defendant was arraigned and faces a preliminary examination.” He has been released on bond for now.

Sheikh-Omar also questioned why the man’s mug shot was included with a press release about the arrest and suggested he sees bias in how ELPD chooses to issue press releases and photos. Last night at Council, Mayor Aaron Stephens said he agrees that, given the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” ELPD should not release mug shots with press releases unless there is a “necessity.”

Stephens said it troubles him that allegations and photos can “follow someone” online even after charges are dropped or a person is found innocent by a court. He asked the City Manager to see to the change in how mug shots are released, only issuing a mug shot if there is some good reason.

City Manager George Lahanas said this was an easy change to make, and they would release mug shots only if it were a case of “be on the lookout for x.” He also alluded to the fact that mugshots can still be obtained by the media (or anyone) upon request.

Note: This article was amended on Jan. 14, 2020, to replace the phrase “alleged violent sexual assault” with “alleged crimes” and the specific charges named by ELPD. This article was also amended on Feb. 16, 2020, to omit the name of the man charged because the charges were dropped and his attorney requested that his name be redacted. These decisions were made after editorial discussions.

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