The East Lansing City Council discussed adding new items to the City’s American Rescue Plan Act draft plan – including improvements to retention ponds and drains, sidewalk improvements, and green energy plans – as well as next steps for setting several more programs from the plan into motion at the discussion-only meeting on Tuesday, March 15.
There are several new line items now included in the ARPA plan.
The most current ARPA plan now contains $300,000 for improvements and maintenance of retention ponds, $500,000 for a hazardous sidewalk program, and $220,000 for green energy.
The green energy line item is intended to offset the costs for approximately one-third of energy that the Department of Public Works (DPW) facility uses by installing a solar field outside of that facility. The hazardous sidewalk program would aim to make East Lansing a more walkable city for more residents.
Also seen in the plan for the first time is a line reflecting the allocation of City employee retention bonuses.
Despite City union leaders continual disapproval of the City’s choice to award “retention bonuses” in lieu of “hazard bonuses,” on Jan. 11, Council passed a resolution to allocate $675,000 of ARPA funds to award part-time and full-time City employees retention bonuses.
These retention bonuses will be awarded to City employees on the books as of Feb. 6, whereas the requested hazard bonuses would have allowed all City employees impacted by the pandemic, regardless of their current status with the City, a bonus for the risks they endured working on the frontlines during Covid-19.
The retention bonus program was implemented and issued on Feb. 11, to several City employee groups, with full-time employees receiving a $2,000 bonus and part-time employees receiving a $1,000 bonus.
Approximately $230,000 of the $675,000 allocated has been spent thus far, while the City waits for other union groups to sign the letter of agreement in order to be awarded their bonuses.
There are also several line items that have seen a reduced budget compared to the previous plan presented on Dec. 14, 2021, and those can be seen on Lahanas’ presentation from Tuesday night or on ELi’s ARPA draft plan tracker.
The only item that has been completely zeroed out is the category of downtown business support.
“Where do you see those dollars coming up again [now that it’s been] completely reduced?” asked Council member Dana Watson.
Lahanas responded that the City’s ARPA survey showed that downtown business support did not have significant citizen support and that the potential to find funding from other sources in this area is very likely. He mentioned that funding through the Downtown Development Authority, state funding for placemaking, and other grants are being explored in lieu of the ARPA dollars for downtown East Lansing.
Only $1.15 million of $12.2 million from the City’s ARPA money has been approved by Council for spending thus far.
A homeowners assistance program was approved by Council on Dec. 21 that reimburses a homeowner up to $3,000 per property/property owner for the installation of sewer check valves. This program has been top of mind for the City and Council since Oct. 2021 when they discussed the need to relieve the community of some of the financial burden from flooding.
Lahanas noted that the City has received 26 applications as of Tuesday evening, calculating a total of approximately $45,000 so far paid out or pending pay to 21 homeowners for 21 households.
“[This] gets us to about $2,000 per home which is basically where we thought we would be,” said Lahanas of the program, which still has funding for about 224 more East Lansing households for 2022.
“For the backup system program, are we going to put a sunset on that, and if those dollars begin to come back do they just jump back into the general fund?” asked Mayor Ron Bacon.
While the plan includes $500,000 for 2022 and another $250,000 for 2023, Lahanas said he believes the 2022 funds will likely cover the program, but that Council has the capability to make changes to these allocations in future conversations.
The other program already approved for use of ARPA funds is the City’s retention bonuses to current employees.
The City is currently seeking City Council’s approval for use of $4.63 million of the ARPA plan.
With just $1.15 million approved thus far, Lahanas said he is planning to come to Council next week with a resolution to move forward with more plans for the ARPA funds that require next steps as soon as possible if they are to be spent this year as anticipated.
Among that list are improvements to drains, the East Lansing Public Library, the Hannah Community Center, Fire Station 1, sidewalks, and parking, as well expenses to install a solar field for the DPW facility.
Other topics that Council mentioned for potential consideration of ARPA funds are housing and senior citizen inclusivity.
Council member George Brookver and Council member Watson both touched on the idea of spending more dollars toward the inclusion of East Lansing’s senior citizens.
Brookover suggested the City take further considerations on improving Albert Ave. for senior citizens, as well as enhancing the pick-up and drop-off situation in front of the senior citizen highrise downtown, Newman Lofts.
Bacon also mentioned affordable housing, noting that, “housing isn’t represented in the ARPA dollars… [I don’t] see why we wouldn’t have activities around housing anywhere in here.”
Bacon suggested that conversations stay firm around the topic of housing anytime money is discussed, as he believes it is a City priority that has been acknowledged for years.
Lahanas responded by mentioning City talks of housing assistance programs such as the potential to assist homeowners with boiler repairs in the future, but noted that the City does not have a housing project to initiate and that something like that may be out of their wheelhouse. He also referred to the debt the City incurred from building affordable housing at Avondale Square.
Lahanas said further conversations around affordable housing can continue within the frame of ARPA funds, but in the meantime the City is just looking to approve those $4.63 million items this time next week.
Nothing is set in stone for the remainder of the $6.42 million dollars left currently unplanned for approval for use of the total $12.2 million of ARPA funds received by the City.
According to the law, the City has until Dec. 31, 2024, to approve allocation of the funds, and until Dec. 31, 2026, to spend the funds.