After weeks of presentations by the City of East Lansing’s staff on the draft budget for the next fiscal year – which will run from July 2021 to June 2022 – the City Council is set to pass the budget and related financial resolutions this Tuesday, May 25.
But at this past week’s “discussion only” Council meeting, it became evident that some Council members are not totally happy with how the budgeting process has played out. Council members also indicated they are unsatisfied with progress towards creating the anti-racist city City leaders have stated as their goal.
There was also evident disagreement between staff’s recommendations and Council members’ opinions on what should happen with some financial decisions, including with regard to the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) budget, marijuana tax revenues, Parks & Rec fees, car and moped parking rates, and the use of federal grant dollars.
Council Member Dana Watson – appointed last summer after the resignation of Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows – grew visibly frustrated at last Tuesday’s meeting. Her suggestions for changes in the budget and fee schedule (what the City charges citizens for various facilities and services) were repeatedly rebuffed by staff.
“I don’t mean to give pushback if I’m not supposed to right now,” Watson said near the end of the five-and-a-half-hour meeting, “but I was under the understanding that today was the day that I could make the recommendations or make the suggestions, but now it seems like today is not the day.”
City Manager George Lahanas answered that the challenge is that staff has put a lot of work into the presented documents and that there were complex and good reasons for the recommended numbers.
Watson also noted that, while City staff presented on the finances of the parking system, water and sewer system, Parks & Rec, and so on, she had had to push to get detailed information on the ELPD budget, even though this Council has been steadily interested in policing reform.
After Watson pushed, City staff added the ELPD budget information to the May 11 budget work session agenda – but only after the meeting had concluded. Last week was consequently the first time it could really be discussed. But then Watson was met with replies from the City Manager suggesting that it is really too late to be making changes to a balanced budget designed to be passed one week later, this Tuesday.
Watson said that given the gravity of policing and how much of the City’s General Fund dollars go to “public safety,” the community ought to be paying at least as much attention to that funding as to the parking system’s finances. Mayor Aaron Stephens explained this year’s approach had not been different from the past, but he agreed with her that it ought to have been done differently.
Council member Lisa Babcock said that this Council “wants de-escalation” in policing, and added that she doesn’t see de-escalation in this budget. She described herself as “disappointed.”
Babcock told Lahanas that Council has two major actions it can take to run the City – one is to hire and fire two people (the City Manager and City Attorney) and the other is to control the budget. She suggested that if Council is not able to act as it sees fit via the budget process, it might resort to its hiring and firing power.
East Lansing is like a lot of American cities this year, with many people focusing on local policing expenditures.
At last week’s meeting, several citizens spoke at public comment on the issue of the policing budget, including Kelli Ellsworth-Etchison, who referred to ELi’s article from the day before regarding a formal complaint made by Babcock to ELPD about a case where criminal charges were withdrawn.
Ellsworth-Etchison objected to militarized policing and told Council, “There are still some very serious issues within the police department and it needs to be reimagined. It needs to be done differently than it is today.”
Ellsworth-Etchison serves on the Study Committee that will make recommendations to Council on establishment of an independent police oversight commission, and Lahanas made clear the intentions are to allocate funds to support that work. He also indicated there would be funding for “early warning” technology that helps spot problematic trends in individual officers’ work, to allow for retraining of officers with inappropriate or dangerous behavior.
Lahanas defended the work done on “police realignment” and pointed out that ELPD has seen a reduction in the number of officers of about 10% in the last year, down from 54 to 49, with the salary savings going to hire social workers and unarmed Neighborhood Resource Specialists. He said this was all making a big difference.
Chief Kim Johnson said that ELPD is moving successfully from a “warrior mentality” to a “guardian mentality” in policing. But Johnson also explained that the police budget includes expenditures for body armor, bullets, and tasers, as well as vests designed to secure bodycams to stop them from falling off or the lenses not being exposed during policing activities.
In response to a question from Babcock, Lahanas said that about 22% of the City’s General Fund is being spent on policing, and Babcock said that she has read that policing should not exceed about 5% of general fund expenditures. Stephens expressed agreement but said that he was glad to see the changes made so far in “policing realignment.”
Pretty much all of Council expressed an interest in seeing more funding going to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work. And they want to see it especially in policing.
Every City Council member expressed, during last Tuesday’s meeting, the feeling that the City has not adequately addressed anti-racist and DEI efforts.
Appointed to Council at the same time as Watson, Bacon said that as someone who works professionally on branding, he felt there was a troubling lack of attention to anti-racism efforts in the staff presentations on the policing budget, the use of federal grant dollars, and the use of marijuana excise taxes. He said that none of the staff presentations on these issues had been “passed through an equity lens” and that he found it “a little frustrating” given all the discussions about equity at Council.
Babcock responded by “floating the idea of creating a DEI department” in the City, and supporting the police oversight commission through such a department. While Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg said she could see the value in increasing DEI funding, she did not want to see an expansion of DEI without a specific discussion with DEI Administrator Elaine Hardy, who was not in attendance.
Lahanas talked about the “hidden cost” already existing for DEI, saying that all staff would go through 5-6 days of special training and that they would in some cases be paid overtime for that work.
He said this would result in a “much more significant cost” than the $153,000 being paid to the Truth & Titus Collective for doing a climate survey and running the trainings. He said he wanted to see the recommendation from the Study Committee on police oversight and finish the Truth & Titus work before other changes were made in DEI administration, points Gregg supported.
But Babcock countered that the parent of a teen of color would not feel as if things were better in the City than two years ago in terms of safety for their child. She said she wanted action. Stephens told staff he was hearing a clear message from Council that they wanted more details about DEI efforts at this Tuesday’s meeting.
The discussion of grants to local nonprofit social service organizations also raised disagreements.
As ELi has been reporting, this City Council has decided to change how funds are allocated from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Block Development Grant (CBDG) to East Lansing, now directing the maximum possible funding towards local social service nonprofit organizations.
As of two weeks ago, it looked like, on the recommendation of City staff, a total of about $74,000 would go to four groups – the homeless shelter Haven House, Meals on Wheels, and the domestic/relationship violence survivors’ advocacy groups EVE and MSU Safe Place. (Separate funds are targeted for services provided by a fifth organization, Capital Area Housing Partnership.)
But the City’s Community Development & Engagement Manager Amy Schlusler-Schmitt told Council that Safe Place doesn’t want the grant from the City of East Lansing. She didn’t explain why.
She also said that HUD is providing more money than expected, and that Parks & Rec staff want to use the extra funding for youth scholarships for kids stuck between the end of the middle-school day and the start of track practice. That would be specifically for families with low incomes, per HUD’s grant requirements.
After hearing the news from Schlusler-Schmitt, both Watson and Bacon expressed frustration that money was offered to Safe Place when the organization didn’t even want the funds and that there was not more diversity in the organizations being considered. Stephens agreed, saying that in the future, perhaps staff could be more “intentional” in outreach.
Watson went further, suggesting specific alternative groups to fund, including organizations that help with legal services. She said she found the current process “difficult” and that she preferred the prior approach, which involved an advisory committee on which she had served.
Lahanas and Schlusler-Schmitt indicated it could be challenging at this point in the process to consider significant changes in the allocation plans, given that Council is set to vote on the matter this Tuesday.
Meanwhile, who should benefit from the marijuana excise tax?
Because East Lansing “opted in” on marijuana businesses, the State of Michigan is set to share excise tax revenue with the City, this year in the amount of about $28,000 and in future years possibly much more.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Council discussed what those funds should be used on, with City staff presenting a proposal to spend about half on helping people with drug addiction who end up in the special drug court run out of 54B.
Responding to Stephens’ desire to see marijuana revenues go to people negatively affected by drugs or the War on Drugs, 54B Court Administrator Nicole Evans suggested the funds could be used to pay for drug testing for people with lower incomes who do not have insurance to cover the costs. (In this part of the meeting, Stephens disclosed that his romantic partner works in the probation department of the court.)
Staff recommended that the other $14,000 go to pay for access to Parks & Rec programming for low- and moderate-income families’ children, particularly for before-and-after-school childcare. Sharing the sentiments of Stephens and Bacon, Gregg said she didn’t want to see these funds go to something that was not related to drug issues.
While she supported the idea of using funds for the drug court, Babcock said she and Gregg had talked to the Rev. Kit Carlson of All Saints Episcopal Church, who had made a “good argument” for using the marijuana revenues to address racial housing disparities that date back a long way in East Lansing – disparities that Babcock said “continue in a more subtle fashion today.” Babcock suggested the housing study findings could be used to inform that use of funds.
Gregg said she would like a community town hall to talk about how to reverse decades of housing discrimination and noted that the marijuana revenues are likely to grow.
But Lahanas said $14,000 towards child care would make a big difference and be easier to administer quickly compared to a housing program. And Wendy Wilmers Longpre, Assistant Director of Parks & Rec, said that the after-school program can keep children from “going home to empty homes” or ending up in other risky situations. She said it would be good to provide those children opportunities like theater or camps as a means of drug prevention.
Watson said she saw the benefits of funding such programs, but added, “It is hard for me to stand behind anything that does not intentionally connect what happened when marijuana was illegal for Black and brown people and what’s going on now.” She said she wanted to know how to use public funding “to build wealth” for Black and brown people.
And then there were some differences of opinion about fees charged to the public.
Gregg said that, since the Family Aquatic Center is used more by non-residents than residents, and since East Lansing has a higher median income than some neighboring municipalities, she wants to see the aquatic center admission fee be the same for residents and nonresidents. Since the pool will not be open for at least another year – it needs at least $400,000 in repairs – there is time to make this decision later.
Stephens indicated he wants to see a special downtown permit parking option for people who work downtown, to help workers but also to help the underutilized parking system bring in more money.
Watson said she hoped the parking system would offer free parking on holidays that are beyond the Christian holidays. She suggested free parking on “Jewish and Muslim holidays,” like the first day of Ramadan. Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach explained that free parking is offered when it is because of not wanting to find and pay staff for holiday work.
Watson also wants to see the new moped parking permit fee align with whatever MSU charges, which she suggested would be $50 per year, not $180 as suggested by City staff. She also wants to see the lost ticket fee in the garages reduced, although one challenge is that people cheat on this to use the parking ramps to park for days and then claim they lost the ticket from the day before. But there was not much visible support for her recommendations.
Lahanas and Finance Director Jill Feldpausch noted that Council can make amendments to the budget and fee rates throughout the year, so this is not the last chance for Council to have a say on use of funds for the next year. Feldpausch noted that money can be pulled out of savings (“fund balance”) if a majority of Council decides that is necessary for a use.
This week’s meeting will start at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, and public comment can be made by phoning in near the beginning. Find the agenda with participation information here.