City Already Received $6M in Covid Relief. How Will It Spend the Funds?

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During his presentation to Council, the City Manager proposed using federal Covid relief funds for renovations of City Hall, the Hannah Center, the ELPL, and parking garages around town in addition to other projects.

The City of East Lansing has received half of its $12.2M Covid relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) in May, according to City Manager George Lahanas, who provided City Council with a draft plan on how the funds might be spent at Council’s Discussion Only meeting on Oct. 12.

Lahanas proposed in the draft plan that the funds be used for updates to City Hall, the East Lansing Public Library, the Hannah Community Center, and Fire Station 1; support for homeowners and small business owners; and parking lot updates both downtown and at parks throughout the City.

“This is a preliminary discussion, potentially laying out new uses and getting Council’s reaction in terms of use of the funds,” said Lahanas, who desires for the funds to be used in ways that both address stresses caused by the pandemic and align with the City’s strategic priorities and specific master plans.

Lahanas pointed out that should the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 pass, East Lansing might receive funds for infrastructure projects then. He also said that the State of Michigan has $6 billion in federal Covid relief that it has yet to allocate.

“We don’t want to miss opportunities,” said Lahanas.

In the draft plan, $1 million is allocated to assist homeowners in converting water meters to smart meters. The money would only be a partial payment, with another $3 million or so falling to the water system, according to Lahanas. The smart meters, he said, provide users with real-time data, alerting them of leaks and issues quicker, which ends up saving time and money.

As Andrew Graham reported, Lahanas also proposed allocating $500,000 to help homeowners install backflow prevention measures.

The draft plan also included $250,000 for downtown business support, including placemaking projects and support for infrastructure and marketing.

Lahanas also proposed devoting $1.5 million dollars for parking facility repairs (including updates to the Charles Street Garage elevator), many of which have been deferred as parking revenue dwindled during the pandemic. The sum also includes $100,000 to fund technology integrations, such as a system to direct motorists to lots with empty spots.

Another $1.125 million could be allocated toward updates to parking lots at various Parks and Rec sites throughout the City.

Millions of dollars will also go toward major repairs and renovations of City buildings: $1.25 million for Fire Station No. 1; $2.73 million for the Hannah Community Center; $2 million for City Hall; and $380,000 for the ELPL.

Lahanas described the draft plan, which totals $11.4 million, as a very rough estimate that also requires community and Council input before moving forward. All of these funds must be assigned by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.

Following the presentation, Council member Shanna Draheim asked, “Some of these [plans] certainly require planning. What is your timeline? What is more urgent?”

Lahanas responded, explaining that it will be important for staff to understand what will get approved to contract with architectural, engineering, and construction firms, which will be in high demand as municipalities put their Covid funds to work. But, he said, Council and community should have time to ruminate on the plan and provide feedback.

“City Hall has waited and can wait. Parking lots can wait a year or two. [They are] important, but not urgent,” said Lahanas, suggesting that these might be lower priorities.

“How much of this spending should be internal versus external facing?” Draheim asked her fellow Council members. She argued that using federal funds to continue to cover business license fees and to provide rent subsidies might appear to be continued financial losses but would ultimately be an investment in the community.

As ELi previously reported, Council member Lisa Babcock pushed for less money to be spent on facilities and more to be used to help homeowners who are still coping with the major flooding that occurred this summer. She suggested that the money might be best spent redesigning the sewer system.

Mayor Jessy Gregg ended the meeting by repeating that this is a preliminary discussion, the first of many more discussions to come. Gregg made it clear that she understands Council members’ requests to focus on infrastructure like water and sewer but that the City will always prioritize these items to ensure health and safety of the community.

“I do think using funds for Hannah would be incredibly positive,” said Gregg. “It’s easy to put off other expensive projects like Hannah because funds aren’t there, but we will always keep the water running. I hope there are additional pots of money coming.”

Next steps include Lahanas prioritizing projects and providing more exact estimates so that the community and Council can begin providing feedback.

Do you want provide feedback to Council on how the City should spend federal Covid relief funds? City Council will meet this evening at 7 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center. The public is welcome to make comment then or by writing to Council at council@cityofeastlansing.com.

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