Council to Discuss Usage of Federal ARPA Funds, as ELi Readers Tell Us What They Want

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East Lansing’s City Council is set tonight to discuss the possible use of federal Covid relief dollars to help homeowners prevent basement flooding. This comes as results from an ELi survey show some support for that idea, but considerably more support for public infrastructure upgrades and extra pay for frontline workers.

Tonight – the first work session of the new City Council at 7 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center (Nov. 16) – Council will tackle an agenda that includes discussions of the City’s sewer system, an external review of the Aug. 12 flooding, who to hire as the next City Attorney, and the new Council’s strategic priorities.

But the posted agenda also includes a dedicated discussion of using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds “for a sewer check valve program” to help homeowners install backflow-prevention valves to prevent the City’s sewers from flooding private basements. (You can read ELi’s report on an earlier Council discussion about that idea here.)

As part of our ongoing community-engagement work, ELi put out a survey to readers asking for their thoughts on how ARPA funds should be used. Forty responses came in, and you can see the full results here.

We reminded people, based on information provided by the City of East Lansing, at the start of the survey, “that these funds can only be used to respond to the pandemic and its impacts, including assistance to people and businesses; to fund government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue; to fund premium pay for eligible workers; and to support water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.”

A sizable number of respondents told us they want to see extra pay go to City workers, particularly those who have had to accept extra Covid risk by working in-person with the public.

Wrote one, “The first responders in EL have been through so much over the last year and a half between Covid, being trashed on by some of the community and its leaders, being short-staffed, and overworked.”

One reader insisted that the City not do what Shiawassee County did. There, extra pay went to elected officials until outrage in response to media reports led to them giving it back.

Several survey respondents told ELi they wanted to see the funds be used to help mitigate East Lansing’s growing pension debt, but that use would have to be fit somehow into the ARPA restrictions, which could be challenging. One possibility would be to “backstop” the City’s General Fund with ARPA funds to replace revenue lost to Covid, and then using freed-up funds for the pensions.

Wrote one respondent, “Very concerned about pension debt so if we can fund government services to free up funds to address pensions that should be top priority (and the practice of pensions for new hires should be halted immediately. Certainly, we need to keep our obligations to funding current pensions, but there is no compelling reason to continue giving out new pensions.)”

Many respondents indicated that they wanted to see ARPA funds go to infrastructure, particularly systems for dealing with flooding, including sewers, raingardens, and help to property owners for flood prevention and repair.

One respondent said, “I agree with aid to the homeowners that were affected by the flood. Installing the valves and possibly reimbursing for some damages with a cap at say $3,000 per household.”

Others supported improvements of roads and sidewalks, although one did not want more driving encouraged. Some liked the idea of a City-supported public internet service.

Some respondents wanted to see use of the funds to repair the library, Hannah Community Center, and the Family Aquatic Center, questionable uses given the ARPA funding restrictions.

A couple said they wanted to see the pedestrian overpasses over Saginaw Street repainted, but those are controlled by MDOT, not the City of East Lansing.

One person wanted to see better public transportation for people with disabilities, something more like an Uber system than the current CATA system, which readers tell ELi is challenging to use.

A few people said they wanted to see the funds used to promote safer air spaces – whether that be improving ventilation systems in public buildings or helping to create outdoor dining spaces that don’t bother neighbors.

Said one: “Reconfigure public spaces to adapt to new dining demands. Recognize that customers have changed their preferences for dining — many will never return to the frequency of indoor dining they used to. Restaurants need outdoor spaces, and we like our restaurants. Make EL Al Fresco permanent, and help other area restaurants permit outdoor dining options. Small mitigation projects could help – soundproof property fences, increase code patrols, etc. to help newly reconfigured restaurants co-exist with neighbors.”

Another response: “Programs to support businesses that lost revenue, to ensure they can remain in business and contributing to EL; enhancement of parking garages (especially the ones old, dark, and filthy) which lost revenue and upon which we must now rely since street lots are basically gone; money to add police officers and surveillance/enforcement to address the violence that seems to have found its way into East Lansing after the pandemic…”

Others also supported the idea of providing more financial aid to local businesses.

You can attend the meeting in person and also watch live online. Public comment will be accepted near the start of the meeting, as usual, and you can see the agenda for more information about how to participate in person or virtually.

One note – if you are planning to come in person, be aware that the Albert Street – Abbot Road intersection will be closed for the next few days for infrastructure upgrades.

According to the City, “Work will begin the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 16 and is anticipated to be completed by 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 19. The intersection will be closed daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is anticipated that the intersection will be re-opened during the evening and overnight hours.”

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