Lots of News Out of City Council This Week

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The Graduate Hotel in East Lansing in a photo taken on May 12, 2021.

The end of the mask mandate downtown, retirement of a key City administrator, a decision on the Graduate Hotel’s alcohol request – a lot happened at the pair of meetings of the East Lansing City Council on Tuesday evening.

All five members of Council were present: Mayor Aaron Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Council Members Dana Watson, Ron Bacon, and Lisa Babcock. Here’s your rundown from ELi.

Budget talks continue . . . with the first official public hearing held Tuesday night and a vote on the next fiscal year’s budget and tax rates planned for May 25. There is no plan to increase or decrease the current tax rates.

What about the pension debt? Stephens asked about when the Council will be getting a presentation on the pension debt and other retirement-related debt, and City Manager George Lahanas said it will be in June, after the Council has voted on the next fiscal year’s budget. Finance Director Jill Feldpausch said that next month City staff will be able to provide new information from MERS (the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System of Michigan.)

What to do with marijuana revenue? Stephens said that “not a huge amount” will be coming from the state as part of the revenue-sharing from the taxing of marijuana businesses, but he said he’d like to think about how to use whatever money comes in to assist people who have been negatively impacted by drugs or the war on drugs. He suggested establishment of an “indigent fund” at 54B District Court, to help people accused or convicted of crimes, particularly if they have addiction problems. City Manager Lahanas said in response that he has already asked the courts to make a recommendation.

In response, Gregg said she liked the idea but wants to let citizens weigh in before a decision is reached. She said the City had “really missed the mark” in failing to take action to promote equity in marijuana licensingan issue Watson has also brought up in the past – and she is hoping the money might somehow be used to address that.

The downtown outdoor mask mandate has been lifted. MSU President Sam Stanley announced on Monday that the university would be lifting the requirement for masks outdoors except for gatherings over 100 people. He noted Council would be voting on the issue of its outdoor mask requirement for downtown on Tuesday. Council did vote, using its consent agenda, and lifted the requirement to wear masks outdoors in the Downtown Development Authority District. Within a couple minutes of the vote, the City issued a prepared press release with an explanation from Stephens about why the Council had made the decision.

Virtual meetings will probably continue for a while. City Council approved spending $35,000 to install “a bipolar ionization air purification system” in City Hall to reduce “the risk of airborne virus spread,” and Council voted to extend the official State of Emergency so that City meetings can keep happening online through at least Dec. 31, 2021. City Attorney Mike Homier explained this doesn’t mean meetings have to be online, it just means they can be.

The Parks & Rec director is retiring. Lahanas announced that Tim McCaffrey will be retiring from his long-time position as the Director of Parks & Rec in the next few weeks. Lahanas did not say who would be taking over the position and whether there will be a search for a new director. Lahanas also recently announced that the Director of Public Works, Scott House, will be gone for at least a year for military service, with no special plan announced to hire extra personnel while House is away, although the City’s open jobs list shows DPW seeking a Senior Project Engineer.

Parks & Rec is facing $16 million in needs, and where those funds will come from isn’t clear. At the 5 p.m. budget work session on Tuesday, McCaffrey reviewed his department’s finances in a special presentation. For the next fiscal year (June 2021 – July 2022), he’s looking for a $2.2 million transfer into Parks & Rec from the General Fund. That’s down from this fiscal year’s need of $2.6 million from the General Fund because McCaffrey expects Parks & Rec’s revenue to be recovering somewhat from the pandemic in the next year.

The Parks & Rec department continues to make repairs and build new infrastructure, sometimes with assistance from regional and statewide funding sources, like the Ingham County Trails & Parks millage and Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Aquatic Center needs at least $410,000 in work before it will reopen (which will not be until at least summer of 2022), and the repairs of Patriarche Park’s pavilion and restrooms will cost $140,000 more than expected, with that project now coming to about $639,000.

A million dollars is expected to be pulled from East Lansing income tax revenue to help Parks & Rec.

The roof of the pavilion at Patriarche Park (left) and the pool at the Aquatic Center (right), both of which need fixing. (Photos from City of East Lansing.)

McCaffrey said that in the next ten years, Parks & Rec will need about $16 million for maintenance and repair costs. McCaffrey named it “Emerging Initiatives and Trends” the “long-term funding for Parks & Recreation facilities.” He also discussed ideas for creating fee rates (for recreational programs and facilities) that would be tiered for people in different income brackets. That follows an idea from Parks & Rec Advisory Commissioner Sarah Reckhow.

Watson has been pressing for detailed information on the policing budget. The information wasn’t included in the agenda packet for the 5 p.m. budget session, but after Watson asked about it again, staff added it to the earlier agenda, after the fact. You can see it here. There was no discussion on it, though there may be some at a later meeting.

East Lansing won’t share a tax assessor with Meridian Township anymore. East Lansing’s tax assessor David Lee has also been working for Meridian Township, but the two jobs put together have become just too much, so he’ll be working now just for East Lansing.

Social service agencies came to thank Council for considering giving them funding. The funds will come out of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for East Lansing. We’ll be bringing a separate report on that discussion.

That tax on downtown properties to support the Downtown Management Board’s (DMB’s) work? Council is planning to stay the course on the tax rate for a special assessment in the “Principal Shopping District” to support the marketing efforts of the DMB. Gregg said the City is pushing to try to reduce barriers to businesses doing creative things like having chairs on the sidewalk (where accessibility allows it) to encourage foot traffic and customers.

Nick Pidek of Foster Coffee spoke at the public hearing on the assessment to say he supports placemaking efforts being made downtown and would like to see the lane closure of Albert Ave. outside his business as previously discussed. He has relayed to Council a petition on that subject, which has over 170 signatures. You can find his communication on p. 26 of the week’s packet of messages to Council

The Graduate Hotel gets support from Council on the sale of liquor. Council passed two items in support of the Graduate Hotel’s plans to sell alcohol in its downstairs café and rooftop bar. All of the eighteen conditions recommended by the Planning Commission were accepted, including requiring the use of plastic (not glass) on the outside patio.

The Graduate Hotel, showing the rooftop bar.

When asked why there was a condition that “Persons under 21 years of age shall not be permitted to enter the premises after 11:00 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian,” Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach said this is just the way East Lansing does these things, and the applicant did not object.

The Halmich Sod Farm received approval of an open space development rights agreement. This basically means a tax break in exchange for maintenance of open space as a farm. (Read more.)

And here’s what else Council members commented on: During the period set aside at the regular session for Council member comments, Bacon said drivers being rerouted through neighborhoods because of construction should slow down, and Babcock used most of her “councilmember reports” time to urge people to pick up after their dogs.

Gregg spoke to the challenges still faced by businesses in East Lansing hit hard by the pandemic, particularly the restaurant industry. She also talked about the upcoming “Greetings” mural installation at The Roadhouse Pub. (Read more about the mural here.)

Watson asked that a communication from ELi data analyst/reporter Nathan Andrus be forwarded to the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. In that communication (see it here), Andrus expressed frustration about trying to obtain information about policing for our reporting. Lahanas said he would forward it.

Stephens spoke about the lifting of the outdoor mask requirement and urged people to get vaccinated and be careful. He also encouraged people to support the MSU graduate students fundraising for Covid-19 relief in India.

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