Lots of Unanimous Decisions by Council in 90 Minutes

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Clockwise from upper left: Council member Dana Watson, Mayor Aaron Stephens, City Manager George Lahanas, Council member Lisa Babcock, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Council member Ron Bacon.

East Lansing’s City Council held two meetings on Tuesday night, April 14, including the first official Budget Work Session of the year plus a regular meeting. We’ll be bringing a separate report on the budget discussions. Here’s what happened during the 90 minutes of the regular meeting that occurred in public.

Water bills are causing stress around East Lansing. Now, the City may act.

According to City Manager George Lahanas, the plan is to keep water/sewer rates as flat as possible in the next year to give residents some relief from surging water bills. With big debt being taken on by the City to deal with infrastructure upgrades, however, it won’t be possible to completely freeze bills.

Regardless of the bills, Council is planning to consider a new law, Ordinance 1499, prohibiting residential water shut-offs. This week, Council voted unanimously to take up that proposal at the April 27 meeting. Read more here.

Council unanimously approved a cost-sharing agreement with MDOT that will add bike lanes and reduce traffic backups on Abbot Road between Saginaw Street and Lake Lansing Road.

After originally appearing on the consent agenda and being moved to the business agenda at the request of Council member Lisa Babcock — she wanted to learn more from City Staff before voting — this resolution passed unanimously, authorizing East Lansing Public Works Director Scott House to enter into a cost-sharing contract with MDOT. 

According to a memo from staff, the project will reduce that section of Abbot from four lanes — currently two lanes each northbound and southbound — to three lanes: south, north, and a center turning lane. This reduction in vehicle lanes will allow for the inclusion of bike lanes, House told Council. 

The “road diet” or safety conversion aligns with the City’s plans from 2011 for non-motorized transportation, according to the memo written by House. The City is also benefitting from a Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant to add the bicycle lanes.

The changes will also, with the inclusion of a turn lane, reduce the likelihood of rear end crashes along that stretch of Abbot due to people slowing or stopping to turn left amidst 40-plus mile-per-hour traffic. 

Mayor Aaron Stephens offered an anecdote about almost getting in a crash in that manner on that stretch of road, while other Council members concurred that the stretch of road, as designed, does not seem particularly safe.

The project is anticipated to begin sometime in mid-May and will be completed by September 2021. The cost of the project is estimated at about $1.8M with about $992K coming from the Federal Highway Administration and the remaining $793K from the City of East Lansing.

According to the memo, “funds to pay for the city’s portion of the project have been budgeted through the major street fund under the current fiscal year’s budget.” 

Coal tar sealants are now banned in East Lansing.

After hearing a presentation about coal tar sealants — commonly used to seal paved surfaces like asphalt parking lots — and the environmental and health dangers they present, East Lansing’s Commission on the Environment pushed for a resolution banning them in East Lansing.

The Commission specifically pushed to have the City pass a ban that would align with others in the region, like the one in effect in Meridian Township, and be a model for other communities. That resolution passed at Council unanimously on Tuesday. 

The Michigan Flyer bus service to Ann Arbor and the Detroit Airport is coming back.

Council unanimously approved a new lease deal with Michigan Flyer for parking. Read more in this memo.

Council approved the use of funds for emergency mortgage, rental, and utility assistance. 

With little public comment, Council unanimously approved a “substantial change” to the 2019 Action Plan for the use of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. Council effectively allocated $218,484 in additional CDBG funds specifically targeted at Covid relief to the City’s emergency rent and mortgage assistance program. 

With this new batch of money and at the encouragement of Council, residents can apply for rent, mortgage, and now also utilities assistance in the latest round of relief.

According to a presentation from East Lansing Community Development and Engagement Manager Amy Schlusler-Schmitt, residents can apply for any combination of housing and utility assistance.

Total rental and mortgage assistance will be capped at $7,000 per household. (That number was originally $5,000 in the staff memo attached to the agenda item and in previous rounds of funding.) Utilities assistance is capped at $3,000 per household. This means one household could receive a maximum amount of $10,000 to cover rent/mortgage payments and utilities. 

Applicants must meet certain income eligibility requirements, set forth by HUD, to be approved. 

The program is being administered for the City by the Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP), which will be paid about 10 percent of the funds for administration. According to the City website for the program, applicants will work directly with CAHP “to apply for and receive the funds.” 

Application materials can be found at www.capitalareahousing.org and residents with questions are encouraged to contact the CAHP office at (517) 332-4663 or info@capitalareahousing.org

The City webpage on the program can be found here.

A local liquor license was approved for the new ownership of the Landshark.

It isn’t clear whether the new owners actually needed Council’s permission to sell liquor, because they already had state approval and the business predates the City’s requirement for Special Use Permits. Regardless, with recommendations from City staff, the Planning Commission, and the Downtown Development Authority to approve the license, Council did so unanimously. You can learn more about the issue from this memo.

The Graduate Hotel in a photo taken in late Jan. 2021.

Representatives of the Graduate Hotel showed up in force just to see a public hearing date set for their alcohol permit request.

We can only assume that the hotel’s representatives were rattled after the the experience they had with East Lansing’s Planning Commission, rattled enough that they thought they needed to show up in force for Council’s mere-formality vote on Tuesday to set the public hearing on their request. They didn’t need to. That hearing will be on May 11.

East Lansing Director of Public Works Scott House will be away from his job with the City for “a year or more.” 

That’s because he’s being deployed somewhere stateside as a colonel in the U.S. Army National Guard. We have a separate report on that.

Council unanimously passed resolutions proclaiming April 30 as Arbor Day and recognizing April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

You can read those resolutions here and here. The latter presumably came about because of Mayor Stephens’ family heritage, although there was no discussion of either resolution. [UPDATE: ELi interviewed Mayor Stephens about this resolution and its origin. Read about that here.]

Ninety minutes in, Council went into closed session where they discussed strategy for bargaining new public safety union contracts. 

Council voted unanimously to go into the closed session so that they could indicate what they want to see in negotiations over collective bargaining agreements with East Lansing’s two police unions and the firefighter union.

The posted meeting agenda did not specify which negotiations Council would be discussing in the closed session, calling simply for closed-door “strategy and negotiation sessions connected with the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements.”

Lahanas only offered information on which union contracts were under discussion after Babcock requested that that information be shared, following an earlier transparency request during public comment from ELi Publisher Alice Dreger.

Council remained in the closed session for about an hour and fifteen minutes. They came out of the session simply to adjourn the meeting.

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