More on the Cost of Living Rising in East Lansing

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My recent review of the rising cost of living in East Lansing brought this comment from an ELi reader:

“I have just read your good essay about the rising cost of living here in East Lansing. As a resident since 1970, I know that you are certainly on the mark. However, I do have a concern about ELi’s reporting on this issue and hope that you will proceed with great care. While it is true that the cost of living here has risen greatly, it is also the case that the same is far more true of many (most?) other places, surely those with similar advantages in lifestyle. AND the costs to the city have also risen. So while I do believe that the city is not well managed – too many tax advantages, for example, are given to ‘developers’ whose ugly dormitories are making a mess of the city – I am not at all opposed to the income tax that makes it possible for us to benefit from excellent police and fire services, as well as guarantee that promises to retirees be met. In fact, I believe that people like me, far from rich but still living quite comfortably, should be contributing more. Therefore, in your reporting on the potentially very political question of cost of living, I hope that you will do nothing to encourage the ‘no new taxes, limited government’ minded souls who will use anything to make their case. Please do be careful. Thanks for your reporting.”

This helpful note touches on an ongoing discussion within ELi’s editorial team – specifically myself, Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott, Public Editor Ann Nichols, and City Desk Editor Andrew Graham – centering on the question of how to provide balance to economic reporting about our City when economic reporting is, necessarily, pretty complex and politically sensitive.

At ELi, our intention is not to take the side of “no new taxes, limited government” nor any other side, but rather to bring news and information so that readers can understand what’s happening in the economy of our City (government) and our city (community).

So, how do we try to do this carefully?

One thing we think every ELi reader can agree on is that government waste should be minimized. So, if the City can pay $100 for a service or product rather than $500, all else being equal, it should go with the less expensive option. Consequently, we try to point out when we think the City may be paying more than it needs to achieve some goal or is using services without seeking bids.

Similarly, we also find that most – if not virtually all – ELi readers agree that, when the City sells or leases public land, all other things being equal, it should try to maximize revenues. That’s why the eBay land sale story (which we broke and stayed on) was of so much interest to our community.

At ELi, we do find ourselves reporting from the perspective of what we would call the average taxpayer rather than the largest taxpayer.

So, for example, MSUFCU pays millions of dollars in taxes to the City, but we have tried to bring the same level of scrutiny to their big development project’s use of public land (lot 4) as we have to others. We’ve asked, repeatedly, whether MSUFCU is going to seek tax incentives that will shift the burden of local services on to the average taxpayer. (Answer: no. MSUFCU is paying full freight, and they’re buying the public land at a price determined by an independent appraisal.)

ELi readers know that we’ve brought scrutiny, too, to the question of whether the City can effectively save $6 million in taxes in the question of the Center City District bonds, again, taking the perspective of “the average taxpayer” rather than the largest (the developers). As some may recall, my active relaying of our investigative reporting on that work to City boards and commissions irritated the developers enough that they launched an attack on Eli – proof that the developers understand that we’re not treating all taxpayers’ affairs with the same level of scrutiny.

We think this is within keeping of traditional journalism and what our readers expect of our work based on six years’ experience.

As with all local elections and ballot initiatives, we did not and do not advocate for or against the City income tax proposal.

Before the two votes (one failed, then one passed), we brought tons and tons of information in advance – about the pensions, emergency services funding, objections raised to the tax proposal by MSU leaders, and more.

As the reader notes, a major reason many East Lansing citizens voted for the income tax was that the proposal specifically promised to augment emergency services, fix and improve City infrastructure, and especially meet the pension obligations. But the reality of what’s happening with the income tax turns out to be more complicated, particularly because pandemic appears to be squashing that revenue. These updates are an important part of the ongoing story of the 12-year income tax.

Because East Lansing is a college town with a now-remote university, it is poised to be hit far harder by Covid-19’s economic effects than many other Michigan cities, not just in terms of income tax but other issues like our parking system.

We try to explain tax increases without sounding like we are for or against them. So, we have tried to help readers understand that the BWL franchise fee has effectively been experienced as something like a 5 percent tax on electric bills, while also explaining that it has significantly helped the City of East Lansing’s bottom line.

Then there’s the important issue of how money is really deployed when it does come in – something we think is very important to cover.

ELi reader and Community Advisory Board member Anne Hill has been taking very careful looks at the choices being made, by the City Manager and Council, about what gets paid now that the income tax is in place. Like Anne, the ELi editorial team feels it’s important that readers know – particularly in tight budget times – when City leaders are weighing whether to spend $175,000 on a new pool liner for the Aquatic Center, spend $153,000 on anti-racism training, eliminate $90,000 in revenue by cancelling fees on local restaurants, or shift funding from police officers to social workers.

Sometimes we do deep dives on things like discretionary spending on new SUVs for specific City employees. In all these cases, we feel like these are things many readers would want us to work on. If you’re paying the new income tax, or property taxes, or personal property taxes, or the BWL franchise fee – we figure you might well want to know how that money gets used.

Decisions made in City Hall impact the cost of living here. So does the fact that our city has an aging infrastructure that requires more rebuilding, and that our city is a college town where the largest landholder and employer (MSU) and one of the largest “landlords” (MSU) pays no property taxes.

We feel strongly – and we know this reader “gets it” – that scrutinizing revenue and spending doesn’t make us anti-tax or pro-tax, anti- or pro-government. Let’s face it:

The main power a City government has is spending. By spending (or not spending) on something, our City government directly impacts the lives of a segment of, or all, its citizens.

So, we want to know the answers to questions like: Do women and men benefit equally from City jobs? Did the library really end up better off from the library millages?

We appreciate that our readers support this kind of intensive reporting – and we really appreciate that we have readers like the one who inspired this column, who remind us to be careful! The only way we can do our best work is to keep hearing from readers like this one and from you.

And, just as a reminder, the only way we can do this work at all is if you help us through financial support.

The ELi articles I’ve linked in this article were reported for you by Emily Joan Elliott, Andrew Graham, Chris Root, Eliot Singer, Nathan Andrus, Jessy Gregg (before she ran for Council), and Chris Gray – people whose findings we have been able to bring to you only because of reader donations.

ELi is a registered 501c3 public service organization, so your gift may be tax deductible (if the IRS lets you), and right now, we have matching funds!

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