On Feb. 13, East Lansing was rocked by a mass shooting that took the lives of three Michigan State University (MSU) students and left five others critically wounded. At the meeting on Tuesday, May 23, East Lansing’s City Council took action to ensure the tragedy and lifesaving actions by first responders are never forgotten.
Council passed a resolution recognizing and honoring those impacted by the shooting. If future councils honor the measure, the resolution will be revisited at the first Council meeting of every February going forward.
At this week’s meeting, Council also held a public hearing that allowed residents of the Chesterfield Neighborhood to appeal sidewalk repair charges, voted to more than double the tax assessment that funds the Downtown Management Board (DMB), approved plans for the use of a $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and approved the city’s budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024.
Council recognized first responders, victims of Feb. 13 shooting at MSU.
Near the start of the meeting, Council passed a resolution that recognizes the victims and first-responders impacted by the Feb. 13 mass shooting on MSU’s campus.
While presenting the resolution, Mayor Ron Bacon said it’s “paramount” to recognize first responders at this time.
“Our public safety professionals risked life and limb,” he said. “Many lives were saved that night by [their] swift actions.”
Bacon moved to amend the resolution to include lines naming police officers, firefighter/EMTs and support staff who were part of the response. He also said the resolution will be revisited annually at the first Council meeting each February.
An emotional Councilmember Noel Garcia, who is a former Lansing police lieutenant, read the resolution, which was written by Interim City Clerk Marie Wicks at the request of Bacon and Garcia.
“In 2023 alone, there have been more than 200 mass shootings and while it seems they occur daily, they have a profound impact on all involved,” Garcia read. “First Responders who are regularly exposed to death and life-threatening events, are particularly affected in ways that most non-responders cannot and do not want to imagine.”
In addition to the main resolution that was read during a special presentation, there were three items approved on the consent agenda related to the MSU shooting. One recognized mental health workers, another acknowledged the impact of the tragedy and the third honored city staff for their work to support the community following the shooting.
Council votes to “rightsize” the DMB budget.
After a discussion that included input from two members of the public, Council voted unanimously to more than double the special assessment that funds the DMB’s budget. The topic was also discussed at the May 9 Council meeting, as ELi reported.
The DMB is funded by a special assessment levied on businesses within a downtown “Principal Shopping District.” The rate of the assessment has not increased since the DMB was formed in 1997. Typically, the DMB collects between $45,000 and $50,000 from the special assessment. Under the new assessment level, it is estimated it will obtain $109,260 in its first year.
In the recent past, the DMB has been funded by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), parking department and community partners. In the current fiscal year (FY23), the DDA provided the DMB with $44,750. But because the DDA is facing financial struggles over its Evergreen Avenue properties’ debt, money has not been set aside for the DMB in the DDA’s proposed FY24 budget.
One member of the public, Doug Cron, spoke against the increase. Cron owns many commercial properties downtown and said the price increase will cost $6,000 in total for his properties alone. He said the costs will get passed on to tenants, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. He also said there needs to be a clearer plan on how the funds will be used if businesses are charged more.
Another speaker, Alicia Southern of Risky Studios on M.A.C. Avenue, said the DMB greatly helped her podcast production and recording business with marketing. She supported increased funding, but agreed with Cron that it would be good to see a plan on how the money will be spent.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, who serves on the DMB and owns a business downtown, spoke in support of the increased funding. She said the increase was not a significant amount compared to what business owners pay for rent and that the DMB helps businesses like hers save on marketing.
“It is a very large increase on a very small number,” she said.
Gregg also pointed out that because the DDA is not planning to subsidize the DMB next year, voting against the measure would essentially cut the DMB’s budget in half. (Gregg disclosed her financial conflict of interest but did not ask Council to recuse her from the vote, and Council took no action to recuse her.)
Councilmember George Brookover said he would reluctantly vote for the increased funding but a clear plan on how money will be used should be relayed to business owners before they are charged extra money.
“I do feel like, at a certain level, we sort of put the cart before the horse,” he said. “I think the people who pay this money… they also should have the budget.”
Residents of Chesterfield Neighborhood to pay for sidewalk repairs.
Property owners in East Lansing are responsible for maintaining the sidewalks adjoining their property. At Tuesday’s meeting, Council unanimously approved a resolution that will recoup a segment of the city’s costs for sidewalk repairs from property owners in part of the Chesterfield Neighborhood.
Before the city can charge property owners, the Council must first hold a public hearing for affected property owners who have raised objections to the plan. At the Tuesday meeting, this brought two impacted homeowners before Council. They raised concern about the costs and questioned the necessity of some of the repairs. One of the two speakers said she has a neighbor who will have to pay around $6,000 for his property alone.
The payments are to be made over a one-year or three-year period, depending on the property owner’s stated preference. One member of the public requested a five-year payment plan be allowed to help seniors and others on a fixed income, but Council was not receptive to the request. Gregg said it might be perceived as unfair because other property owners in the Chesterfield Neighborhood were earlier restricted to the three-year period.
If property owners do not pay on time, the repair cost will be added to their property tax bills.
Councilmember Dana Watson requested that property owners who do not respond to the city’s letter that allows them to choose a one- or three-year payment plan not be charged until after three years.
“I might be middle-class, but trying to afford to live in the City of East Lansing costs a lot of money,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t be able to do $6,000 in 12 months. I wouldn’t want to do it in 36 months.”
Infrastructure Administrator Ron Lacasse said the costs would then have to be carried by the city’s general fund over that three-year period.
Gregg was torn on Watson’s proposal.
“The total strain on the city’s general fund by the time we get through 10 more years of hazardous sidewalks could be into the millions and it would be preferable to have people, if they can afford to pay, to pay early,” she said. “But I know I tend not to pay my bills until I get the second notice because that’s just how my life is structured at the moment.”
Watson’s amendment will be treated as a separate resolution and revisited at a future Council meeting.
Watson also suggested the city revisit the topic when the first round of payments are coming in after a year. She said it’s important to re-examine communications and see how many property owners have paid.
One resident said the language in the letter requesting payments for repairs seemed “threatening” and Gregg said this is a common complaint. Lacasse said the language in the letter was written two city attorneys ago. Gregg asked current City Attorney Anthony (Tony) Chubb to review the letter to see if it can be made more “gentle.”
City gives unanimous approval of FY 2024 budget.
After weeks of long work sessions dedicated to fleshing out the FY24 budget under the leadership of Audrey Kincade in the Finance Department, Council’s unanimous approval was met by a room of applauding staff members.
The most significant discussion before approval originated from a request by Garcia, who wanted more funding to the police department to hire more officers.
Garcia was concerned about the number of officers being redirected from their regular beats to fill special roles, like the downtown officer and youth engagement officer highlighted during Police Chief Kim Johnson’s budget presentation. Garcia asked that money be set aside for another officer, one who would be hired in addition to the two new officers requested in the initial budget.
Garcia suggested paying for the new position using money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Brookover pointed out that Council was not voting on how to use those funds at this meeting. Brookover agreed more police are needed and said he might even suggest adding two officers.
In the discussion, Bacon and Garcia floated the idea of hiring up to 10 more officers, and Bacon and Gregg both said there are several departments that could use more funding. Gregg said the city is asking a lot out of its staff and may need to recognize it needs “more people and fewer projects.”
Brookover agreed but said it makes sense to pass the budget now and amend it later on, if necessary.
“I’d like to have, maybe, the city manager and the financial staff and Mr. Garcia get us something in the next couple months in terms of a proposition of how we can use this, how the ARPA could or couldn’t be used,” he said. “I just think we ought to pass the budget, and then we can do what we need to do.”
Council agreed with Brookover and approved the budget unanimously.
ELi will be bringing a separate overview report about the budget. In the meantime, you can read ELi’s reporting out of the budget work sessions, including coverage of FY24 plans for the Department of Public Works, environmental management, the fire department, the police department, and the Department of Parks, Rec & Arts.
The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) budget also passed.
Council unanimously approved the CDBG budget for the next fiscal year as well.
Presenting to Council, Community and Economic Development Specialist Matt Apostle said the only significant change from the last time the topic was discussed concerns sidewalk repairs.
Apostle said the Department of Public Works planned to do sidewalk improvements in the Southeast Marble Neighborhood in FY24. However, the lowest bid on the sidewalk repairs in the Bailey Neighborhood for FY23 came in over $85,000 more than what is currently allocated in the budget. As a result, DPW requested pushing the repairs in Marble back to FY25, and using the funds initially dedicated to that project in the Bailey Neighborhood instead.
“I feel like sidewalks are becoming East Lansing’s new favorite subject,” Gregg joked.
In addition to sidewalks, CDBG funds will also be used to support local nonprofit organizations and other public improvement projects. Read about that in this special report from ELi.
One speaker during public comment came out in favor of passing the CDBG budget. Haven House Executive Director Gabriel Biber said his organization is one that will benefit from the funding and it is much needed. Haven House helps to prevent homelessness within Ingham County and provides emergency shelter for families experiencing homelessness.
“Thank you for the support,” Biber said. “It’s really more critical than ever for us. There was a little bit more support for some of these critical social service agencies during peak COVID, but now we are really back to scrambling for funding.”
Appointment of two new ELIPOC members among items passed on consent agenda.
The consent agenda contained 11 items besides the shooting-related items mentioned above.
Two new members were appointed to the East Lansing Independent Police Oversight Commission (ELIPOC). The commission has long been asking members of the public to fill vacancies, and now Rasha Thomas and Stephanie Horton will join the group. Thomas’ term runs through Dec. 31, 2025, while Horton’s will expire a year earlier.
Additionally, Shawn Nicholson was appointed to serve on the East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees for a full term that will run through June 30, 2028.
Council also approved a leave of absence from June through September for Housing Commissioner Katherine Cusick. Without this approval, commission members can be removed for missing meetings.
The consent agenda also involved approval of street closings for two major events in the city. The first is a Juneteenth celebration on Sunday, June 18, that will close portions of Abbot Road, Oakhill Avenue and Evergreen Avenue from 10:30 a.m. until about 1 p.m. The other is for MSU’s homecoming celebration and will close stretches of several busy roads, including Abbot, Grand River and Burcham, throughout the day on Sept. 22.