East Lansing’s contracted lobbyists updated City Council and the public on Tuesday of their efforts at the state level to secure funding and protect local ordinances for the City.
The City has contracted McAlvey, Merchant & Associates to lobby on the City’s behalf for the past 25 years, according to Maureen Watson-Bolger, McAlvey’s representative at Tuesday’s discussion-only meeting. Per previous reporting, records show McAlvey has been paid $25,000 per year by the City through at least June 2020.
Despite the long history with McAlvey and the City, formal lobbying reports to the City have been scant in recent memory, until a renewed push to get them more regularly yielded results.
McAlvey provided a lobbying report in July 2021, after the public and Council member Lisa Babcock requested that the public get filled in on what these lobbyists were up to on behalf of the City.
At this Tuesday’s meeting, Watson-Bolger expressed the firm’s amenability to increasing communication with the Council and reminded Council that the firm openly communicates with City Manager George Lahanas as they work at his discretion on matters of interest for the City.
After Watson-Bolger presented at the discussion-only meeting, Council member Lisa Babcock requested a quarterly schedule or report to City Council from McAlvey. City Manager George Lahanas said the firm currently provides quarterly updates and just sent the City a report in December. It did not appear that Council members were aware of that report, and no formal presentation on it was made in December.
“After my appointment [to Council], I was introduced to people but not to lobbyists,” Council member Dana Watson, noting a “disconnect” regarding City Council and the City’s lobbyists.
“It’s hard to support public interest when there’s minimal information that we get last minute from lobbyists,” Watson said.
In the update on Jan. 18, Watson-Bolger outlined four successes made by her firm, all of which work to benefit the City in one of two fundamental ways: By securing funding for the City or by protecting existing ordinances.
East Lansing received a carve-out in a bill that passed in the Michigan House in Oct. 2021.
Although a bill restricting rental overlay districts passed through the Michigan House of Representatives last year, lobbyists negotiated an exception to the bill specifically for East Lansing. It still needs to pass in the State Senate and be signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer before officially becoming the law.
The law would enable short-term and long-term residential rentals where they were previously illegal, ridding local municipalities of some of their rental-restriction overlay districts.
Just last year, some East Lansing homeowners expressed concern over potentially losing rental-restriction overlay districts in their neighborhood, while others in East Lansing advocated for the bill in an effort to dismantle rental discrimination that bars families from renting a home in East Lansing.
In accordance with the voices in favor of the rental restrictions — including comments to ELi from former Mayor Aaron Stephens and City’s Council’s resolution stating opposition to the bill — McAlvey ensured that the version of the bill passed by the state House didn’t affect East Lansing.
Watson-Bolger stated that, “the City was the only local government to receive a carve-out in that bill… the carve-out, negotiated by one of our local legislators, goes a long way toward protecting the City’s current rental approach.”
You can learn more about East Lansing’s rental-restriction overlay districts here.
McAlvey helped remedy the City’s annual challenge of obtaining funding for fire services.
Fire protection grants were created to allow state dollars to support fire service buildings and local fire stations, instead of relying on taxpayer dollars to fund them. The City of East Lansing was eligible for these grants that compensate local municipalities for serving state-owned buildings because the East Lansing Fire Department (ELFD) services Michigan State University in addition to the city.
Although one of ELFD’s two stations is on MSU’s campus, the City incurs most of the costs associated with that station. Additionally, the City does not pull in property tax revenue from Michigan State University to fund any of these services, either.
However, year after year, these grants proved unreliable in their ability to fully fund East Lansing’s fire services since they were subjected to the whim of annual state budgets.
At the meeting on Jan. 18, Watson-Bolger spoke of how her firm secured funding for the City’s fire services in lieu of depending on unreliable fire protection grants.
Several years ago, McAlvey identified other fire service financing that has been able to create stable financial support for East Lansing’s fire service buildings, which in turn allowed other priorities to take precedence in the City’s annual budgeting.
No further details were given regarding these funding streams or when this lobbying took place.
The Coleman Road extension project was made possible because of the efforts McAlvey made alongside local legislators, a bipartisan coalition of businesses, and other government leaders.
Watson-Bolger said it took years of planning and pivoting to collect the state funds for this road project that ELi first reported on in Feb. 2019.
The road was officially open to traffic in Oct. 2020. The $7.6 million state grant project originated to alleviate a congested area.
More on the opening of the road and the partners behind the project can be read here.
Last on Watson-Bolger’s list of updates was a reminder of her firm’s work regarding revenue sharing.
Revenue sharing, in this instance, is when a state shares portions of its tax income with local governments, like the City of East Lansing.
Cities across the nation are currently experiencing an influx of additional government support because of funding from programs like the American Rescue Plan Act, however this is not normally the case.
In years when budgets are tight, states often reduce their revenue sharing costs before other items, leaving local governments to deal with their own restricted budgets.
Watson-Bolger reminded Council that part of her firm’s annual efforts on their behalf is the protection and monitoring of East Lansing’s portion of Michigan’s revenue shares.
“[It’s] important to make sure the City gets the resources needed to support residents,” Watson-Bolger said.
Further information concerning successes or details of this lobbying were not shared during the presentation.
Watson-Bolger did not present a schedule of actions or a comprehensive year-in-summary report of the firm’s 2021 lobbying efforts. Instead, what she presented appeared to be a list of three successes the firm has had over recent years and one reminder of an effort they focus on each year (revenue sharing).
She also spoke of the long term strategic efforts and high level relationship building that her firm undertakes to serve East Lansing’s goals.
This article was updated at 8:15 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2022 to more clearly reflect issues related to ELFD funding.