Dec. 14 2017 09:57 AM

After citizens reject an income tax, everything is on the table


After citizens reject an income tax, everything is on the table

Facing a budget crunch after voters rejected an income tax, the East Lansing City Council is taking a hard look at where to cut — and arts and recreation are in the crosshairs.

“The bottom line is there are going to be cuts,” said Councilwoman Shanna Draheim. “There are going to be cuts to services that people don’t like. Everyone has the things they love, so we are not looking forward to that.”

Following the income tax vote’s failure, nothing is sacred. The city needs to address a legacy cost of nearly $130 million in pension liability and retiree health care.

City Manager George Lahanas, during a special City Council meeting Sunday, provided a memo of potential cuts to parks and recreation. That hypothetical proposal includes yanking all support from the city for the Summer Solstice Jazz and Great Lakes Folk festivals.

Does that mean the arts and culture offerings of city that has touted itself as “the city of the arts” have bullseye on them?

“What we discussed isn’t a list of things we want to cut or are certainly planning to cut,” said Lahanas. “The list we went over comes from direct questions by City Council of what would be the savings if we didn’t do those programs.”

Like East Lansing’s other public entities, the Parks and Recreation Department will inevitably feel the sting of a reduced budget. Lahanas requested that the department identify ways it could swing either a 5 or 10 percent budget reduction, which would entail cutting costs of either $97,000 or $194,000.

The hypothetical 5 percent budget reduction proposed by Parks and Recreation Director Tim McCaffrey rolls back spending by pulling $10,500 in cash support from the jazz festival, $15,000 from the folk festival, $4,000 from the East Lansing Emerging Leaders Program and saves the remaining $68,000 by eliminating a full-time parks and recreation staffer. The 10 percent plan is the same, but nixes an additional full-time staffer.

But those proposals, hypothetical or not, don’t set well with some in the city.

“Overall in the city’s budget, it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Sarah Gonzalez Triplett, who chairs the East Lansing Arts Commission. “It is one of those items that you do see both a tangible and intangible return on investment for the city.”

The East Lansing Art Festival is not under the same amount of pressure as its folk and jazz counterparts, given that it does not rely on any funding from the city. The festival’s director, Michelle Carlson, chose not to comment, saying she would merely be speculating on “what-ifs.”

The Summer Solstice Jazz Festival’ s coordinator, Benjamin Hall said the funds being looked at by the city as potential cuts have helped the festival expand into achieving national recognition.

“It’s become more of a regionally and nationally recognized festival,” Hall said.

“If they take away that support, it will go back to what it was before, mostly attended by local people without a diverse regional lineup.”

Hall said the festival is valuable regardless of a direct revenue stream for the city. “In the summertime it kind of turns into a ghost town here,” said Hall. “The festivals and summer concert series are some of the only things that bring people into East Lansing.”

Lahanas agreed that the festivals benefit East Lansing’s vibrancy, but he added that those benefits don’t translate into hard cash for the city’s budget.

“If we give them a $10,000 subsidy, that money is gone,” said Lahanas.

“People come, they eat, they drink, they hang out. Those things are great, but there isn’t a direct payback.”

Whether community enrichment will be considered as valuable to the city as saving on expenditures is something Lahanas said the Council will have to decide as they move forward.

“I’m not always going to be looking into what revenue they bring,” said Draheim. “We have some things that operate at a moderate cost but have huge intangible economic benefits for our businesses and community.”

Leading up to Sunday’s meeting, newly elected Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann voiced frustrations about his vision for East Lansing and the impending budget cuts at the City Council’s Nov. 21 meeting.

“If you stop making payments and the bank repossesses your car, nobody would say that’s vindictive or punitive,” said Altmann. “You stop paying for something so you don’t get it.”

While speaking about where cuts should be considered, Altmann suggested pulling all financial support away from the festivals, grants from the arts commission and closing or selling the Hannah Community Center, which has its own art programs.

Altmann summed up his feelings by saying his vision of the city had changed into something more of a bedroom community and he was no longer sure if it made sense to encourage bringing more urban features to East Lansing.

These comments raised some eyebrows across East Lansing’s community and Altmann’s fellow Council members.

“Look at the surrounding areas.

Lansing, DeWitt, the city of Jackson have had a revival when it comes to the arts,” said Triplett. “They’re exceeding their economic development. So those comments struck a chord with me.”

But after Sunday’s meeting and discussion, Altmann elaborated further on the point he was trying to make and took a few steps back about the extensive recreation cuts.

“I was trying to find ways to think about our vision for the city, what we need to cut, what we need to emphasize,” said Altmann. “One of the strengths of the city is that it’s a good place to live and do your work. If we emphasize that dimension it changes what amenities need to be cut.”

Altmann said he had been under the impression that the festivals and other recreation staples came at a higher cost. “What we’ve learned is that cutting a lot of them wouldn’t save us a lot of money,” said Altmann. “They are largely self sufficient.”

“We need to engage in a thoughtful dialogue,” said Triplett. “I am thrilled to hear he’s changed his tune.”