March 18 2013 12:00 AM

The mayor presents his budget and the Council debates park improvements

Tuesday, March 29 — Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero spoke with a solemn tone Monday evening in his office on the ninth floor of City Hall. He had just proposed a fiscal year 2012 budget to the City Council on the floor above — the smallest city budget since 2001.

While the fate of state revenue sharing money and a potential 4-mill property tax increase is uncertain, the mayor presented a $99.5 million General Fund budget — a roughly 9 percent reduction from the current fiscal year — based solely on cuts to services.

Here’s what the mayor proposes:

  • Eliminating 78 positions in the Police Department and 71 positions in the Fire Department, with a majority of them being layoffs of current employees (some of the positions are unfilled);

  • A 20 percent decrease in the number of police officers on patrol around the clock (19 to 15) and the number of detectives assigned to investigations and special operations (49 to 38);

  • Eliminating neighborhood watch, school liaison community policing officers — a total of 11 positions;

  • Reducing the number of fire engines that respond to calls, from 12 to eight;

  • Closing three of the city’s eight fire stations (Bernero would not specify which three);

  • Eliminating $4 million in sewer, road and parks maintenance projects;

  • Eliminating road reconstruction projects for local streets and all but grant-funded projects for major streets;

  • Eliminating funding for the sidewalk gap program for “most routine sidewalk maintenance”;

  • Cutting the city forestry program by 15 percent;

  • Eliminating any new capital improvement projects for parks;

  • Reducing the number of code compliance officers and housing inspectors from 10 to eight;

  • Finding private management for Groesbeck Golf Course and the city’s three cemeteries, which are subsidized with more than $500,000 annually; and

  • Increased fees for ambulance service, parks and recreation, sewer rates and recycling fees and new fees for impounding vehicles following drunken driving arrests.

If the proposed 4-mill property tax increase is approved by voters, Bernero recommends $3.75 million go toward the police budget to restore 44 of 78 positions eliminated in the budget proposal; $3.65 million to the Fire Department budget to reinstate three fire engines and two fire stations and 36 of 71 positions eliminated in the budget proposal; and $1.1 million to the Public Service Department budget for reconstruction and road repair projects.

The proposed millage would generate nearly $9 million, $400,000 of which would go into Brownfield and TIFA funds for improvement projects in certain areas of the city.

Bernero called this year’s budget process “by far the largest budget challenge” since he assumed office in 2006. “I take no pleasure in putting somebody out of a job.”

City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said the committee will “nit-pick” the proposed budget up until the May 3 election on the $8.9 million proposed millage increase takes place. After that, the Council will have about two weeks to vote on a budget.

Following Bernero’s budget presentation, the Council moved on to a debate over a parks grant application and approval of a tax incentive application for the former Knapp’s building downtown.

The Council voted 5-3 to approve an application for a state Department of Natural Resources and Environment grant that would help pay for nearly $600,000 in improvements to Grand River Park between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Waverly Road.

However, application materials did not specify how much the state and the city would be putting in. The grant requires a minimum of 25 percent from the city, yet the state is only contributing $300,000, as At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood noted during Monday’s meeting.

That means the city and state would split the costs 50/50, with each putting in $300,000 to cover the costs of the project. Parks Director Murdock Jemerson, who was at Monday’s meeting, assured the Council that the matching dollars would be pursued through more grants.

However, Wood said she spoke with the grant coordinator at the state level earlier in the day who said the city couldn’t pay the match with grant funds, but has to do so with “cash.” Jemerson disputed this and said, “We should ask him again.”

At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries and First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt disputed the project because they say it’s not in the city’s five-year parks master plan. Jemerson said it was and falls under the “capital improvements schedule,” which loosely includes upgrades to the River Trail. Jeffries said this wasn’t a River Trail project, but a Grand River Park project. Jemerson said it is part of an effort to connect the park to the River Trail in the future.

The resolution passed 5-3 with Wood, Hewitt and Jeffries dissenting.

In development news, a Renaissance Zone application for the former Knapp’s building downtown was approved 7-1 by Council, with Wood dissenting. A Renaissance Zone designation frees the property owners — in this case, the Eyde Co. — from nearly all state and local taxes for up to 15 years. After that, the full property tax assessments will be phased in over three years.

Jeffries, who chairs the Development and Planning Committee, said the project will be a “net gain” for the city and add about 200 jobs in the process. “And there’s the intangible of a brand new building, creating new energy,” he said.

Mark Clouse, a spokesman for the Eyde Co. said after the Council’s approval that the Renaissance Zone application still needs to be approved at the state level. While Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed ending incentive packages like Renaissance Zones, Clouse said the goal is to get moving quickly on the project before anything is set in stone at a state level. He said the plan is to start demolition before the end of this year and to complete the $36.4 million project in 2013.

In other news, the Council denied claims by two Lansing residents for assessment fees on their properties. Joel Christie sought to eliminate $1,030 in tag monitoring fees for his property at 1125 W. Mt. Hope Ave. John Andrus also sought to eliminate his tag monitoring fees for property at 731 Julia St., which totaled $1,350.

The Council also unanimously approved the transfer of more than $65,000 for River Trail repairs and maintenance for a bridge section near Elm Street in REO Town. The money was to be used for upgrades to the River Trail map system and a shelter at Hunter Park.

In scheduling news, the Council set dates for three upcoming public hearings on various matters. On April 11, the Council will hold a public hearing on amendments to the medical marijuana moratorium ordinance. Nearly 30 businesses were removed from the original ordinance because they were not in the proper zoning area, moved or did not respond to requests for more information from the city.

Two public hearings were scheduled for the Council’s April 25 meeting. The first will consider the city’s spending plan for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME Program and Emergency Shelter Grant Program funds for the upcoming fiscal year. The second is for a special land use permit sought by Dianne Lewis-Hartwell, who wants to open a child daycare center at 3025 Cynwood St. near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand River Avenue in north Lansing.

In memorial news, the Council unanimously approved four tribute resolutions. The first was for the third annual Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Observance, recognizing the influential advocate for farm workers and founder of United Farm Workers and declaring Wednesday Cesar E. Chavez Day in the city.

The second recognized Pastor Lester D. Stone, who was “instrumental” in helping elect black public officials in the city and led numerous community outreach projects. Stone was recognized at a ceremony Friday hosted by the Sixty Plus, Inc. Elderlaw Clinic of Cooley Law School.

The third paid tribute to Larry Leatherwood, founder of the Uplift Our Youth Foundation, which helps fund local nonprofit agencies. Leatherwood has been active on community and statewide boards and commissions.

A fourth tribute recognized Karen Hartwig, a lifelong Lansing-area resident who was active in the LGBT community, devoting a great deal of her time to Michigan Pride and the Suits in the City.