March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Benavides, Hollister, Crawford join Bernero in supporting the millage

Wednesday, April 27 — Four Lansing mayors, past and present, stood sheltered from the rain this morning in Fire Station No. 1 downtown to announce their support for the proposed 4-mill property tax increase.

"I don't know if this has happened besides charitable events," Mayor Virg Bernero said. "It's a testament to the importance of the May 3 election."

The four mayors, flanked by Police Chief Teresa Szymanski and Fire Chief Tom Cochran, took turns encouraging approval of the property tax increase at Tuesday's election. The past three mayors Tony Benavides, David Hollister and Jim Crawford all said they never saw the need for a tax increase when they were in office.

Benavides, who beat Bernero in the 2003 mayoral race to finish Hollister's final term when Hollister took a job in the Jennifer Granholm administration, served more than 20 years on City Council. He said he "wouldn't have even considered" something like a 4-mill increase, for personal and economic reasons.

"When Hollister left, we (the city) had money," he said. "I hated to have any increases in taxes when I was mayor and wouldn't have even considered it."

Benavides, who spends a lot of his time traveling and "doing pro-bono work" these days, said what the city really needs is a 10-mill increase to balance the budget, even though home-rule cities can only levy up to 20 mills. Lansing would be at 19.44 if the millage passes.

"We need 10 mills," he said. "If we do get it (the millage) passed, it brings us closer to what we need to do to balance the budget."

Hollister, who was Lansing mayor for 10 years, said he had the opposite of deficit problems when he was in office.

"I was in the position of arguing for a rainy day fund," he said. "I never faced this kind of decision."

Hollister is senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Prima Civitas Foundation, a nonprofit organization in East Lansing. After stressing the importance of what this millage approval would mean for police and fire response times, I asked why he thought the City Council didn't try to unilaterally increase the operating millage rate by about 3.7 mills, which they would have been allowed to do under the Headlee cap.

"Given the national mood right now and the activity of the Tea Party and tax debate, they (the Council) were being realistic," he said. "It took courage to put this on the ballot."

Crawford, who served a short mayoral term in 1992 and '93 after former Mayor Terry McKane retired but lost in the '93 election to Hollister, also supports the tax increase.

"Raising taxes doesn't come easily or naturally for me," said Crawford, who was a real estate agent for 15 years before his time as mayor and now works for the Karoub Associates lobbying firm in Lansing. "I've convinced myself this is necessary."

He, too, was never in Bernero's position, he said.

"The collapse of property values, combined with the increased costs of everything. It's unprecedented," he said. "Cities are in deep, deep trouble. We can take care of it ourselves or continue in the downward spiral."

Bernero said the gathering "says a lot about where we are" as far as city finances. "This is a bipartisan group up here."

Politics aside, it appears the four are still convivial with one another. As Benavides was leaving the press conference, Bernero was vehemently defending the tax increase to a Lansing State Journal reporter at his characteristic break-neck pace.

Benavides tapped Bernero on the arm, shook his hand and said with a smile, "Relax. Relax."