May 16 2013 12:00 AM

City attorney issues formal legal opinion on proposed fees for streetlights, fire hydrants

City Pulse file photo

Thursday, May 16 — Lansing City Attorney Janene McIntyre issued a formal legal opinion today saying the city could move forward with charging Lansing Board of Water and Light customers fees for fire hydrants as part of Mayor Virg Bernero’s proposed budget. However, the City Council would need to amend an ordinance to allow for a special assessment to pay for streetlights.

While fire hydrant fees could be turned over to BWL immediately for collection, the city would need to levy a special assessment on property owners to pay for operating and maintaining streetlights. That would require an ordinance amendment subject to City Council approval. Bernero will weigh his options over the next few days before the City Council is required to approve a budget for next fiscal year by Monday.

“I’m open to different ways to accomplish the goal of keeping our streetlights on and ensuring that our fire hydrants are in good working order when they are needed to protect property and life,” Bernero said in a statement today. “I appreciate the City Attorney’s guidance in this matter and will reflect on her findings before I take a formal position on how we should proceed.”

In her four-page opinion, McIntyre writes about hydrants that BWL “has it within its power … to adopt or amend its tariffs to provide that water ratepayers bear the burden of the total cost of the water system as long as they are just and reasonable.”

“It is recommended that the LBWL be requested to adopt or amend a tariff to accommodate that there will be no general fund contribution for operation of the water system after July 1, 2013,” she wrote.

A special assessment on property owners to pay for streetlights, however, would require and ordinance amendment that gives the city the explicit right to do so.

“I recommend amending the City’s ordinance(s), specifically, Chapter 1020, to expressly include street lighting. Doing so would provide additional clarification of existing authority and assessment procedure for this ‘special’ special assessment,” she wrote.

In March, Bernero proposed balancing a $5 million budget deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1 by charging city BWL customers for streetlights and fire hydrants. It was expected to raise $5.5 million, which is what the city pays the publicly owned utility now out of its General Fun.

Legal experts questioned whether the City Council had the authority to approve such a budget because it was unclear whether the charge would be a fee or a tax.