Countywide parks millage?

By Andy Balaskovitz

Maybe, if Mayor Bernero is successful in getting Ingham County commissioners to approve a millage proposal at its meeting Tuesday night. But did the effort come too late to make November ballots?

Monday, Aug. 27 — Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is seeking Ingham County Board of Commissioners approval for a four-year, countywide millage that would fund maintenance and operations for city-owned parks "that are considered regional assets,” a resolution before the board says.

At the top of the list for potential parks that would fall under county operations are the Lansing River Trail, Ranney Skate Park and Fenner Nature Center. A resolution before the board seeks to place the question on Nov. 6 ballots. The board would have to approve the resolution at its meeting Tuesday night in order to make the General Election ballot.

If the .5-mill levy is approved, the resolution says it would generate over $3.2 million in the first year.

“I’ve been talking to the county for a long time about the need for a county parks millage,” Bernero said in an interview. “We need a more robust county parks system.”

The idea is similar to Bernero’s effort of turning operations of Potter Park Zoo over to the county, which happened in 2006 after county voters approved a zoo millage: If the attraction brings in visitors from throughout the region, why should city taxpayers be the ones funding the maintenance?

“It’s not fair to Lansing taxpayers,” Bernero said, adding that he’s “happy to discuss the idea further” and that the two entities will “need a working definition of what a regional park is.”

Moreover, the Board of Commissioners did not approve extending a maintenance contract with the city in which the county agreed to maintain 25 city parks that are less than five acres and all parks along the River Trail. That agreement expires Sept. 30.

However, at least one commissioner is upset with the short notice of the proposal. Mark Grebner, who chairs the board’s finance committee, said while the idea merits further discussion, it simply came too late to get on November ballots. According to Grebner and two other commissioners, the idea came to the board by way of a phone call from the Mayor’s Office and nothing was submitted in writing.

“I pointed out that in the real world with something like this, a big idea that involves millions of dollars and a relationship between two units of government, that you propose it in writing,” Grebner said.

When it comes to considering how the money would be spent and whose employees would be involved, “We wouldn’t do this eight days before the deadline for placing something on the ballot, to put it mildly,” Grebner said.

Perhaps the city should have submitted an idea that could have been discussed for a year and fleshed out, Grebner suggested. However, he’s open to the idea of regionalizing at least the River Trail, which could be expanded to connect other parts of the region, he said: “It’s an idea to look at.”

At least two commissioners supported the idea in committee — Brian McGrain and Rebecca Bahar-Cook. McGrain said he supports it because “time is of the essence,” both to get the question on the ballot and to bring in much-needed revenue for the county.

McGrain said he will “most likely” be voting yes, but that he will suggest lowering the proposed rate. “I don’t think we need that much,” he said, referring to the .5-mill proposal.

While it’s an issue that will undoubtedly be discussed in the coming year, Bernero said he’d like to see the idea before voters at the Nov. 6 election. While the timeline is tight, the mayor is optimistic.

“Some of the greatest achievements happen under tight deadlines,” he said.