Nov. 25 2015 10:43 AM

Neighbors battle unwanted neighbor; city slow to respond, they say

(Because of a reporting error, the original version of this story incorrectly said that Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope "will not require contractors to be licensed." Swope said he will now require contractors to be licensed.)

Elena Keller and her neighbors first noticed the giant Budget rental trucks parked on their busy southeast Lansing neighborhood street a year ago. One was parked in the driveway of 2623 Wabash Road — just blocks from Beekman Center and around the corner from Forestview Elementary School. The other was parked on the shoulder.

December gave way to January, then February — and still the trucks were there. Sometimes they left during the day; but they always returned. When the trucks were gone, the street was crowded with cars of the people who came and drove the two trucks.

“The snow plow would go around the truck parked on the street,” Keller said, noting that one truck was often buried in snow. “Why didn’t the Police Department or the snow plowing department pick up on that?”

On May 20, neighbors said they gave Scott Sanford, the head of the city’s Code Compliance Office, an earful about the trucks. Documents obtained from the City of Lansing show official photos of the trucks were taken on May 21, but still the trucks stayed.

Five months later, the trucks are still being used by Jae L. Burnham, 45, who operates U- Save Moving and Storage LLC from his home in the middle of a busy residential area.

His operation, city and state officials said, likely violates city zoning ordinances and state laws dictating authorization of people and businesses to operate moving companies in the state. Court and other public documents show this is not the first time Burnham and his company have run afoul of the law.

After months of neighbors screaming for action, Lansing and state officials have finally moved. Michigan State Police Motor Carrier Division has requested the Ingham County prosecutor to issue a warrant for his arrest on a charge of operating a moving company without state authority, a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and or a $500 fine.

On Thursday — after Bob Johnson, the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development department director, met with irked neighbors — city zoning officials finally followed up on an Oct. 5 letter notifying Burnham that his business is "clearly in violation of the above conditions.” The letter, signed by Susan Stachowiak the city’s zoning administrator, gave Burnham 10 calendar days to bring his home business operation into compliance with the zoning for his home. Failing to comply, Stachowiak wrote, “will result in issuance of a civil fine. In addition, the city will seek a court order of compliance.”

City law regarding home businesses requires that the business have no employees other than family members and that it operate without special equipment. To be in compliance with the city’s ordinance, Burnham would have to find another location not in a residential area to operate from. Failing to comply can result in fines of $500 per day, a court order and — if the activity continues after the court order — criminal charges for contempt of court.

Burnham said in a telephone interview that his licenses are current, that City Pulse was “lying” about the information it had collected, and the upset neighbors were “fictitious.”

As recently as Friday morning, a large Budget rental truck was parked on the driveway on Wabash. A rut with frozen water in it scarred the shoulder of the road in front of the house, giving evidence of a truck having been there regularly. The garage door stood open, revealing piles of moving pads and other moving related equipment. Burnham’s red Cadillac, plastered with U Save signage, sat in the driveway beside the truck.

While city and state officials were closing in on Burnham’s business, he was making runs. His Facebook page show trips moving people out of the state and across the state.

One of Burnham’s clients during the last year was the Lansing city clerk. He was hired to move voting equipment to various polling locations throughout the city, Clerk Chris Swope said.

“We used them for all three elections in 2015, two days of pre-election delivery and two days of post-election pickup of equipment,” Swope wrote in an email. “As we did with Stevens [the former contractor] for many years, my staff accompanies them in a separate vehicle on the delivery and pickup. We paid them $6,626.25 for the three elections. We did not do a background check, other than a simple web search. I am not aware that we have a copy of license or bond.”

In a followup email, Swope defended hiring the company, noting its $95-an-hour quote was the lowest of three bid from movers Allied bid $125 an hour while Two Men and Truck bid $115 an hour. He also noted the total for all the moves came in well below the $15,000 mark that the city has delineated by policy as requiring formal bidding processes to kick in.

“I am not familiar with licensing requirements for moving companies, so I do not know that they were required to be licensed or indicated to us that they were licensed,” wrote Swope. “I will look into their licensure requirements for the work they performed for us.”

A 1933 law requires any business advertising moving services to have the licenses, according to the Michigan State Police.

Had the city clerk’s office done a full background check, it would have learned that Burnham and U Save Moving were not licensed, as its website claims. The Michigan Public Service Commission authorization Burnham advertises is out of date. A review of the website for that authority reveals that Burnham applied for the authority in summer 2014, but the application was rejected in January. Federal records show his Department of Transportation number is also not current. On Friday, the Michigan State Police confirmed that Burnham and U Save are operating without licenses.

The clerk’s office also would have learned that Burnham had faced misdemeanor charges for running the moving business without a license before. Records from 56 District Court in Charlotte show Burnham was ticketed on Aug. 7, 2013, for operating a hauling business without authorization. He was ultimately arrested in March 2014 and pleaded guilty to a one-count misdemeanor of operating with defective equipment.

As part of a plea bargain entered into the court record on May 5, 2014, Burnham’s guilty plea resulted in the dismissal of one charge of operating without authority. He paid $125 and the matter was closed. The full payment was $75 for court costs and $50 in fines. At the time he was operating out of a rental duplex just off Elmwood in Delta Township.

In addition to the ticket from 2013, Burnham’s landlord in Delta Township was cited for violating zoning laws there as well. Records from the township show that on June 19, 2014, Burnham’s landlords, Janice and Tom Ruhala of Haslett, were notified that the moving company violated the township’s zoning ordinance. On July 31, The Ruhalas were issued a $50 civil fine because the business continued operations from the rented duplex on Dorene Drive. That fine was paid on Aug. 6.

Swope said his office is still reviewing how U Save was hired and what actions need to be taken to make sure contractors in the future meet all the legal requirements of their profession.

Officials from the Bernero administration deny that it took the city months to take action on the situation. (See following story.) Swope said Tuesday his office will now require contractors to be licensed and will verify licensing with the state.