The announcement Tuesday by Mayor Andy Schor that he has pushed the pause button on the sale and redevelopment of Lansing City Hall is rekindling a discussion to create a regional district court and police lockup facility.
Talk of combining Ingham County’s three district courts — 54A in Lansing, 54B in East Lansing and the 55th for the rest of the county — started in 2010 as the local leaders looked for cost savings in the wake of the Great Recession.
“It’s time to have that conversation,” 55th District Judge Thomas Boyd said Monday in an interview in his chambers. Previous discussions didn’t go very far, said Boyd. But a review conducted by the chief judges of each court eight years ago showed combining the courts administration could save as much as $1.7 million.
The savings would come from eliminating duplicated positions such as chief clerk. The plan did not consider combining all the operations into one building.
“I have been in many conversations about locations for Ingham County District courts over the past eight to 10 years,” Boyd wrote in an email. He said sites that were brought up included the Frandor shopping center area and at Jolly and Dunckel roads.
East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said the previous recommendations did not find support from the East Lansing City Council or the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office.
“It kind of bit the dust,” Meadows said, but he added, “It's still a good plan.”
Local leaders, such as Meadows, said they are open to possible partnerships in creating a combined district court lockup facility but caution consolidations could take years.
“I've talked to Andy about what we would hope to achieve out of a consolidation and we're still taking a look at that,” said Meadows. “I think he wants to move on his City Hall decision, but what I've tried to make clear is that it's a complicated issue. It is not something that happens overnight.”
Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner concurred with Meadows.
“We're happy to cooperate,” Grebner, an East Lansing Democrat and long-time commissioner, said. “We've been pitching court consolidation over 20 years” to the county Board of Commissioners. “We could never get their interest.”
Grebner said the city of East Lansing’s growing financial concerns give consideration of court consolidation more urgency.
“East Lansing has suddenly noticed that the court is draining money from them, although with fake accounting they can pretend it's not,” he said. “And now they want to save a lot of money because they're desperate for cash.”
Meadows said the city has been quietly discussing the courts as a cost-saving measure for “some time” but it’s been in the shadows.
“It's something that you look at if you don't have the partners to actually accomplish it, then you sort of upset the court and everybody else with the idea that something might happen when it is far more complicated and difficult than people realize,” Meadows said.
Cart before horse?
Schor’s decision delays a plan worked out in the last months of the Bernero administration to sell City Hall for redevelopment as a hotel by a Chicago firm, Beitler Real Estate. In turn, the city would move into the old Lansing State Journal building, on Lenawee Street on the south side of downtown.
The Bernero plan, however, did not determine what would happen with the city’s district court or police operations, including a short-term lockup facility, which are housed in the City Hall complex at Michigan and Capitol avenues.
Four proposals for the sale and redevelopment of the complex were considered last year. Mayor Virg Bernero selected Beitler to redevelop the mid-century building. The developer told the Council that it was prepared to invest $42 million into developing the hotel.
Redevelopment of the LSJ building, also by Beitler, could cost as much as $50 million, Beitler Real Estate and city officials told the City Council in December.
City Council President Carol Wood said city officials last year said the lockup and courts building could cost an additional $40 million, But at the breakneck pace set by Bernero, the city would have found itself moving the courts and lockup at least twice before they got into a final location. Schor said that would be hard on the employees and the operations, as well as on citizens.
A critical City Council hammered Bernero administration officials about the missing plans for a police and courts during a Dec. 11 public hearing on the proposals. Grebner called the Bernero plan “half a plan.”
Whither City Hall preservation
The delay potentially jeopardizes preserving the current City Hall, considered a significant example of mid-century architecture in mid-Michigan.
Schor said his “preference” remains the Beitler plan, which of the four considered by the Bernero administration best preserved City Hall.
He said Paul Beitler, president of Beitler Real Estate, said he “understood” the reason for the delay “and he said he is still interested in moving forward but we can’t lock him into anything until we have an understanding of the timeline, but I still very much like his proposal and we will see what the future holds.”
He cautioned, though, that “you never know what’s going to happen with the economy, what’s going to happen with costs and things, so once we know, you’ll know and he’ll know and then he will let us know.”
Moreover, Schor said that while his preference remains the Beitler plan, “We had four submissions for this building and there could be others.”
“If he were to say at some point ‘I’m out,’ then we would consider other proposals.”
Moreover, his preference for the Beitler plan is “not enough to add additional costs.”
“The citizens of Lansing have to come first, and they have to have access to courts, we have to have a place to house our inmates. So to get out of this building in two or three months into a transitional space not knowing where the courts and the lockup are going to be I believe would be irresponsible on our part.”
All he would say about the Bernero administration’s decision to move ahead without a plan for the courts and the lockup was, “They moved on their own timeline.”
The only location Schor specifically mentioned as a location for the courts and lockup was the Veterans Memorial Courthouse, on Kalamazoo Street in downtown Lansing, but he did not preclude other sites.
He said the courts and lockup are “separable, but I wouldn’t put them too far apart.”
East Lansing’s Meadows has previously said he had an interest in a shared lockup facility but expressed concern about the time it would take an officer off the road to transport a prisoner to the location. He opposed setting up a joint facility at the Veterans Memorial building, but he said would be interested in a location nearer the border of Lansing and East Lansing.
Grebner, who chairs the commissioners’ finance committee, notes that any deal would ultimately have to be a “good deal” for the county. That means the agreements will have to provide a solid and proven system to pay for the buildings and operations.
Schor said he is interested in having the Ingham County Sheriff ’s Office operate lockup. “They can take on that liability because this is what they do,” said Schor. “I think in my ideal world the county would agree to do a lockup for district and circuit court.”
Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth has previously said he would not be opposed to that, but it would have to be a cost-neutral option. That means the city would have to foot the bill for deputies to staff the facility, cover insurance and other associated costs.