Sept. 29 2010 12:00 AM

The GOP goes fishing on Bernero’s spending

Wednesday, Sept. 29 — A new advertisement launched by the Republican Governors Association against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero targets three mayoral office expenditures, one of which is an aquarium now in its sixth term.

The ad alleges Bernero spent nearly $24,000 in taxpayer dollars for food, personalized pencils and an office aquarium. The Detroit News reported Monday that the association obtained credit card records from the mayor’s office to back its claims.

The Republican Governors Association did not return calls for comment.

City of Lansing Finance Director Jerry Ambrose confirmed that those expenses came out of the mayor’s office budget, which is a portion of the general fund. Maintenance to the aquarium costs roughly $100 per month, totaling about $1,200 per year, Ambrose said.

The aquarium was installed in the mayor’s office in 1993, when former Mayor David Hollister moved it from his office at the Capitol where he served as state representative. Hollister said he paid for its maintenance through his Office Holder Fund, which was supported by campaign contributions, not taxpayer dollars, he said.

Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets in Old Town, sold the aquarium to Hollister. He recalls walking across Capitol Avenue with Hollister in 1993 to plan where to install the tank in the mayor’s office. He and Hollister are in agreement that the tank is worth the expense.

“That tank can be a fantastic ambassador to the Lansing area,” Preuss said. “That office, if not for the fish tank, would be just an office.”

He thinks the association’s ad, which portrays the tank as a waste of taxpayer dollars, is taken out of context. “Hopefully the public doesn’t see it as an extravagance, but of something important like nature and relaxation,” he said. “That’s a lot different than our cold, tense world.”

Preuss said school children come through the mayor’s office all the time and the aquarium grabs their attention. Hollister agrees.

“The mayor’s office is a very public place, and we went out of our way to entertain children,” Hollister said. “It really personalized the mayor’s office and humanized it.”

Hollister first learned of the healing powers of fish tanks from his pediatrician’s office. The tank seemed to have a “calming effect” on children who came in, he said. He installed it in his Capitol office when he was a legislator before being elected mayor because there were a lot of low-income families and children who came through the  offices.

“These were people on edge, and we did it in hopes to bring their blood pressure down,” Hollister said. “It always served a purpose.”

The 72-gallon tank is 4 feet by 16 inches and 24 inches tall, Preuss said. He thinks the Snyder ad did not capture the nature of the aquarium, which he called “calming, slow and nice” and not some lavish, “over-the-top system.” During monthly maintenance, technicians check the fish’s health, water quality and cleanliness of the tank, Preuss said.

The ad ends by zooming in on Rick Snyder in a dimly lit office while the narrator says, “A plan for fiscal responsibility for Michigan? Priceless.”

Check out the ad for yourself here.