March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Ferguson: Council took easy way out on millage election

Wednesday, April 27 — The chairman of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees said today "I scratch my head" about the Lansing City Council's decision to have voters approve a property tax increase to raise revenues when the Council could have unilaterally done it itself.

Joel Ferguson, a 1956 Sexton High School graduate and the first African American elected to the Council in 1967, said he will vote yes Tuesday on the property tax increase.

He was asked on "City Pulse on the Air" if he thought the Council took the easy way out.

"No question about that," he said.

Ferguson said Council members and Mayor Virg Bernero were elected to make "tough decisions" because they "have all the facts" about the city's true fiscal situation. Ferguson said it's not worth spending tens of thousands of dollars on an election when the city really needs the revenue.

"They're elected to make tough decisions and not pass it on to someone else. Their job is to make sure Lansing stays who Lansing is. They have all the facts," he said. "I'm going to vote yes (on the millage). In the same breath, we don't need to spend $70,000 (on holding an election) when we really elected them to make tough decisions."

While the Council could not vote to raise property taxes by 4 mills, it could vote to raise them by about 3.7 mills. The state Headlee Amendment puts a cap on how high the city can unilaterally raise taxes. Lansing's operating millage is 15.44 mills and the Council could raise it up to nearly 19.17 mills. The millage — if approved Tuesday — would override Headlee and allow Council to raise taxes up to 20 mills.

The millage, if approved, would generate $8.5 million to be devoted solely to police, fire and roads services.

When asked this morning if it would have shown more political courage by the Council to raise it unilaterally, Bernero said no.

“In this environment, a public vote was politically necessary,” Bernero said. “It’s a Democratic system. It would have created an ugly political atmosphere. It’s one thing for politicians to force you to pay. It’s another for you to (vote to) give it.”

Bernero said if the millage fails, he will have no regrets about the city going to voters for an increase.

“I say they (the Council) had the smarts to do it right. It invited the public to a discussion,” he said. “Succeed or fail, it’s the right way to go. There will be no Monday morning quarter-backing by me.”

Ferguson agrees that the election is politically savvy for Council members, but they still have a job to make tough choices, he said.

"They (Council) were clever to put it on the ballot," Ferguson said, adding that maybe the Council "will scare enough people to vote yes. I want to vote yes because they (the city) need more money to operate the city, period."

Ferguson also said the city should be spending on "the front side rather than the back side" of city operations. To him, that means on parks and education. As it pertains to police funding, it means cutting patrol officers rather than school liaison officers, Ferguson said.

Bernero's proposed budget — without the millage — includes cutting 24 out of 115 patrol officers, while cutting all four school liaison officers.

"I read the (police) chief (Teresa Szymanski) talking about getting rid of school officers. We need them before we need patrolmen," Ferguson said. "Make sure we have a safe environment where teachers can educate."