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Mayor vetoes City Council budget cut

Schor defends new neighborhoods coordinator 

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Editor’s Note: Due to a reporter's error, story has been corrected to accurately define the Lansing City Council’s proposed, $197,000 allocation for the position of chief strategy officer, as well as the mayor’s veto-driven counterproposal to keep the funding at $134,000 while still providing a $60,000 boost to the Department of Neighborhoods and Citizens Engagement. 

A veto Tuesday by Lansing Mayor Andy Schor will trigger another debate over the budget after the City Council voted to slash a $60,000 funding increase the mayor had proposed to create the post of neighborhood coordinator. 

The cut was part of the City Council’s initiative to scrape together $197,000 to fund a new executive position called chief strategy officer, who would look for ways for the city to economize. The 5-2 vote saw opposition from 4th Ward member Brian Jackson and At-Large member Peter Spadafore. Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar was absent because of her mother’s death.  

But Schor is pushing back against the elimination of additional funding for the Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement Department, which is new under his administration.  And he only wants to keep $134,000 for the new position. 

“We are doing a tremendous amount of work through the department,” Schor said in an interview Tuesday. “They do all this with a director and an administrative person. The creation of a neighborhood coordinator would allow for more capacity to get these things done, and to do more in our neighborhoods.” 

It’s uncertain whether the Council can overcome his veto. 

The Council deleted funds, totaling $104,000, for another Schor initiative to convert all city-owned facilities to renewable energy sources. Those dollars will now go toward paying for the chief strategy officer position to help curb Lansing’s growing unfunded pension and post-employment benefit liabilities. 

“I’d like all new initiatives stopped until we get this person on board, find out where we’re at and find out where we’re going,” said Councilwoman Jody Washington. “This is absolutely critical. If we don’t take care of this now, the ramifications are only going to get worse.” 

Another Council amendment also gutted a $5,000 allocation to the Lansing Regional Sister Cities Commission and halved a set of $25,000 increases to both the city’s arts and facade grants. Instead, the cash initially designed to grow those programs will also be used for the chief strategy officer position. 

Those measures passed 6-1 at on Monday, with Jackson opposed. 

Jackson voted against the budget altogether after multiple failed efforts to bolster funding that would help combat the effects of climate change. 

And Schor takes no issue with those changes. His veto only objects to another amendment, by Councilman Adam Hussain, to not fund the neighborhood coordinator’s post and instead send that $60,000 to the chief strategy officer. 

Schor’s first executive order created neighborhoods department. He appointed Director Andi Crawford to place neighborhoods “front and center” in his administration by working directly with local residents. The department is primarily tasked with community engagement to better direct ongoing city priorities. 

Crawford and her team coordinate the SERVE Lansing program, Walking Wednesdays, newsletters to neighborhood leaders, community summits, Love Lansing and Neighborhoods in Bloom. Those employees also help to facilitate the issuance of various neighborhood grants through the Neighborhood Advisory Board. 

The department is “necessary to accomplish our goal of stronger neighborhoods,” Schor contended. 

But with ballooning unfunded liabilities, any funding headed toward  “non-essential” departments like that should be frozen altogether, some Council members contended.  

The concept of the newly created position was floated by the city’s Financial Health Team, an 18-member citizens’ group started by Mayor Virg Bernero in 2012. 

The cost of unfunded pension and employment benefits represented about 13.5%, or $25 million, of the city’s $184 million revenue in 2006. In the latest budget, that figure soared to about 22% of about $49.5 million of the city’s $226.4 million in annual revenue. The new hire will be tasked with stopping the problem from worsening. 

And if that is unsuccessful? The state can appoint an emergency manager to fix the problem, as has happened elsewhere, including Detroit. That person would then be given sweeping powers to sell city property, alter labor contracts or dice up departments and other city initiatives altogether to bolster revenues. 

Overriding the mayor’s veto, which needs to occur within two weeks, is a steep hill to climb. Wood and Washington plan to provide two of the six votes required to nullify Schor’s veto. Hussain would presumably join the opposition. From there, though, the outlook is cloudy. 

Jackson remains undecided. Dunbar and Councilman Jeremy Garza couldn’t be reached for comment. Spadafore and Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley both plan to side with Schor. And without more votes, the mayoral veto is poised to stay put. 

“I won’t be voting to override it,” Spitzley added. “This whole thing was about compromise, and I can compromise. If I could, I wouldn’t approve any new initiatives — aside from police and fire — until after this chief strategy officer has an opportunity to review our processes, but this veto is not a hill that I want to die on.” 

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