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Wednesday, October 14,2009

Giant LEAP

Ingham County won’t fund LEAP unless airport, zoo regionalization progress is made

by Neal McNamara

At a time when many local, state and county governments are facing budget shortfalls, the Ingham County commissioners are struggling over whether to pay $35,000 to remain a member of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership — better known as LEAP — in the 2010 budget year, which begins Jan. 1.


Commissioners have been wrestling with the LEAP funding for almost the entire year, beginning with discussions of the regional business development agency’s effectiveness.


Commission Chairwoman Deb DeLeon, D-Lansing, said that there’s a split on the board whether to fund LEAP, and a compromise
was reached that would withhold county funding until LEAP demonstrates
that it’s making progress in regionalizing the Capital Region
International Airport and Potter Park Zoo — which essentially means
counties like Eaton and Clinton stepping in to fund the entities.


“The
compromise for the current year was to pay the membership at the full
rate and if we were to continue that we’d have to see some progress to
feel justified in spending that kind of money,” she said.


If
LEAP shows “progress” on regionalizing the airport and zoo — which, to
DeLeon, would mean having representatives of Eaton and Clinton counties
ready to sit down and talk — the commission could still fund LEAP out
of its contingency fund, as it is doing this year. The contingency
fund, which contains about $300,000, is a reserve the county is
supposed to use for unforeseen expenditures.


LEAP
is funded by a number of local governments and private businesses at
different levels. At the “governor” level, Ingham County gets a voting
seat on the LEAP board for $35,000. Other LEAP governors include the
cities of Lansing and East Lansing, Delhi, Delta and Meridian
townships, and other public entities, including Michigan State
University, Lansing Community College, Capital Area Transportation
Authority and the Lansing Board of Water and Light. LEAP is also
supported by “cornerstone” members, which pay $10,000 but do not get a
vote on the board, and “supporters,” which contribute money based on
their size.


LEAP
is a “public/private” partnership, which helps businesses site new
locations in the area, creates strategic plans for the region and
markets the Lansing area. Last year, LEAP helped locate an IBM office
near the MSU campus.


LEAP
President Denyse Ferguson said that she had not yet had a discussion
with the county about its funding for the 2010 budget year. However,
she said LEAP will release a report on Nov. 10 that speaks to efforts
to regionalize the airport and the zoo.


Ferguson
said the county had made a non-binding three-year commitment to fund
LEAP. This would be the county’s third year as a member.


While
finishing the 2009 county budget, some commissioners wanted to fund
only $5,000 toward LEAP, but after it was discovered the county would
lose its vote on the board, the commission decided to fund the full
$35,000.


Talks of
regionalizing the airport, which is in Clinton County but is paid for
solely by Ingham County taxpayers because of a 1970 referendum, have
been ongoing for years. Larry Martin, chairman of the Clinton County
Board of Commissioners, said that he approached the airport board
several years ago offering to pay $18,000 for two non-voting seats for Clinton County. He said he was rebuffed.


“My
constituents in Clinton County are against any type of millage to
support the airport,” Martin said. “There’s a certain amount of hard
feelings on behalf of the airport.”


Eaton
County Board Chairman Joseph Brehler, who once sat on the airport board
because he lives in the city of Lansing, said he spoke with former
Lansing Mayor David Hollister and representatives from LEAP several
years ago about regionalizing the airport.


“I’ve
always supported the idea of regionalization,” Brehler said. “It’s
never really gotten off the ground since Hollister was the mayor
because no one has ever come forward with a plan. We here in Eaton
County would be happy to take the concept to the people for a vote.”


Ingham
County Controller Matt Myers is the county’s representative on the LEAP
board. He says he has been talking with his fellow controllers in Eaton
and Clinton counties to “get them to the table” to discuss further
regionalization, and LEAP has been a part of that.


“It’s
not important as to how much they pay so much as getting them as part
of the discussion. The intent is to get it regionalized. If we make
progress in that direction, even though they may not have a millage, if
we can at least get them to the table, we are making progress.”


Ingham
County Commissioner Marc Grebner, D-East Lansing, said, “I’ve never
really been in favor of funding” LEAP. He questions whether it's worth
it to fund an agency that he perceives as just talking to corporate
site searchers.


“If we’ve got nobody calling, should the county put money into it?” he said.


Ferguson
said that the consequences of the county’s not participating in LEAP
would be that its voice would not be heard. She said that it would be
impossible for the county to continue to be a voting member without
paying the $35,000 membership fee.


“We’ll
be disappointed to not have a key county not sitting there, not having
the players advocate for their key issues,” she said. “LEAP will go
forward.


“This is
an all-play exercise. The individual communities have to decide what
the value of sitting at the table is and making sure their ideas are
addressed and voiced and so on.”





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