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Tuesday, May 18,2010

KIDS IN THE HALL

by Neal McNamara
Thanks to a last minute session of sausage making Monday night, Lansing City Council came to a compromise on city employee salary cuts and approved the $109 million city budget unanimously with no malarkey —  though there were a few grudged “yes” votes.

Council held lengthy budget hearings for much of the last month, though the approved budget is remarkably similar to the one proposed by Mayor Virg Bernero in March — except Council kind of re-worked the method by which non-emergency city employees will have to give up a chunk of their pay.

In a Committee of the Whole meeting before Monday’s regular meeting, Council was down to four proposals that would sheer $1.7 million from the budget, which is the amount left in question to clear up a $12 million deficit, according to Bernero’s budget. The options for cutting the $1.7 million were: a 36-hour workweek, which would mean closing City Hall on Fridays; a combination of a tax increase and 13 furlough days, each equaling $850,000; straight up 26 furlough days, with flexible dates; and then 26 furlough days, giving city employees wiggle room to pick their days.

Though these four options differ in method, at their heart, they are just ways of cutting about 500 city employees’ pay by 10 percent. After some debate in the Committee of the Whole meeting, Council chose option No. 4: the 26 furlough days where city employees get flexibility.

(Also on Monday, Council also approved a resolution that would cut 10 percent of their pay over the next fiscal year, to show solidarity with city employees.)

So, whatever happened to that tax increase that was going around? It died in committee.

A couple of weeks ago at another COW meeting, At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries raised the idea of the tax increase, and it was voted out of the committee 5 to 2, which indicated the measure had support. But on Monday night, the support went from five to three, at best. At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney and Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton, who might have been warm to the idea in the past, said they did not support it.

Houghton said the Council needed more input on a tax increase, which leads to the another bi-product of the budget debate: The City Council Ad Hoc Committee to Compare Lansing to Other Similarly-Sized Cities and See Where We Can Make Some Changes (it’s not actually called that, but our title embodies its spirit).

Council President A’Lynne Robinson, though not supportive of a tax increase now, is creating an ad-hoc committee to study whether an increase would benefit Lansing. She’s appointed At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar to lead the committee, and she and Fourth Councilwoman Jessica Yorko will be on there, too.

Dunbar explained that the committee will be looking at other cities’ services, tax base, poverty rates, square miles of road, and on and on, to see where there are similarities, differences and place where Lansing can make up ground. This might include a tax increase. Some of this work will also be done in the Council Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which is chaired by Dunbar and includes Houghton and Jeffries.

When time came round to vote last night (the budget, the Council pay cut, and a new contract for police officers were the only items on the agenda), a few Council members indicated that they would vote for the budget, but were not happy about it.

First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt spoke up first:

“I’m still very concerned that we’re on shaky ground as with budget going forward,” he said. Hewitt indicated that he was not satisfied with some of the budget information requested of the Bernero administration given to Council.

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said that the contract with the police union only made up for $170,000 in savings, out of a total of $1.9 million that the police department was supposed to cut. She worried that the police department could face further cuts.

Jeffries worried that, after the budget goes into effect July 1, there would be an imbalance, as has happened in the last two years. In fiscal years 2010 and 2009, the city’s budget has gone into a deficit after being approved by Council. In this fiscal year, the administration solved the deficit by a combination of furlough days for non-emergency employees and spending cuts. In fiscal 2009, the administration – memorably – closed a golf course.

Though, there was some cheerleading of the budget process. Yorko said that she was “proud” of the compromise Council came up with, and Robinson touted the ad-hoc committee. Jerry Ambrose, Bernero’s chief of staff and the city’s finance director, thanked the Council, and everyone, for all their work in putting together and passing the city budget.

And speaking of the mayor, there is still the Bernero Factor — that is, the strongest municipal political will this side of Detroit — to consider (How would it have looked for the gubernatorial campaign if the mayor lost a battle in his city over a tax increase?). Though the Council recommended 26 furlough days, there is nothing really stopping the mayor from enacting his original plan of a 36-hour workweek, or using his power of a line item veto to nix any of Council’s recommendations. City Attorney Brig Smith told Council members that they cannot “administrate” — that is, they can’t through a budget resolution dictate how city employees take furloughs (or, give up 10 percent of their pay).

When questioned about whether Bernero would go along with the Council’s recommendation, Ambrose was guarded, saying that, “budgetarily,” the Council’s proposal is in the same spirit as the administration’s — but the administration wants to do what’s best for providing city services, and what’s best for employees (and, presumably, employee unions). Ambrose said that the administration has been talking with various employee unions, but he declined to say which 10 percent pay cut version they prefer.

So, uh, Jerry, will the mayor go along with the Council’s recommendation?

“We’ll review the budget with the mayor,” he said.

Also discussed last night at the COW meeting before the regular meeting was the renewal of the parks millage, which, recently, has been bringing in about $1 million for the maintenance and improvement of Lansing parks. The millage is renewed every five years and will be put to voters for renewal in August.

Council was debating whether to include in the ballot proposal language indicating that up to 50 percent of the millage money is used for maintenance and capital improvements. City Attorney Brig Smith weighed in that Council may not be able to get that specific, so they will submit their intent to him for review before anything goes on the ballot.

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