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Wednesday, May 11,2011

Last-minute budget talks

Union leaders want to see the Lansing City Council levy 3.7 mills in light of the failed millage. Three Council members suggest $5.3 million in new revenue and cuts, which the Bernero administration calls a “pipe dream.”

by Andy Balaskovitz

Representatives from the Lansing Fire
Fighters, Fraternal Order of Police, United Auto Workers and Teamsters
unions are asking the Lansing City Council to raise property taxes as
high as it can.


Because of the failure last week of the
special election to raise property taxes by 4 mills to generate revenue
for police, fire and roads services, union officials are hoping the
Council will raise taxes unilaterally to help maintain those services,
said Bryan Epling, president of the Lansing Fire Fighters union.


The unions wrote a joint letter to the Council this week seeking the increase.


Epling said the roughly 16 percent voter turnout is not representative of the whole city.


“I have absolute respect for the
Democratic process in place,” Epling said. “I know only 16 percent came
out to vote. I know there’s the concern (about whether) the general
populace spoke.”


Epling called those who voted against the millage the “vocal minority.”


“With the cuts facing my membership and
degradation of services in the community, sometimes as leaders we’re in
positions to make tough decisions. Sometimes those go against the vocal
minority,” he said.


City Council can approve up to about 3.7
mills more in property tax without exceeding the state limit. However,
at least one council member, Kathie Dunbar, said no to the idea. Dunbar
led the effort to place the millage increase on the ballot.


Meanwhile, City Council members Brian
Jeffries, Carol Wood and Eric Hewitt co-authored a list of budget ideas
that suggest upwards of $5.3 million in savings and new revenue at
Monday’s Council meeting. This money would be in lieu of the $8.5
million that was expected to be generated by the millage.


Some of the ideas include selling the
downtown Oliver Towers at an estimated $2 million, annexing the Capitol
Regional International Airport into the city so the city can collect
taxes from it and closing the north and south police precincts to run
the department out of City Hall. Oliver Towers housed senior citizens
until a fire in 2000. It still houses offices for the Lansing Housing
Commission.


Jeffries said the four-page memo is a list of “ideas that merit further discussion.”


A spokesman for the Bernero
administration said “it’s not a budget plan — it’s more of a hodge-podge
of reckless” and “irresponsible” ideas.


“It’s gum drops, lollipops and pipe
dreams masquerading as a serious proposal,” said Randy Hannan, Mayor
Virg Bernero’s deputy chief of staff. “You can’t just pull the plugs on
police stations without having an alternative, and the alternative costs
millions of dollars.”


As for selling Oliver Towers, Hannan said
“it’s not a bad idea” but that the sale process is much more
complicated than the city deciding it’s going to sell it. The U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development has the final say on a sale,
he said.


Epling hadn’t seen the Jeffries, Wood and
Hewitt list of budget suggestions, but he said if other potential cuts
and new revenue exists, it should be explored.


“If there’s a chance to identify savings
that could bring in the same revenue or savings, that’d be a great
opportunity. If they’re unable to do that, consider raising the mills,”
he said.


Hannan said it’s “highly unlikely”
Bernero would support a millage increase by Council that’s “very close
to scale and size” to the proposal that failed. He said the May 3 vote
“is what it is.”


“It’s always disappointing to see low voter turnout in any circumstances,” he said.

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