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Wednesday, April 11,2012

Financially 'prudent'

Bernero's plan to spend a portion of police millage money lacks Council support. He says consolidating police headquarters at the South Washington Office Complex won’t happen without it.

by Andy Balaskovitz

Support for the administration’s plan to spend a portion of millage money on a new police headquarters is nowhere to be found on the City Council.

While at least two Council members — Jessica Yorko and Tina Houghton — are holding back support as they await more details, five others outright oppose it, saying the plan is not what they pitched to voters. “This is not what we told people,” Councilwoman Carol Wood said last week — a sentiment echoed by Council members Derrick Quinney, A’Lynne Robinson, Jody Washington and Brian Jeffries. Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

At issue is a relatively small piece of Mayor Virg Bernero’s fiscal year 2013 budget recommendation. He’s asking to use $193,900 in new millage revenue on renovations to a former armory on Washington Avenue that the administration plans to use as a new police headquarters.

 “I resent the notion that I’m somehow attempting to misappropriate police millage money,” Bernero declared Tuesday.

Bernero is adamant that “what we’re doing is in compliance” with what was promised voters. “I guess what’s being debated now is: Is it legitimate to have some go toward a police station. Why wouldn’t it be? … It’s the financially prudent thing to do. 

“These people are castigating me for doing the fiscally responsible thing,” he added, specifically referring to Jeffries and Wood.

Of the nearly $2.9 million of projected revenue coming in to the Police Department as a result of the millage, Bernero proposes using about $600,000 to rehire seven officers who were laid off in this fiscal year. Another $132,000 would go toward other capital improvements, like radar units, printers and modems in police cars. After the proposed $193,900 renovation, the remaining $2 million would be used to maintain services. The police budget overall is about $34.5 million.

Lansing voters approved a 4-mill property tax increase Nov. 8, with “1.5 mills to be dedicated to police protection, 1.5 mills to be dedicated to fire protection, and 1 mill to be dedicated to local road maintenance and other essential services,” the ballot language reads. A similar proposition failed in a special election earlier last year. Some say that part of the reason it passed the second time was the ballot language was more explicit about how the revenue would be distributed. The Council also approved resolutions in support of the millage on Oct. 24 and May 2 in the run-up to the elections. Yet language in those non-binding resolutions is even more vague than the ballot questions, saying the money should support “police, fire and roads.” City Attorney Brig Smith said in an email: “I don’t see any legal issues with the Mayor’s proposal. The previous (Council) resolutions supporting the millage are indeed advisory in nature.”

But Council members see Bernero’s move as a fast one on voters. “We were very specific when we sold it to them, and it looks like it’s coming up short,” Council President Brian Jeffries said on “City Pulse on the Air” last week. While he will “concede” on other capital expenditures like police car equipment, “In terms of a build-out for a new police precinct, that goes way beyond what was anticipated and contemplated.”

Moreover, the administration has proposed spending $450,000 from the General Fund on capital improvements at the South Washington Office Complex, which is temporarily being used by the Office of Community Media. Bernero’s budget says it’s going to cost between $3 million and $14 million to relocate the LPD there. However, the wide gap in estimates is because the city hasn’t decided on a final improvment plan. He hopes renovations will start in the next two to three years. The administration also plans to issue bonds to pay for the overall project. Bernero’s chief of staff, Randy Hannan, said it’s possible that a portion of the millage money would be used to pay off debt services in the future.

Police Chief Teresa Szymanski was unavailable to comment for this story. But stay tuned, as the Lansing Police Department is scheduled to have its budget hearing before Council on Monday night.

Jeffries said it costs $70,000 to $80,000 to bring back a police officer. Combine the General Fund and millage appropriations for the proposed renovation, and you’re closer to $650,000, which could almost double the number of officers the administration wants to bring back, he said.

But Bernero points out that there’s been support on the Council for a consolidated police headquarters, including from Wood and Jeffries. (Indeed, after the millage failed in May last year, Jeffries, Wood and former Councilman Eric Hewitt suggested consolidating police operations to help close this fiscal year’s budget gap. Hannan called it a “pipe dream” and “gum drops and lollipops.” “You can’t just pull the plugs on police stations without having an alternative, and the alternative costs millions of dollars,” Hannan said at the time.) Appropriating millage funds means less money the city would have to borrow through bonding, Bernero said: “The only rationale for building a police station is because we need one. So if we need it, if we truly need it, then a percentage of it should come from the millage.” If Council adopts a budget without the appropriation, is the transition to Washington Avenue still on? “No,” he said.

While Bernero pins the “political bullshit, political rhetoric, political games” squarely on Wood and Jeffries, Council opposition — at this point — is coming on more than those fronts. At last week’s Council meeting, 3rd Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson said the appropriation “infuriates” her. “I, too, am not happy,” 1st Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington added at the time.

For 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton, “The jury is still out. I need more information. I would like to find the money elsewhere. I totally agree we need to be out of leases and into SWOC (South Washington Office Complex). How we get there, I need to research.”

Others are hearing directly from voters. “I just spent two days with folks having this conversation, with constituents,” At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney said Monday night. “We were very adamant about the way we proposed it the second time. In doing so, the catch phrase was personnel cuts. It’s not what they bought, if you will. Folks are having issues with that. We talked about personnel, and that’s what I promoted.”

Bernero countered Tuesday: “I believe a vast majority of citizens were voting for the full enchilada.”

 

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