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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Kids in the Hall

Will Mayor Bernero keep his word on vetoing Council’s budget? “Of course,” his chief of staff says

by Andy Balaskovitz
Tuesday, May 22 — The Lansing City Council adopted a fiscal year 2013 budget at its Monday night meeting, but it’s safe to say the budget process is far from over.

By a 5-3 vote — with Council members Tina Houghton, Kathie Dunbar and Jessica Yorko opposing — the Council approved a citywide budget that would take effect July 1. While a great deal of the budget mirrors what Mayor Virg Bernero proposed in March, the mayor vowed Monday to veto portions of the Council’s version. Particularly, the Council’s budget calls for a larger annual payment in lieu of taxes from the Lansing Board of Water & Light, lowering furlough days and appropriating millage money to bring back more police officers and fire fighters.

The Council’s amended budget, which was unanimously approved in a committee meeting Thursday but immediately drew criticism from Houghton, Dunbar and Yorko, asks BWL for a 5.5 percent “return on equity” payment, which is expected to generate $1.5 million more for the General Fund annually. BWL, a nonprofit, makes the payment instead of paying property taxes to the city. The administration proposed raising the payment to 5 percent for the next five years. It’s currently at 4 percent.

Bernero made it a point tonight that BWL has agreed to his 5 percent proposal — not 5.5 percent.

The amendments Council approved largely hinge on this increase in revenue. The Council also called for cutting portions of the mayor’s “Sister Cities” program and the annual salary for Bishop David Maxwell, the head of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The Council’s plan also reduces the number of furlough days for city employees from 26 to six and also would bring back an additional two police officers and two fire fighters. The Council’s amendments free up more money from the millage increase approved by voters last year to pay for more officers and firefighters, a move Council President Brian Jeffries said honors “what we believe to be the will of the people.”

In his opening address to Council, though, Bernero was “deeply disappointed with the legislative train wreck engineered in these chambers” on Thursday. Bernero was referring specifically to the BWL appropriation. He said the BWL Board of Commissioners (commissioners are appointed by the mayor, which is subject to Council approval) adopted a resolution committing to his 5 percent proposal in a committee meeting last week and “God willing” will adopt the measure at a full board meeting tonight. Basically, Bernero accused the Council of passing a budget based on the $1.5 million in General Fund revenues without knowing if BWL will agree to it. “I can assure you that as mayor, such a reckless act will not stand.”

However, Council members supporting the increase said that the national average for similarly sized utilities is 6 percent. The Council’s proposal is still below that. The administration has acknowledged this, yet warned that, if approved, ratepayers could see an increase in utility fees.

“I think it should be at 6 percent,” Jeffries announced tonight, adding that “I’m gonna get crucified” for saying that. “I think we should be at the national average.”

Following the Council’s meeting, Bernero’s Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said, “Of course,” when asked if Bernero will keep his word on vetoing the measure. According to the City Charter, Bernero has three full business days after Council approves the resolution to veto any portions of it. The Council, with six votes, can then override his veto, but based on tonight’s meeting, that looks unlikely. While Hannan said there “may be some things adopted we can live with,” the BWL piece is “a non-starter.”

But Jeffries — and several union leaders who represent city employees — said Bernero’s proposal was unfair in itself, and that the administration had not been upfront in negotiating things like health care concessions and furlough days with unions. Hannan said the administration can not negotiate things like furlough days without first knowing how many to plan for. Both Jeffries and Bernero accused the other of being disingenuous.
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