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Wednesday, October 17,2012

Taking stock

What will Virg sell next? Inventorying city-owned properties and dedicated parkland for potential budget help

by Andy Balaskovitz
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero wants to know: “How often do you use a City park?” “Daily?” “Weekly?” “Monthly?” “Almost never?”

In preparation for his next “City Hall on the Road” event Thursday night, the Mayor’s Office is asking residents this question as part of a short survey related to city services. Presumably, the topic of park usage will be raised Thursday night.

As the administration recently announced a projected $11 million budget shortfall heading into the next fiscal year, we’ve been told, “Everything is on the table” — that includes the potential sale of city-owned properties and dedicated parkland. And if you haven’t noticed, the administration has already started.

Consider the multiple campaigns seeking authorization to sell Waverly and Red Cedar golf courses. Or the sale of the parking lot downtown adjacent to Oliver Towers to Lansing Community College, which helped plug a $1.8 million budget shortfall last year. Or the three fire stations that were closed for budgetary reasons last year that the administration is asking the City Council permission to sell. Will it stop there?

A 34-page document provided by the Mayor’s Office lists all of the city’s property holdings. As of May 2011, the city’s 827 parcels totaled more than 3,500 acres. That’s everything from the 220-acre Crego Park to a .09-acre traffic island near Kipling Boulevard and East Saginaw Street. It includes fire stations, easements, parking structures and lots and buildings that are occupied, leased out or vacant.

“We will go through city properties and consider them for a potential sale,” mayoral Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said Monday night. “We’re not setting out saying, ‘Let’s sell these.’ We’re setting out with an inventory of what could be sold.”

Hannan said the administration will take a calculated approach when it comes to selling property, particularly parkland. And while the administration could simply jettison properties for cash, it certainly helps its case if an interested buyer attaches an interesting redevelopment plan.

“We have several thousand acres of parkland. Many of which are valuable to neighborhoods, others have significant traits — all of these have value,” Hannan said. “That said, not every park property is used by Lansing residents. There might be small pieces that could be eligible for sale: We need to do our due diligence on that.”

A major player in that due diligence is Lansing Parks Board President Rick Kibbey. Before Bernero makes his annual budget recommendation in March, Kibbey hopes to have completed an inventory of all 100-plus city parks. Kibbey, who has been working on the project for about a year, hopes it will help answer questions like: “What do we want our park system to do? What role does the park play in neighborhood connectivity?

“I think the fact that there are different types of parks needs to be recognized and dealt with,” Kibbey said. He added that the report will give the Parks Board a “principled framework” for making recommendations to the administration about what parks might be most suitable.

Indeed, the city’s park system has layered meanings. There’s Fenner Nature Center, a theater of wildlife and natural habitats. There’s Hunter Park, which Kibbey said is like a “recreation room for the East Side.” There’s Reutter Park downtown, the venue for an occasional concert, protest or picnic. And one of Kibbey’s personal favorites: Poxson Park, between Cedar Street and Pennsylvania Avenue: A “little wooded ravine that is what it is.” These different meanings are what the Parks Board, the administration and the City Council are up against if they’re serious about seeking voter authorization to sell.

Selling any city-owned property requires approval from the City Council. Selling dedicated parkland also requires approval by city voters in an election. According to a city ordinance, any sales of properties worth more than $50,000 require a public hearing and details of the sale should be on file with the Clerk’s Office for at least 30 days before the public hearing. The same ordinance also directs the administration to establish “procedures” for properties that are unnecessary for the city or that could be used for redevelopment.

City Council President Brian Jeffries separates the sale of city-owned properties and those that are dedicated parkland. He said the process for disposing of the former type of properties has been “knee jerk,” citing the sale of the Oliver Towers lot to help balance an end of the year budget deficit. “These sales are typically one-time infusions of cash into our system. I think we should be putting a process or policy together,” he said. For non-parkland assets, Jeffries wants to see any future proceeds injected into a capital fund so that proceeds aren’t used to for operational expenses. “That’s a process that should be reviewed every year.”

As for parkland, Jeffries hesitated to comment on what might be ripe for asking voter permission to sell and what should remain hands off. He’s waiting on the results of Kibbey’s study. “Parks to me are a vital component to the vitality of this city. Once we get rid of that property, it’s gone forever. I would be very cautious about giving up any more park property we have.” Given the authorization to sell Waverly Golf Course and at least 12.5 acres of Red Cedar Golf Course (voters may authorize another 48 in three weeks), more than 100 acres already is alarming to Jeffries. “Considering the amount we’ve already sold off, it’s something I’d be very reluctant to do. Having said that, I don’t know what the study shows.”

Hannan conceded that while the sale of a few small parks wouldn’t amount to a budgetary game changer, it’s better than nothing.

“I don’t see a particular small park that would make a huge difference” on the budget, Hannan said, “but every little bit helps.”


“City Hall on the Road”
Thursday, 6-8 p.m.
Letts Community Center
1220 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing
Call 483-4141 with questions

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