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Home News  Deficit aside, it's rosy in Lansing
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Wednesday, January 30,2013

Deficit aside, it's rosy in Lansing

by Walt Sorg
The Virg Bernero reelection campaign got underway Monday evening with a State of the City address right out of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”

Bernero’s nearly half-hour speech to a packed audience at the restored Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot was a non-stop recitation of Lansing’s economic successes in the last couple of years, with little mention of the continuing major budget challenges facing City Hall.

The list included all the usual suspects, leading off with the naming of the Lansing-built Cadillac ATS as North American Car of the Year. That was followed by a litany of statistics and shout-outs for new jobs, business expansions, crime-rate reductions, a $1.5-million financial literacy grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and major new private-sector investments in the region.

The speech even included a videotaped shout-out from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire who is funding a $1.5-million grant for financial literacy training.

And the budget deficit? If you sneezed, you might have missed it.

Exactly two sentences of Bernero’s speech were devoted to the looming city deficit, and even that was cast in a positive light as he announced that the projected deficit had been downgraded from $11 million to $9 million — still a major hole in the city’s $112-million budget, as is the equal-size deficit for pensions and health care. And there was no mention of the $20 million crisis facing the Lansing School District.

And you won’t hear much about the cuts needed to plug that hole, at least from elected officials. The political heat for cuts in services will go to the citizens’ panel chaired by former Mayor David Hollister.

Letting the Hollister commission act as the fall guys, says Hollister, is no accident.

“That’s why I did it,” Hollister laughed following Bernero’s speech. “I don’t have a frog in this fight, other than good government. I can take the heat for the recommendations.”

The panel’s recommendations haven’t been finalized, but Hollister readily concedes it is impossible to balance the budget with cuts that will impact every city resident.

“There’s no way to do this painlessly. (The painless cuts have) already been done. The budget the mayor has today is smaller today than my budget that I had when I left 10 years ago. The mayor has reduced the city’s payroll by more than 300 employees, he’s sold golf courses, he’s sold assets, he’s closed fire stations, and he’s still got a $9 million deficit and another $9 million in unfunded liabilities for employee benefits.”

In the days when General Motors was fighting for survival, Bernero described himself as “America’s Angriest Mayor.”

The theme for the “new” Bernero is “America’s Most Effective Mayor,” a claim fortified by a long list of economic achievements that bode well for Lansing’s longterm health. Bernero’s list of accomplishments could well be enough to ward off a serious challenge in this year’s election:

An unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, the lowest annual level in four years, and 2.2 percent below the statewide rate

A 23 percent improvement in home sales across the region in the last quarter of 2012

A reaffirmation of the city’s AA credit rating from Standard and Poors

The upcoming expansion of the General Motors Grand River Assembly plant to produce the Chevrolet Camaro

A $108 million expansion of Emergent Biosolutions

A $7 million investment by auto supplier Pratt and Whitney

Development of the downtown Knapp’s Center

The pending completion of the BWL’s REO Town headquarters and cogeneration power plant, a project that included restoration of the depot

The transformation of the Red Cedar Golf Course into “The Red Cedar Renaissance,” a mixed use development combining new environmental controls with commercial, retail and residential elements

Restoration or construction of more than 200 affordable homes through the Ingham County Land Bank.

Bernero renewed his call for greater regionalization, noting continuation of the year-old sharing of the fire chief for Lansing and East Lansing.

“The whole is indeed great than the sum of its parts,” Bernero said. “We are inextricably linked, we are ONE LANSING. We have nothing to fear and much to gain in exploring greater collaboration and partnership in today’s global economy.”

There were no calls for new spending initiatives, an inevitable result in the city’s continuing budget woes. But there were also no angry words directed across the street toward Gov. Rick Snyder and a state Legislature that has slashed revenue sharing and other funding for urban centers, and threatening to cut more with the end of the personal property tax.

At the same time Bernero clearly isn’t expecting any help from the state. State government was never mentioned in the speech. State representatives Andy Schor,  D-Lansing, and Tom Cochran, D-Mason, sat, without introduction, in the middle of the audience.

Rather than call for new initiatives, Bernero called for a new resolve on the part of the people of Lansing. 

“You are the essential ingredient of this democracy of ours,” Bernero declared. “A president, a governor, a mayor is only one person, just one citizen. The real power in our system is not here (on the stage), but out there — with the people — with you.”

It is a theme we’ll hear repeatedly between now and November.

(Sorg can be reached at walt@lansingcitypulse.com)

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