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Monday, April 22,2013

Kids in the Hall

Budget hearings round 4: Fire, City Clerk and City Attorney. Also, Council unanimously approves GM tax abatement.

by Andy Balaskovitz
Monday, April 22 — The Bernero administration wants to move the city’s Code Compliance Office into the Fire Department for what it says would allow for better enforcement of property issues.

The topic highlighted the City Council’s budget hearing tonight, which in part examined the Fire Department’s proposed budget. Code compliance activities — which include housing inspections, tagging properties and issuing citations based on the appearance of properties — would move from the Planning and Neighborhood Development Department to within the Fire Marshall’s Office.

“We believe it will support risk reduction and enhance safety in the community,” said Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, who also serves as East Lansing’s fire chief. Specifically, he said it would allow code compliance officers better access (after they undergo a two-week training) in some situations under the state’s Fire Prevention Act and could lead to more commercial property inspections. “It would create a synergy among the two groups.”

Talifarro said discussions are ongoing about the details of merging with the Fire Marshall’s Office. He said there are no plans to increase the number of code compliance officers.

Trent Atkins, who heads the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said allowing code compliance to pick up some of the work done by fire inspectors frees fire inspectors to get out in the community more and proactively inspect more properties, particularly businesses.

“There are 2,700 businesses we’re supposed to be inspecting every year. We get to about 20 percent of that,” he said, pointing to “special events, illegal burns and arson investigations” that surface. “We feel this is going to give us more eyes in the field.”

At $31.7 million, the Fire Department’s proposed budget makes up 29 percent of the city’s expenditures. That’s made up of $28.5 million in personnel costs, $480,000 for information technology and about $2.7 million in operating costs. Talifarro said most of that operating budget is for “nondiscretionary purposes,” like maintaining a fleet, fuel and insurance and bonds.

“There’s very little we can do for having a big impact on those (operating) numbers,” he said. “We’re at about 1 percent of real discretionary” spending.

Talifarro said the 2.5 percent increase in expenditures from this fiscal year is reflected in information technology transfers, adding code compliance and increasing pension costs.

The administration also hopes to save $200,000 in the department’s budget next fiscal year through a department reorganization.

The department is also looking to raise revenues through a series of new or increased fees. Some of the increases are in ambulance and fire inspection services, while several new fees relate to motor vehicle assistance, like $500 for extrication and $400 for hazmat services.

Finance Director Angela Bennett said the fee increases are budgeted to bring in about $300,000 more a year. Talifarro said he thinks Lansing’s fees are “probably the middle of the road” compared to other communities.

Talifarro said he understands the controversy of introducing new or raising existing fees, but that more than half of insurance companies are willing to pay for them. He said working with medical billers showed that, “At times, we may be leaving money on the table.”

***

The Council briefly looked at City Clerk Chris Swope’s proposed budget for next year. His office’s proposed budget — which includes overseeing elections and several licensing applications — is largely unchanged from last year, staying below the $900,000 mark.

Staffing levels will stay at five full-time employees and one part-time employee, he said. There are no proposed fee changes in the Clerk’s Office budget.

***

City Attorney Janene McIntyre, who was appointed by Mayor Virg Bernero, got a taste of her first budget hearing experience since being confirmed for the job a month ago by the Council.

The City Attorney’s Office acts as the city’s law firm and is responsible to both the Mayor’s Office and the Council. It also handles Freedom of Information Act requests (it’s received 3,057 this fiscal year, McIntyre said), executes various contracts and responds to various claims brought against or by the city. McIntyre said it’s handled 2,237 cases in District Court so far this fiscal year.

“A lot of people really don’t appreciate all that comes through the office,” she said.

Council President Carol Wood and Councilman Brian Jeffries sought information on how much the city spends a year on outside legal counsel, but the administration could not provide that tonight.

While McIntyre said she is still learning the ins and outs of the office, she said one of her goals moving forward is to gain efficiencies through technology. Potentially that would mean paperless filing of documents within the office, which she said is done at the Ingham and Eaton Circuit Courts and the Board of Water and Light.

***

Sandwiched between the Committee of the Whole’s budget hearings, the Council unanimously approved a tax abatement request worth $4 million over 12 years for General Motors.

The car company is considering a $38 million, 400,000-square-foot expansion at its Grand River Assembly site south of downtown along Malcom X Street. GM says it would create 150 new jobs, while the investment could mean $1.7 million in new property and income tax revenue over the 12 years.

“That Lansing is being considered for this investment is great news,” said Randy Hannan, Bernero’s chief of staff. “It’s also a testament to the great partnership between GM, the city and the UAW.”

Five Council members —Wood, Jeffries, Derrick Quinney, Jody Washington and Jessica Yorko — spoke in support of the abatement, largely for the increased tax revenue GM’s expansion could bring and the jobs.

While most acknowledged neighborhood concerns about the appearance and potential pollution runoff of the sprawling concrete parking lots on the west side of the 111-acre property, they said they were confident GM would act in good faith over time to address those concerns.
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