Masks and misdemeanors
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Aug. 4 executive directive instructing the Michigan State Police and other state agencies to make mask enforcement a priority, we see little evidence that anyone is actually issuing misdemeanor citations for violations of the governor’s executive order that requires employees who serve the public to mask up. On the other hand, we see ample evidence that some food service establishments continue to openly flout the rules, endangering the health of their employees and customers by allowing them to go maskless. The owner of at least one local business — the famed Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville — has gone so far as to claim that all of his employees suffer from medical conditions that preclude them from wearing masks.
If true, one wonders if those individuals should be working in public-facing positions at all, especially in the food service industry, given the known risks associated with prolonged exposure to coworkers and customers who may be infected with the coronavirus. Adding to the confusion over who is enforcing what, the website of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel continues to suggest that executive order violations should be reported first to local law enforcement. With numerous police agencies across the state refusing to enforce the governor’s mask mandate — “we’re not the mask police” is a common refrain — we suggest Whitmer and Nessel get on the same page and find a more effective way to get the job done.
The defunding dance
If early conversations taking place at the Lansing City Council are any indication, the movement to literally defund the city’s Police Department is quickly losing steam, if it had any to begin with. The Council’s new Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, chaired by At-large Councilmember Patricia Spitzley, is now developing preliminary budget policies that the full Council will eventually submit to Mayor Andy Schor as he develops his proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year. Rather than reducing funding, the budget policies under consideration appear to call for increasing the Police Department’s budget to pay for a bevy of new social workers, additional training for police officers, and a full-time grant writer.
While we support the idea of reordering the Police Department’s staffing and priorities over a reasonable period, we’re left to wonder where the money will come from to increase spending for any city department. With the COVID pandemic slamming city revenues, and in the absence of major financial assistance for cities from the federal government, it strikes us as overly optimistic and perhaps even irresponsible to plan for hiring any additional city employees at such a financially precarious time. City leaders also need to consider the impact of their decisions on long-term costs for pensions and retiree health care. Every new city employee adds an incremental burden to the city’s unfunded liabilities, which are estimated at more than $700 million, or about $6,000 for every Lansing resident.
Given strict statutory limitations on the city’s ability to raise new revenues by increasing taxes, our crystal ball suggests that Mayor Schor and the Council are more likely to face painful choices on how many city employees to eliminate, not how many new ones to add. Of course, it’s also possible that the mayor and Council will travel a different road. City Council previously approved a measure that authorizes Schor’s administration to fill gaps in the city’s operating budget through the bond market by borrowing up to $20 million against future property tax revenues. We think this is a singularly bad idea because it merely kicks the can down the road instead of making the tough decisions right now to cut spending and balance the city budget. Bonding to pay for routine operating expenses also runs the risk of damaging the city’s credit rating, which will make it more expensive to borrow in the future for legitimate capital needs like road repairs and sewer construction.
Overnight parking redux
We were more than surprised to learn through firsthand experience over the holiday weekend that the Lansing Police Department continues to issue tickets for violating the prohibition against overnight parking on city streets between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. With City Council on the verge of repealing the ordinance altogether, it strikes us as odd that LPD would make enforcement of the ordinance a priority, especially when a number of city residents presumably had guests in town for the long Labor Day weekend and MSU students who live in the city are settling into their new homes. We’d hate to think the flurry of ticketing was driven by the desire to generate as much revenue as possible before the overnight parking ban is lifted. Perhaps officers’ time would be better spent protecting the public health by enforcing mask violations at noncompliant local businesses rather than targeting city residents who park overnight on the street in front of their homes.