Council Capsule: September 15, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015, 4:20 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: artist’s rendering of a planned duplex for 6170 Abbot Road.

All present: Mayor Nathan Triplett, Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris, Councilmembers Ruth Beier, Kathy Boyle, and Susan Woods.

Large new development on Abbot Road: This concerns a new development for 6170 Abbot Road, just north of Lake Lansing Road on the east side of Abbot Road. The developer plans to construct 13 residential duplex buildings, 1 additional residential unit, totaling 27 rental dwelling units. There would also be a “community building” which would be a sort of clubhouse.

The East Lansing Planning Commission previously recommended against this project in a 5-2 vote. Objections came partly over having to cut down a large number of mature trees. City Attorney Tom Yeadon weighed in on the “natural features standard” and said the Planning Commission had misunderstood the legal issue. He said the rule was that developers are to retain mature trees and shrubs “where possible to provide shade for buildings and over parking areas and driveways”. (Read his memo.) Yeadon said the application “on its face” satisfied the legal requirements with regard to trees and other natural features.

Colleen Karakitsos of 535 Belmont Circle in East Lansing spoke from the podium. She said she was the property owner and said there had been no substantive objections from citizens about the project and that the property will generate substantive property taxes. She said the trees had not been felled for lumber because they’ve saved them to retain whatever possible for the development. She said the project might attract blended families with teens who want their own bathrooms as much as student renters. She said the objections from Planning Commission were highly subjective and inappropriate.

Councilmember Susan Woods noted that the project developer was not seeking TIF. Councilmember Ruth Beier later pointed out that the project is not within the Downtown Development Authority’s area, and so cannot get TIF.

Council approved the project 5-0.

Bailey Community Center redevelopment: Council approved the site plan from Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP) for redevelopment of the Bailey Community Center in a 5-0 vote and also approved an ordinance for a “service charge in lieu of taxes.” CAHP is now planning to submit a federal-level funding proposal for the project. Read more in our special forthcoming report.

Scene Metrospace: During public comment, Michael Teager of Oxford Lane spoke on the subject of Scene Metrospace. (Read background here and here.) He said the $14,000 being “saved” by the City turning over the public art gallery to the control of MSU is not really saved because it is mostly a staffing cost, and the same staff member is now employed elsewhere in the City. He noted the City has opted not to charge MSU rent for the space. He said the promise had been the space would not be closed to the public during the summer, but that it has been. He questioned whether gallery events will still be free to the public as when run by the City. He said that if artists are being paid for performance in the space, the City should also “get a cut.” He asked why the City taxpayers are essentially subsidizing MSU, which does not face the financial hardships the City does.

In response to Teager’s remarks, Councilmember Ruth Beier asked City Manager George Lahanas to follow up on these questions. Lahanas said the summer closure was just due to renovations. Beier asked if it is true they will be charging for events, and she asked if so, why MSU would be earning that revenue and not the City. She asked him to learn more about this and report back.

Site plan and $1.5 million TIF approved for 565 East Grand River Avenue: Council voted 5-0 to approve the site plan and 3-2 to approve the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan for a project set to replace the old Taco Bell building downtown. Read our special report.

At Council’s meeting, a number of Citizen comments were directed at this project, all expressing concern.

Ralph Monsma of Red Leaf Lane asked how it is going to work to have people moving in and out of this building without a clear place to handle that kind of traffic. He said that with regard to the TIF, if there were significant remediation needed because of chemicals in the ground, he would support public subsidy. That is not the case here. He said the City is too deeply in debt to keep offering these TIFs. He also said the lack of a clear application and assessment system for TIFs has led to inadequate information for review.

Steve Osborne of Tamarisk Drive questioned why this project site needs TIF. He asked whether the City needs a public plaza at this location given the cost. In response to Osborne’s comments, Councilmember Ruth Beier replied to clarify that the City, not the developer, was opting to use $200,000 in TIF to fund the public plaza.

In terms of written communication on this matter, emails to Council (available here) included:

  • an email from Eliot Singer objecting to the “Overuse and Abuse of Brownfield Redevelopment for High-priced Student Apartments and Bars in East Lansing.” The message was directed to State level representatives but copied to East Lansing’s City Council.
  • an email from Paulette Johnston opposing the $1.4 million TIF for 565 East Grand River Avenue. She said she thought “we don’t need another city plaza (paid for by citizen taxes) at this time of severe financial constraints” and that “another developer would be willing to develop that very important spot without a TIF.”

 

Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris said that in addition to those, Coleen Moyerbrailean sent her a letter on TIF (tax increment financing). Goddeeris did not say what the letter said.

City debt: During public comments, Donald Power of Blanchard Drive came again to warn about the severity of the City’s debt, particularly with regard to the City’s obligations to employees and retirees. He made suggestions for how the issue should be managed. He said he would be back to speak on this again in two weeks. Jim Anderson spoke later in praise of Power. He said East Lansing is very poorly off compared to other municipalities in Michigan in terms of what we owe to employees and retirees. He said “we are skating on thin ice with our bond ratings.” He said approving too much TIF contributes to the City’s financial problems.

Councilmember Kathy Boyle responded to the debt issue by saying she has worked on issues of public employee pensions and funding of those pensions. She said the issue “is much more complex than it is being presented to you.” She said that the biggest problem with funding of the pension system is the stock market, not TIF. She said we have not failed to pay anyone’s pension and she expects that we will continue to pay them without a problem, and she said if there is money leftover in the budget, it will go toward that debt.

Mayor Nathan Triplett also addressed this, saying there had been many presentations on this matter. He said there is “a rhetorical slight of hand” occurring when people take “desperate parts” of the City’s financial report and focus on those. He said there is a comprehensive debt schedule in the City’s annual report. He said the City’s debt is down since 2007 if you look at the part separate from the City’s pension fund. He said there are large contributions being made to the pension fund to compensate for market losses and decreased number of employees. He said the City is doing a lot to try to deal with these financial issues. He said there are challenges, as is true for every community, but that the highest bond rating possible was earned recently. He said he would keep “correcting” comments made by the public on these matters.

City Manager George Lahanas also replied, saying discussions continue as does looking for solutions. He said that the City has been making additional payments to deal with the problems Boyle had mentioned. He said the City has been following the advice of MERS (the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System). He said more information would be forthcoming.

Other public comments:

Mike Felpausch, who did not give his address, said he had moved to the City with his wife 6 weeks ago and had called the private trash collector he had used previously who said they could not operate in East Lansing. He called Public Works to ask if that was true, and they confirmed it is. City Manager George Lahanas said the City provides service through tax charges and the City does trash pick-up. Felpausch said he would rather support private enterprise and he doesn’t understand why he is “locked out” of doing this.

Recent email to Council from citizens can be viewed by clicking here. The posted letters not already mentioned above included:

  • an email from Alice Dreger (me) conveying links for recent ELi articles on Council, asking to be notified of any factual errors. (None were received in response.)
  • an email from Stephanie Commings on Bailey Park reporting on structural problems in the park. She asked the City to invest in the park.

 

Great Lansing Taxi Authority: City Clerk Marie Wicks presented on the new regional taxi authority. The purpose is to have a safe and professional taxi fleet locally. Read more about the authority in ELi’s special report. Councilmember Susan Woods asked if rates are standardized. Wicks says they are not but that operators have to file their rates with the authority. In response to a follow-up question from Mayor Pro Tem Goddeeris, Wicks said she can make a chart to be posted online for customers to compare rates by company.

Consent agenda: The following items were approved by Council under a “consent agenda,” which means there was no discussion of these matters:

  • Approval of the Humana Medicare Advantage renewal contract for 2016 and authorize the City Manager to sign; read staff memo and contract.
  • Approval of a resolution to support the Low Income Housing Tax Credit grant application and Historic Tax Preservation Tax Incentives application being submitted by CAHP for the proposed redevelopment of the Bailey Community Center; read the resolution.
  • Approval of a resolution of concern regarding closure of the Lansing Post Office Processing and Distribution Center on Collins Road in Lansing; read the resolution.
  • Approval of a resolution congratulating the Michigan State Medical Society on their 150th anniversary; see resolution.
  • Introduce and set a public hearing for October 20, 2015, for a change to the Property Maintenance Code; see memo.
  • Approval of the appointment of Rory Neuner to the Capital Area Transportation Authority Board of Directors for a full term ending September 30, 2018; see his application.
  • Approval of the appointment of Jon Jorgensen to the Building Board of Appeals for a partial term ending October 31, 2016; see his application.

 

Public art project to be crowd-funded: As we previously reported, City staff are seeking artistic and aesthetic enhancements for two public areas, the Grove Street Alley off the Ann Street Plaza and the Bailey Street alley, which is off Grand River and parallel to Bailey Street. MEDC have approved the plan, which calls for upgrades to lighting as well as adding seating and plantings in addition to art. There will be a public crowd-funding campaign that will begin September 30 and run through November 12. If people donate enough to reach the goal of $45,000, the project will go forward.

The City will hold a “Rally for the Alleys” kickoff event on October 7. It will include life-size board games, 3-D printers, a dress-up photo booth, and live music. See the city memo and list of planned events. Council unanimously approved the plan for amplification for the event.

Site plan for 3126 West Road: Council unanimously approved a site plan application from WREL, LLC, for the property at 3126 West Road. The applicant is proposing to extend the parking for the building at 3100 West Road and the project is uncontroversial. See the staff report, application, and site plans

Miscellaneous: Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris asked people to be aware that the aqua-colored ribbons posted around town encourage awareness about ovarian cancer. She asked residents to Google “aqua ribbons for month of September” to find out more about “stomping out ovarian cancer.” Mayor Nathan Triplett thanked the Community Relations Coalition for their work.

 

Want to see for yourself? This meeting of Council was videotaped. You can watch the meeting by clicking here. You can choose from below the screen which agenda item interests you; clicking on the item will advance the playback to the part you are interested in. The items above are not presented in the same order they occurred in Council; we group comments made on specific topics.

Reminder: You can communicate with Council in person at its weekly meetings or write to Council directly at council@cityofeastlansing.com. You can speak or write on any issue involving the City, not only what is on the published agenda.