As a twenty-year millage supporting East Lansing Parks and Recreation system is due to expire later this year, East Lansing’s City Council held a tense conversation at its nonvoting meeting last week about whether the upcoming November election is the right time to try to get East Lansing voters to renew that millage.
Some Council members argued the parks and recreation system is so starved for funds, it must be propped up with a renewed millage as soon as possible. They also believe that, with the East Lansing Public Schools likely also to be seeking voter approval of a bond next spring or fall, East Lansing’s parks and recreation system has to get in line for taxpayer support sooner rather than later.
But those Council members disinclined to put this issue to the voters in November say the City must first sort out how it is going to prioritize its many financial challenges. According to Mayor Mark Meadows, one solution might be essentially taxing citizens via a new authority, similar to the water and sewer authority via which East Lansing gets its water.
In advance of last Tuesday’s Council meeting, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission submitted a letter saying it “strongly recommends and requests that the East Lansing City Council place a bond measure on the November 2016 ballot for voter approval, in an amount proportionate to the maturing 1996 parks bond, to fund needed maintenance and reinvestment in East Lansing parks.”
The letter went on to say this would give voters the chance “to fund sorely needed maintenance and reinvestment in our parks system without asking more of voter’s pocketbooks than they are currently paying today.” According to the Commission, the coming year’s budget “clearly illustrates the fact that the City lacks the means to make any significant progress toward completing…important improvements” to the parks and recreation system.
All parties agree the parks and recreation system is need of millions of dollars to fix existing infrastructure and to do upgrades, for example, to bring playground equipment up to current standards. At the meeting, Parks and Rec Commission Vice Chair Michael Townley gave a presentation explaining the importance of the system to East Lansing and explaining how serious the situation is. He told Council that parks are “what really make the city come alive and be vital,” adding that “our parks are our key public spaces that can make our city livable and lovable.”
Townley noted that the voters have consistently supported channeling more taxpayer money into the parks and recreation system. He said the system is suffering from roof problems, outdated equipment, and cracked paths on trails, plus outdated technology systems in the Hannah Community Center.
Councilmember Shanna Draheim said she understood some others on Council want to wait until the Financial Health Team can finish looking at the City’s big picture. But, she said, the parks and recreation system has been waiting too long for financial help it desperately needs.
Draheim said the presidential election in November is a good time to catch voters who are likely to support the millage renewal. She expressed concern that if such a ballot question were to be put off until next year, there is “potential competition with the school district,” which, she said, is likely to seek voter approval for a large school bond. She said citizens she spoke with see the parks’ needs as “a canary in a coal mine in terms of quality of life”—that if the City is to attract and retain homeowners, it needs to have a healthy parks and recreation system. She said the system needs to be “maintained to a standard that is not just adequate, but great.”
But Mayor Mark Meadows said he felt “we do need to delay this.” He said he was “thinking longer term” and wanted to hear from the Financial Health Team before making a decision about whether to put a millage of this type to the voters.
According to Meadows, there is legislation being considered at the state level that might allow the East Lansing parks system to join with grounds upkeep needs of the school district in the creation of a local “parks authority.” This authority could then levy taxes for grounds upkeep.
Meadows explained in a follow-up email to this reporter that the proposed legislation “allows school districts to enter into recreation authorities [which would include the city’s parks]. It is disputable whether they can right now and this legislation would clearly allow it. A separate millage would maintain grounds and athletic fields” around the city.
Meadows also noted at the Council meeting that the recently-passed Ingham County trails millage will possibly be providing funds to fix problems with East Lansing trails, like the Northern Tier Trail. He said he was supportive of the idea of a dedicated parks and recreation millage but believes it “would be premature to put it on the ballot this fall.”
Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier said that putting the parks millage on the ballot in November “is to suggest that’s more important than anything else we might bond for.” She said it might be, “but we haven’t had that discussion yet.” Like Meadows, she called the idea of putting this on the November ballot “premature.”
Beier also said she was uncomfortable with one department essentially coming to ask for special financial dispensation. Draheim responded, in an exclamation, “That’s their job!” To this, Beier said that the Police Department and the Department of Public Works don’t come and ask for special taxes. Draheim said they ask for budgets to be funded, and Beier said that Parks and Rec does the same—asks for a budget, and Council decides what to fund.
Beier said the City Council might decide a millage to fix the roads is more important. If that happens, and the Parks millage is already on the ballot, “we’ve crowded out some of our millage potential.”
Councilmember Susan Woods said she thought there was so much public support for the parks that citizens would not mind continuing to pay the same amount in tax as they already have been. She said the state of the parks “is embarrassing” and said she thought there were “safety issues” with some of the playground equipment. She said the people should be allowed to decide at the ballot box in November what to do.
Speaking next, Councilmember Erik Altmann first observed that his eight-year-old niece had learned “some new words” (not nice ones) by reading the graffiti on the equipment at the Bailey park. He suggested he believes the parks system needs funding, but said he thinks “our roads are in critical shape.” Like Meadows and Beier, he said he wanted to hear from the Financial Health Team before proceding.
Altmann said he thought the City’s pension fund problem and the roads could also be seen as emergencies, and that “we look opportunistic” and like Council is not planning well if “we have to jump on [a ballot initiative] before people see their tax rates went down.”
Draheim said she did not think it was opportunistic, but that she agreed with Beier’s hesitations. That said, Draheim thought it was not necessary to ask voters to choose between parks and roads. She said she did not want to “forsake what is a political reality,” namely that a millage is more likely to pass in East Lansing during an important presidential election.
Meadows said history showed that voters tended to support millages for the parks system regardless of when they were put to the ballot. He further named the sewer system as another system in need of major repair.
This was a discussion-only meeting, so no formal vote was taken on the matter, although it was clear Draheim and Woods supported putting the matter on the November ballot, and Meadows, Altmann, and Beier did not. Meadows noted that any member of Council could put this matter on the agenda of a meeting at which Council could formally vote on the matter. But so far, it appears no one has done so, because the matter did not appear on the agenda for this week’s meeting, at which votes are allowed.
Reminder: Members of the public can speak to Council at its meetings during the section dedicated to “communications from the audience” and can also write to Council if they wish to comment on any issue before the City.