In 4-1 Vote, Council Reverses Decision to De-Fund Human Services Groups

Thursday, June 7, 2018, 7:46 am
By: 
Andrew Graham

Above: Haven House

East Lansing City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to channel about $52,000 in unexpected Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to a group of local human services agencies, including Haven House.

This reverses a previous decision to provide no funding to these groups in the 2019 budgetary year. Council Member Erik Altmann was the lone dissenting vote.

Council formally voted on Tuesday to adopt East Lansing’s Community Development Advisory Committee’s spending recommendations for $52,395 obtained from a HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for Public Service Agencies for the City’s Fiscal Year 2019, which starts July 1, 2018.

A chart created by the advisory committee, which recently voted 5-0 in favor of the appropriation, shows the breakdown of how the money will be allocated. The main expenditure is $25,671 for Haven House, the region’s only emergency housing provider for families with children facing homelessness.

These approved funds for Haven House come two weeks after City Council voted 3-2 to spend this $52,395 grant on public services, with Council Members Aaron Stephens, Shanna Draheim, and Ruth Beier voting for this use, and Mayor Mark Meadows joining Altmann in voting against.

Prior to that vote, City financing staff had “earmarked” the money for paying off debt related to the Avondale Square project. Many members of the public had written in to ask that Haven House in particular have funding restored.

The approved advisory committee recommendations also appropriate funds for domestic abuse shelters and support services through both MSU Safe Place and EVE, Inc., a group that aims to provide support and services to victims of abuse. Further, funds will be appropriated for the Parks & Rec Youth Scholarship Program, public legal services, and the local Meals on Wheels program.

Community Development and Engagement Manager Amy Schusler-Schmitt presented the recommendation at Tuesday's City Council meeting. Schusler-Schmitt answer a question from Draheim about whether using the funds this way might increase Schusler-Schmitt's workload. Schusler-Schmitt said it would not. 

Council did hold a formal discussion on the matter. After Stephens moved to approve the use of the funds, Council moved straight to a vote, and the recommendations were approved 4-1.

Council members have made clear that this funding does not represent a long-term commitment to funding these agencies through the City of East Lansing. Stephens, Draheim, and Beier have all suggested that, in the future, they would not vote for this use of CDBG funds.

Stephens called this round of funding a "one-time move" to give agencies more time to secure long-term funding elsewhere.

The issue for these Council members is not the worthiness of the agencies' work.

"I think it is a function of a government," Beier said on May 22, "especially one that represents progressive people, to fund human services."

But budget cuts have led to moves to zero-out the use of City funds for these projects.

Altmann, the lone dissenter on Tuesday, was not in support of using the unexpected funds for public services while the City has other debts, like the Avondale Square housing project, to pay. He suggested during the May 22 meeting that funding for programs like Haven House needs to come from the State, not governments at local levels.

That's where we need to look for solutions," he said.

Meadows did not explain his decision to move from voting against funding for these human services agencies on May 22 to voting in favor, with the majority, this week.

In a previous round of service as East Lansing's mayor, Meadows had led efforts on the Avondale Square project, which did not turn out as expected in terms of the finances and has required upwards of $75,000 per year in CDBG funds to pay HUD back on that project. Council has been trying to make extra payments on the Avondale Square HUD loan hoping to pay it off sooner.

During an April budget meeting, Beier named the Avondale Square project as evidence that the City should stay away from real estate-acquiring deals.

Beier said that, as Council “ask[s] taxpayers for new revenue, we need to admit when we make errors. [Avondale Square] was a financial error in the long run….We don’t have the expertise or capacity to make this mistake again.”

Meadows objected to Beier’s framing of the project as a mistake.