City Council Discusses City Income Tax, Tree Removal, Student Life

Sunday, October 23, 2016, 8:53 pm
By: 
Ian Hoopingarner and Alice Dreger

Above: A tree marked for trimming by BWL marked with a sign challenging the right of BWL to cut, and a page from Lansing individual tax forms.

East Lansing’s City Council met last Tuesday, October 18, 2016, in the MSU Union Ballroom to hear from MSU student representatives from the University Student Commission and the Community Relations Coalition, as well as from the USC representative for the Olin Health Center. Among other issues, Council also discussed the City’s financial challenges, BWL’s tree management program, and the possibility of allowing certain currently-restricted rental properties to be renovated and expanded.

Financial Health Team gives updates: Michael Moquin, the chairperson of East Lansing’s ad hoc Financial Health Team (FHT), updated Council on three reports that the eleven-person committee is drafting for presentation to the City. The FHT was established earlier this year to examine the City’s financial stability particularly with regard to debt accumulating related to retiree pensions and healthcare (known as “legacy costs”).

With regard to legacy costs, the City is strongly considering moving from a defined benefit system (a more traditional pension) to a defined contribution system (more like an IRA). With the City’s retiree-related debt compounding yearly, and the City’s total debt approaching $200 million, the City is looking to take advantage of a state law that allows municipalities who switch to defined contribution plans, to take out bonds at favorable rates.

Some consideration is also being given to reducing health care costs to the City. These changes would not affect current retirees or employees, but would apply “on a going-forward basis,” according to Moquin. This means that new employees will be the main group affected by this change, with significantly fewer benefits and provisions for newer, typically younger, workers.

The City is looking at various ways to generate revenue, as insufficient revenue is a critical issue for the City’s finances. A major proposal in this category is the installment of an East Lansing income tax similar to the City of Lansing’s, probably at 1% for residents and 0.5% for non-residents who work in East Lansing. If Council proposes an income tax, the tax must be approved through a ballot referendum process. According to Moquin, such a referendum was last passed in Michigan in 1992. Income tax increases usually correspond with property tax decreases, Moquin added, and the FHT is also looking at whether to decrease the City property taxes, and if so, by how much.

We recently reported that the FHT is also looking into where City services could be cut to save money.

Tree trimming update: Councilmember Erik Altmann attended the October 17 Board of Water and Light (BWL) open house at Hannah Community Center, and provided updates to Council about the utility’s tree trimming plans, which are slated to begin again soon in the Bailey and Chesterfield Hills neighborhoods. The trimming was put on hold due to a lawsuit filed by BWL against East Lansing residents Richard and Conni Crittenden, which was decided in early August by Ingham County Judge Clinton Canady. The court found narrowly in the case of the Crittendens, allowing BWL maintenance access but also allowing the Crittendens to have their own arborist trim their trees in a different fashion than BWL wished.

Altmann, after attending the BWL open house, reported that BWL is interpreting the ruling as allowing them to trim all overhanging branches, which Altmann noted is not how the ruling actually reads. (Read our “Ask ELi” on what your property rights are in terms of BWL’s right to cut trees on your property in the wake of the “BWL vs. Crittendens” ruling.) BWL will be marking trees with one blue dot if the BWL forester believes a tree needs trimming and two blue dots if the tree is slated to be cut down. BWL’s own forester can also be called upon by residents for consultation, Altmann said. Altmann noted that BWL is offering to replace trees it cuts down with smaller trees that will not interfere with wires.

University Students report to Council: The University Student Commission, which consists of representatives from Associated Students of MSU (ASMSU), the Council of Graduate Students, fraternity and sorority groups, the Intercooperative Council, and Olin Health Center, explained to Council some of the projects they are working on. Asmaa Walton who is both a member of the Community Relations Coalition (CRC)  and is represented on the USC as a member of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, noted that fraternities and sororities are planning several voter education programs as well as Safe Halloween, and mentioned that several Greek organizations are fundraising for various causes. The CRC report to Council was removed from the agenda, as they will give their own special presentation to Council later in the semester.  

Student Health Report presents safety concerns: Julia Porter, representing Olin Health Center on the University Student Commission, notified Council of a study conducted by MSU as part of the National College Health Assessment. We will be bringing a separate report on this issue.

Two draft ordinances on rental property rules to be given public hearing: In the ongoing issue of residential rental nonconforming properties and landlords’ wishes to be allowed the right to renovate and expand those buildings, City Council decided to send two draft ordinances to public hearing on November 9, 2016. We will have a separate report on that.

Councilmembers deliver reminders: During her Councilmember report, Susan Woods reminded everyone the East Lansing Film Festival, for which she is paid to serve as Executive Director, will be running November 3-10. She encouraged everyone to attend.

Councilmember Shanna Draheim reminded everyone of the forum on police-community relations which occurred on October 19.

Mayor Mark Meadows, who is serving on the bond recommendation committee for the East Lansing Public Schools, reminded everyone that the public is welcome to attend the committee’s meetings. These are held Thursday nights in the Public Library. He encouraged people to be involved at this point in the process. 

Park District zoning consideration: Council set a public hearing for November 9, 2016, to discuss and likely vote on rezoning of the old “Evergreen Arms” apartments property (341-345 Evergreen Avenue) as part of the plan to redevelop the Park District.

 

Reminder: You can watch this Council meeting for yourself by clicking here. You can also speak to Council at any of its meetings or write to Council at council@cityofeastlansing.com on any issue.

 

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