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ELECTION 2011: Lansing tries again to pass public safety millage

Lansing residents will vote Nov. 8 on a public safety millage that could help the city's fire and police departments maintain their level of service. WKAR File Photo
Lansing residents will vote Nov. 8 on a public safety millage that could help the city's fire and police departments maintain their level of service. WKAR File Photo

By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkar/local-wkar-991744.mp3

Lansing, MI – For the second time in six months, Lansing voters will decide on a property tax increase. The city is asking them to approve a proposed millage that will raise money for police and fire protection and roads. Voters narrowly defeated the measure in May, in part because of skepticism over how the money would be allocated. The city says it's cleared up that point with new ballot language.

The four-minute mark

Ready, set, go...(sound of ambulance siren)

Imagine you're the paramedic driving this ambulance. From the moment you leave the station, you've got one clear goal: get wherever you're going in four minutes.

That's how long it should take the first engine to arrive at the scene of a fire. It's also about how long it takes a cardiac arrest victim to lose blood flow to the brain.

Within four minutes, the story you're listening to right now will be over.

Four minutes is the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. And Lansing doesn't meet it.

"When that 911 call comes in, we have to be there in a timely manner," says Chris Lake. He's vice-president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 421. "We don't get any awards for same day service."

The union represents 176 Lansing firefighters. There used to be 11 more, before the city laid them off in July. Lake says firefighters are covering more ground with fewer people.

"I've personally been involved with calls where we've gone from the south side of Lansing south of Holmes Road to the airport for a vehicle fire," says Lake. "It takes a long time to drive that distance. That's the reality."

Raising revenue to save services

Lake supports a ballot proposal that would raise Lansing's property tax by four mills to fund fire and police protection and road improvements. The city faces a projected budget deficit as high as $15 million. If it passes, the millage will only raise about half that for the next fiscal year.

"We have spent down our reserves; we have cut and cut and cut, we've reduced our workforce," explains Lansing finance director Jerry Ambrose. "And so there's a point in time when you have to ask yourself about the balance between, do we continue to just cut, or do we also mix that with raising some revenues? And so that's what this is."

For weeks, a pro-millage campaign called Keep Lansing Safe has been manning phone banks to win over city voters. Its members are also canvassing neighborhoods to bring the message door to door.

Some residents pledge their support on the spot. Others, like GM retiree Keith Orr, have some reservations.

"I've been reading up on it, but it's like a Catch-22 because they ask for more money and they're lax in other areas, you know," Orr says. "And you're wondering what all the fighting is at City Hall; what's going on?"

Overriding the Headlee Amendment

The proposal asks voters to give the Lansing city council permission to increase its taxing capacity. The vote is required under the Headlee Amendment to the Michigan Constitution, which caps the amount of revenue local governments can collect.

That rankles opponents like Mike Sears. He lives in East Lansing but owns about 30 rental properties in Lansing. He says Lansing voters should not willingly hand over that authority to City Hall.

"The people spoke loud and clear back in May that they don't want to do this, but they feel that they're not going to accept no, and that's almost like tyranny," Sears says. "We don't accept no; we're going to force it again on you in six months to basically take your constitutional right away."

The budget will be balanced

Finance director Jerry Ambrose stresses that the millage is only a partial solution. Whether it passes or fails, Mayor Virg Bernero will, by law, present a balanced budget to the city council in March. And Ambrose says that will mean more workforce reductions.

"We're not going to be a broke city," insists Ambrose. "We're going to be in business in five years, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, and we're going to be financially viable. And we're going to make the adjustments that we have to make."

Until then, Lansing's first responders are bracing for another close election. They realize whatever new revenues they get won't improve their service, but only maintain what they have today.

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