2012 is coming to a close, and the city of East Lansing is ending the year on firm footing. Standard and Poor’s – one of America’s top bond rating agencies – has rated the city’s general obligation bonds as AA+. Fitch Investors Service is renewing its AAA rating on those bonds.
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery sat down with East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas to talk about the city’s financial health and to look back on some highlights from 2012. Lahanas says the city has worked hard to strengthen its fund balance.
GEORGE LAHANAS: Our fund balance has increased for several years in a row. That’s been due to controlling expenses and slightly better performance in revenue. There’s also been greater assistance from our residents in terms of taxes. So, there’s been a number of things going in the right direction. We’ve been controlling health care, controlling personnel costs very effectively and I think the bond rating agency saw all those factors. It also looked at the economy in the mid-Michigan area and felt there were some good signs. So, we’re pleased about that.
KEVIN LAVERY: Let’s move to some commercial developments in the last year. The Ann St. Plaza (mixed-use redevelopment) is still underway, it’s partially finished. But also, the Amtrak station near Michigan State University just received a nearly $7 million federal grant. Can you talk about plans for redeveloping that into a multi-modal facility?
LAHANAS: That is something that was really a great success from last year; from 2012, is receiving that grant. CATA (Capital Area Transportation Authority) is the lead agency, but obviously we’re a partner with Michigan State University on creating this multi-modal facility on Trowbridge. We think it’s going to be a great opportunity for the entire mid-Michigan region to have that intersection of two trains that cross there, to also have bus (service), to have all the transportation options right next to the university and to really sort of enhance the Trowbridge corridor for us is a great opportunity. There will be design opportunities and design input and design studies going on over the next year, and we’re looking forward to participating in that and coming out with a great facility in the future.
LAVERY: The other one is what used to be called the City Centre II project and for many years that was plagued with a lot of fits and starts. And now that has morphed in some ways into what’s called the Park District Planning Area. Where is that direction going?
LAHANAS: Certainly. This past spring the city council had elected not to go forward with the City Centre II project because the finances did not appear viable at that point. So, at this point, the city and the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) have control of certain parcels of land within that district, and we’re looking out now for developers who want to come and give us sort of their proposals on what they can envision doing in that area, and also giving them an opportunity to see what our citizens wanted to see, and that was a big part of our RFP preparation process.
In the beginning of February, we’ll be getting proposals back from developers, that’s our deadline. So we’re hoping at that point to have some exciting proposals to look at. We’ve been getting, I would say, pretty strong interest from developers in terms of wanting to see the RFP, also calling with questions and inquiries. So, we’re expecting and hopeful that we’ll get a lot of good input, and that will be something that we’ll be able to review over the spring.
LAVERY: This year, East Lansing and five other jurisdictions signed a memorandum of understanding about sharing fire services; a mutual aid agreement. That’s not new for this region, but I think maybe it is on the scale that’s being proposed. What can residents expect in 2013 going forward in terms of mutual aid and the emergency response services that they expect?
LAHANAS: Well, we’re actually continuing to work on and have been working over the prior year on how we can make the fire response and ambulance response in the region even better than it is. There is mutual aid currently in place, but I would say it’s not as robust and formal a system as it could be. We’ll be going to something likely called the MABAS system, which is the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which is a standardized method to have municipalities help adjoining municipalities when there’s need, where a closer vehicle will be able to go provide assistance, whether it’s in your municipality or not. So we’re really looking forward to doing some good things that will help our residents in terms of services and provide the best possible service in terms of safety for all the residents of the region.