WKAR Features
6:16 am
Wed October 14, 2009

Regional cooperation is an issue in Lansing mayoral race

Lansing, MI – On November 3, Lansing residents will choose between incumbent Virg Bernero and councilmember Carol Wood for their next mayor. In today's economy, the mayor of Lansing must be a regional leader who can forge partnerships with neighboring governments. Those agreements ensure residents receive vital services the city might not otherwise be able to deliver on its own.

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To understand Lansing's relationship with its neighbors, you only need to look back to mid-September. The state budget deadline was growing more ominous by the day, and civic leaders were fretting over how to stay afloat under the threat of impending cuts to shared revenue payments.

That's when Lansing mayor Virg Bernero and East Lansing mayor Victor Loomis stood together at a Lansing firehouse. The two cities had long shared resources to provide public safety. Now, Bernero and Loomis feared state funding cuts would jeopardize their ability to maintain that service.

"We're told to do more with less," Bernero said. "There's always room for more regional cooperation, but to do it overnight in the atmosphere of these draconian cuts makes it very difficult."

"We're at pretty basic staffing levels right now," Loomis added. "And so to cut them further it's not going to take away the importance of those mutual aid agreements. We're going to have to rely upon them even more, but it's going to be with even more pressure."

The event underscored one of the region's most important partnerships. Lansing and East Lansing routinely call upon each other's police, fire and ambulance services in time of need.

That need is especially acute when mass disturbances threaten the Michigan State University campus community. Mayor Loomis remembers the April 2008 "CedarFest," when a hostile crowd began pelting police with rocks and bottles:

"We had all of our EMT units fully deployed," Loomis says. "We had to call on Lansing to send EMT units. We took all their reserve units, had them fully deployed, and had to call on Meridian Township."

Lansing formally agreed to share its emergency response services with East Lansing 10 years ago. Mayor Bernero has since renewed that agreement during his time in office.

Lansing has a number of economic partnerships with its neighbors. In the 90's, the city negotiated a tax sharing agreement with Alaiedon Township that kept Jackson National Life Insurance in mid-Michigan. Later, the city brokered a similar deal with Delta Township to preserve the GM assembly plant.

Perhaps the most visible example of regional collaboration is the Potter Park Zoo. In 2006, Lansing realized the zoo would suffer if it had to compete for funding alongside more vital city services. The city approached Ingham County, which agreed to fund and operate the zoo through a $3.2 million millage.

But other regional cost-cutting attempts have failed. Bernero and the city council fought a legal battle over the closure of two city-owned golf courses. Bernero says he tried to solicit regional support for what he viewed as regional facilities.

"And believe me, before I closed Red Cedar and Waverly golf courses, I approached the other governments, and I let them know -- look; this is getting tough, is this something you could support?" says Bernero. "And they're not interested in supporting it."

In 2007, Lansing proposed merging its fire department with Lansing Township. The city claimed it would save $700,000 a year. But township supervisor John Daher says the proposal had some gaps, and the township opted against a merger. But Daher says instances like that shouldn't be viewed as a negative.

"Unfortunately, there's been a perception out there that we don't work together, that we don't like each other; that turfism prevails," Daher observes. "That's really not true. And somehow we've got to turn that perception around."

But Daher did find himself in political turmoil with Bernero two years ago. Lansing Township says it lost a hotel development deal because Lansing city held up sanitary sewer service.

Lansing councilmember Carol Wood is running against Bernero for mayor. She says conflicts like that demonstrate Bernero's unyielding approach that's eroded the trust of his partners.

"And I've heard it over and over with some of my counterparts in other municipalities that there has been a breakdown compared to what it had been through other administrations; we have to build that back up again," Wood says.

But even in the best of climates, intergovernmental collaborations can be tricky. David Hollister has seen that happen. The former Lansing mayor now directs the non-profit Prima Civitas Foundation. Hollister says regional partnerships offer few political incentives.

"You get criticized, you get accused of selling out or making concessions or being outsmarted by your regional partners," notes Hollister. "So, when political leaders do come together, we need to celebrate that."

Hollister says from an economic sense, Lansing's real challenges lie not with its rapport with its neighbors, but with its ability to compete regionally against overseas competitors. He believes mid-Michigan's civic leaders have come to realize that they rise and fall together. And that means Lansing's next mayor must be a unifier whose alliances will benefit people far beyond the city's borders.