Mayor vetoes council’s nature center construction approval

Council will have an opportunity to override the decision Dec. 12

By: Jennie Miller | Southfield Sun | Published December 1, 2011


SOUTHFIELD — Mayor Brenda Lawrence has vetoed a $2.1 million nature center construction project approved by the Southfield City Council Nov. 14.

The mayor’s decision, which was reportedly made on Nov. 23, became official during the Nov. 28 council meeting.

“I feel very strongly that the city should not commit to that kind of financial investment at this time,” Lawrence said. “I want us to have (the nature center), but not at this time. We’re dealing with so much (in this) economic crisis.”

The plans call for the construction of a 10,630-square-foot environmentally friendly educational facility at the foot of the Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve, on the city’s west side, which opened to the public in 2008 after decades of planning. The preserve is a sprawling 42 acres of woodlands, forested wetlands and meadows overlooking the 5-acre lake. A mile’s worth of nature trails with interpretive signs, benches, and fishing and viewing platforms were installed using $1.5 million in grant funds.

“It would be a wonderful addition to the city,” Lawrence said, expressing her support of the nature center project, just not the timing. “This veto is not to kill the project, but it is to say (don’t) do it at this time, but at a later date when we are more financially stable.”

Members of the Southfield City Council still have the opportunity to override the mayor’s decision and re-adopt the measure with at least five votes, as per city charter, according to City Attorney Jack Beras. That vote was postponed and the meeting adjourned until Dec. 12 at the request of City Council President Joan Seymour, in the interest of fairness, as Councilwoman Sylvia Jordan was absent from the meeting.

The Nov. 14 decision was made in a 3-2 vote after council members had invoked a special rule in order to act, deeming the matter emergent, during an informal and nontelevised council meeting. Councilman Myron Frasier was absent at that meeting, and Councilwoman Janna Garrison had vacated her seat. Jordan had not yet been sworn in to office, nor had newcomer Jeremy Moss.

The matter was deemed emergent because after years of planning, a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources awarded to the project was due to expire. The grant had been unanimously approved for acceptance by council in 2007 with a city commitment of $500,000 in matching funds. While the city applied for and received two extensions on the grant, a third would only be awarded if the project were completed by Aug. 1, 2012.

At the time, architects had told city officials that if the bidding process were to start immediately, the project could be completed on time, hence the emergent nature of the Nov. 14 decision. It is unclear if the month-long delay will affect that assurance given by architects.

Also at risk was an additional $140,000 grant provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and a $150,000 donation offered by DENSO International America Inc. Both sums would be lost if the project didn’t move forward immediately, said Councilman Don Fracassi.

An additional $332,000 in architect and engineering service fees had already been budgeted by the Southfield Parks and Recreation Department in fiscal years 2009-10 and 2010-11. Most of that money has already been spent, but the work done can be saved and applied to the project in the future, pointed out City Administrator Jim Scharret.

The remaining $978,000 was to be advanced by the Local Improvement Revolving Fund —typically used for emergency loans. The Parks and Recreation Department would then reimburse the LIRF with interest-only payments, at 3 percent, beginning in fiscal year 2012-13. The Parks and Recreation Department would then be responsible for the nature center operating costs, which are currently estimated at $75,000 per year, Scharret said.

City Councilman Ken Siver expressed his concerns with not only using LIRF funds, but also whether the costs to operate the facility would be that low. He reiterated that he has long encouraged the project, but finds it not prudent to move forward now.

“I see other needs for this money,” he said. “I hope that some day we build the nature center. I just don’t know that we should do it now.”

Lawrence cited a list of other projects within existing facilities in the Parks and Recreation Department that in her mind should be a higher priority than any new construction, such as antiquated meeting rooms, concerns with handicapped accessibility and other modern efficiencies.

Fracassi and Seymour were adamant that the project should still move forward, given the breadth of work that has been done to get it to the point it is today and the imminent loss of available funding.

“I have the greatest respect for our mayor, but I’m so opposed to this veto,” Fracassi said.

“If this building does not get built — and there’s good reason to believe that if it doesn’t get approved very shortly that it will not be built — it really is insulting to the previous councils who’ve worked on this for 25 years, and it’s worse than insulting to the agencies who’ve given money with the expectation that this would be completed,” Seymour said. “I feel that it’s going to give Southfield a bad name.”

Seymour added that she’s confident another local business would be stepping forward in the next two weeks to offer a donation of funds for the project, which could possibly affect the decision of those opposed to moving forward at this time.