The council plan for Belle Isle touts a 10-year lease with the option for two additional 10-year renewals. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Detroit— A state emergency loan board will decide how long the state operates the city’s Belle Isle and whether it will pay more to do so after the Detroit City Council on Monday rejected Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s proposed lease and offered a shorter-term plan with more conditions.
The six-member council, citing a lack of clarity and other concerns, unanimously voted down Orr’s plan for a 30-year lease with the state that the emergency manager says would save the city $6 million a year. Council members then approved a revised lease proposal in a 4-2 vote with Brenda Jones and JoAnn Watson dissenting.
The council’s plan shortens the state lease to 10 years with the option for two additional 10-year renewals — compared with Orr’s 15-year renewals — and adds measures to ensure the state follows through with funding park upgrades. The panel’s plan would require the state to pay the up to $2.5 million in annual water and sewer bills for the park and require state officials to make more progress reports and updates to the city.
Councilman James Tate, who chaired work group discussions on the alternative, said nothing will be perfect, “but I do think we’ve gotten a lot closer.”
“You can’t say no without a viable alternative,” Tate said. “I believe that’s what this body has put together.”
Council President Saunteel Jenkins said the group added a trigger to end the lease if the state fails to follow through on promised funding for about $10 million to $20 million in park improvements.
“We know they can fund improvements on the park. But the question is: Will they fund the improvements on the park?” she said. “We want the lease to be written to fund improvements on the park or be able to terminate the lease.”
Although Orr had said he was open to changes in the lease he negotiated with Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, Orr spokesman Bill Nowling said late Monday that the emergency manager still considers his plan better than the council proposal.
“Emergency Manager Orr believes the current lease agreement between the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan provides the best framework in which to ensure that Belle Isle regains its luster as one of the City of Detroit’s crown jewels,” Nowling said in a statement.
Under the emergency manager law, the council’s proposal must go to the state Emergency Loan Board, composed of three Snyder appointees who have 30 days to determine whether it or the Orr plan is the most reasonable. State Treasury Department spokesman Terry Stanton did not indicate a timetable Monday when the board would take up the competing lease plans.
Stanton instead noted state law says the board “shall approve the proposal that best serves the interest of the public.”
Two different plans
Jenkins said if the state follows the letter of the law, the council’s proposed lease will prevail. It includes a project management plan with firm timelines. If the state does not live up to the council’s agreement, the city could consider it a breach of contract, Jenkins said.
“We’re not going to try to project what their decision is going to be,” she said of the loan board. “But we do feel very confident we presented a lease that’s better for Detroit.”
The original deal, announced Oct. 1 by Orr and the Snyder administration, calls for the state to lease the 985-acre island park from Detroit and take over the operation of recreational activities, roads and policing. Monday was the deadline for the council to accept or reject that agreement.
Under the state plan, the city would continue to cover the $1.5 million to $2.5 million costs annually in water and sewer bills for Belle Isle. Tate said the council’s proposal has the state covering those costs.
The council’s alternative did not satisfy Watson, who called any Belle Isle lease with the state a “wealth transfer” that has nothing to do with the city’s financial emergency. Watson argued the city could still operate the island park under its master plan.
“The council should not be pushed into approving a lease,” she argued. “...There’s nothing wrong with the city operating its own asset.”
Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr. said:
“The bottom line is if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t want to do a lease. ... But strategically, this approach is the best approach for the city. This is a lease that’s financially superior.”
In January, a divided council declined to vote on a similar lease proposal for Belle Isle, leading Snyder to withdraw the offer.
Napoleon and Duggan
Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who is vying with former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan for mayor on Nov. 5, said he agrees with “Detroit City Council’s unanimous decision to reject the 30-year lease for Belle Isle with State of Michigan.”
“I support an open process that allows entrepreneurs to bid on leasing the island to make it a destination with an array of outdoor activities, restaurants and entertainment,” Napoleon said in a statement.
Duggan previously said he would submit a plan to match the state’s saving estimates and had urged the council not to adopt Orr’s agreement. He did work on an alternative, but the council ultimately opted to develop its own, Duggan campaign manager Bryan Barnhill II said Monday.
Barnhill declined to disclose details of Duggan’s plans, since the council has acted and, he added, “We respect their actions.”
“If they’d like to work with us and get an idea of what Mike was proposing, we’ll be happy to do that,” he said.
Prior to Monday’s vote, about a dozen opponents urged the council to turn down a lease plan for the island. Residents and activists also turned up at two council sessions last week to voice their objections.