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Dems pledge uphill fight against new Senate offices

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — House Democrats said Monday they will attempt to block state spending on a move to new offices planned by the 38-member Michigan Senate, calling it a $134-million boondoggle.

“It is a sweetheart deal that has been given to a major Republican donor,” Democratic Rep. Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids charged during a press conference in front of the proposed new Senate office quarters across from the state Capitol.

The Capitol View building, where the Senate wants to move, is owned by the Boji Group. It’s president, Ron Boji of Orchard Lake, has been a generous contributor to Republican candidates. The GOP has a 27-12 Senate majority and a 63-47 House majority.

Dillon and Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, said House Democrats will try to strip appropriations needed for the move from the proposed 2016 state budget, which is up for a House vote this week. Some Republicans in the House majority also have questioned the plan.

A proposed move of Senate offices to new quarters has been in the works for more than a year. Facilities housing current offices in the Farnum Building are outdated and inadequate, Senate leaders said last year.

But House Democrats argue the Farnum is a perfectly good building and the Senate doesn’t need “lavish” new offices.

The Senate early last December approved the sale of the 11-story Farnum, also across from the Capitol, where Senators other than top leaders have been quartered since the 1970s. Top leaders in both legislative chambers have their offices in the Capitol.

Ex-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said last year it made more sense to sign an attractive lease deal offered at the Capitol View building than to pay for costly updates to improve security and address other problems at the Farnum structure.

While Richardville led the review process, current Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has said he agrees with the move. In February, he made public 370 pages of documents containing proposals the Senate obtained for new or revamped office space from four bidders.

The Boji Group offered the Senate 128,035 square feet for $16.75 a square foot for an overall cost of $64.3 million over 30 years at Capitol View, which was built in 2005.

One other bidder offered a lower per-square-foot rate, but only if it could buy the Farnum for $1, make improvements and lease it back to the Senate. If the bidder purchased the Farnum at the $5.3-million market value, its bid was $19.95 a square foot for updated and expanded office space.

The cost of the proposed move initially was estimated at $50 million, but the state’s Strategic Fund board has approved the sale of up to $70 million in state bonds to cover it. Democrats and other critics charge the ultimate cost will be $134 million once interest on the borrowing also is paid off.

Cochran said the money to be spent on the proposed move “could be used in countless better ways than giving state senators a better office view.

“Instead of doling out $3.5 million per senator for cushy offices, we could be hiring teachers, helping students pay for college or restoring some of the tax cuts that were taken away from Michigan’s working families,” he said.

The Farnum Building does not give every senator a Capitol view; offices overlooking the Capitol go to longest-serving members. House members have a street-spanning office building, completed in 1999, that was constructed in such a way that all of them can look upon the Capitol from their office windows.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com