Despite $454 Million Budget Crunch Michigan Senators push for new offices.
LANSING - A projected $454 million budget shortfall hasn't stopped state senators from pushing to buy nicer, newer offices.
The move, proposed last year by then Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), would move senators into renovated office space while other state departments are being told to brace for cuts.
"You can question motives and you can question everything," Richardville told Channel 7's Ross Jones in November, "but this is a damn good business decision."
Richardville left the Michigan Senate at the end of last year due to term-limits, but not before choosing a proposal submitted by Lansing developer Ron Boji as the senate's future home. The state has agreed to purchase his building, called Capitol View, for $51 million and is seeking $70 million in state bonds to finance the deal.
Still, questions are being raised about whether the deal really makes sense for taxpayers. The plan calls for lawmakers to leave the Billie S. Farnum Building, home to senators since the 1970s. While the building is in need of updating and repair, some lawmakers said it is more than adequate.
"It's a typical government building," said Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge). "You have maintenance issues with everything from bathrooms to lighting, but it gets done."
"I think it's serving its purpose," said Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), "and it's serving its purpose well."
While senators voted 22-14 last year to sell the Farnum Building, it failed to get approval in the Michigan House, even during lameduck session. When then-Senate Secretary Carol Viventi appeared before House lawmakers to pitch moving to new offices last year, some of her rationales for leaving the Farnum Building--like its sometimes obstructed capitol views--puzzled House lawmakers.
"Not all of the offices face the Capitol, is that the crux of the problem?" asked a skeptical Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills).
"Pretty much," Viventi said.
"Isn’t this an expensive proposition for taxpayers in order to make sure that senators get a better view of the Capitol?" Greimel asked.
"The goal would be to provide office space to everyone that’s similar," Viventi responded.
But better views are only one reason senators are pushing for new office space. Another reason to move out, according to Richardville, is poor security. He said current senate offices leave lawmakers vulnerable.
"The back door can be opened in the Farnum Building," Richardville said.
"Couldn't you just lock the back door?" asked Channel 7's Ross Jones.
"No," Richardville responded, "because it can be unlocked."
During last year's House subcommittee hearing, Viventi argued that the Senate's current offices weren't as secure as the House headquarters. Rep. Greimel disagreed, saying that the buildings had almost identical security in place.
"Maybe your building isn’t functioning the way I was originally told that it would," Viventi responded.
Security and bad views aside, Sen. Richardville said the biggest reason a new building is needed is that fixing up the old one would cost more than $25 million. He cited an estimate provided by a Clark Construction, but neither he nor the Senate would release the estimate to 7 Action News.
Last year, representatives from Governor Rick Snyder’s administration said that estimate was too high. According to the Department of Management and Budget, the cost to fix up the Farnum Building could be as low as $11,464,500
None of your business
Ron Boji's bid was deemed the best by a team that reviewed and scored all four that were submitted, but current Secretary of the Senate Jeff Cobb refused to provide 7 Action News with copies of the any of the bids bids or each reviewer's score sheet .
"The Michigan Senate is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and no other law or rule requires disclosure of the requested documents," Cobb said today by e-mail.
"Therefore, your request is denied."
7 Action News continues to push for the release of the records.
Today, the Senate is still working to secure funds to purchase Boji's Caipotl View. By the time the bonding process is complete, it hopes that House lawmakers have given approval for the Senate to sell its current building.