Truth and Faults with the Proposed Lease for Belle Isle

The state of Michigan is pushing the Detroit City Council to approve a lease for the city park, Belle Isle. This lease, supported by Mayor Dave Bing, would transfer control of the island to the state for a period of 30 years. During this time the city would maintain ownership of the island but not have control of the island or any of the facilities and events that occur on the island. Both Mayor Bing and Governor Snyder state that with this agreement the city would be able to use money now budgeted for Belle Isle for other parks within the city of Detroit. However an actual reading of the lease suggests that instead of saving Detroit money, this lease will instead cost Detroit and the city will lose money.

Mayor Bing has been promoting the benefits of the lease but he has not provided proof of those benefits. His office has proclaimed that if the lease is approved, $6 million will be free to spend on other city parks. This amount is very questionable. A brief survey of city workers provides for an amount closer to $2 million used for Belle Isle. Ten years ago, the city budget included a little over $5 million to share between Belle Isle and all of the riverfront parks and marinas. Also, the city collected a little over $1 million in revenue based on the park’s revenue generation along with the marinas. This means the amount from the budget for Belle Isle and the riverfront parks and marinas was closer to $4 million. Citing that budget period the amount used exclusively for Belle Isle would be much less than the $6 million claimed by the mayor and close to or less than the $2 million from the survey. With the city’s budget shrinking continuously over the past decade, none of the city departments have seen an increase in spending. Bing’s office has not released actual numbers or a specific budget as to spending under the Recreation department. It would seem that the actual funding amount for Belle Isle is less than $2 million and when the revenue is deducted, the number is even lower.

Within the lease the terms include the state taking a portion of Detroit’s revenue sharing money used for roads and bridges. This is defined by Public Act 51 of 1951. This will then prevent Detroit from using this money for other parks or for any roads in Detroit. The lease does not include the specific amount that will be taken and therefore without an exact figure, the state of Michigan can take what they want without additional permission from Detroit. The lease thus becomes a blank check.  If Detroit has yearly budget deficits and faces an emergency manager, reducing money for the budget in Detroit is a very poor decision. Additionally, the lease does not contain any mandate to force the state to use any money exclusively for Belle Isle. The lease only includes vague language for the state to maintain the island. There are no firm timelines, or milestones for accomplishment. There isn’t a method to determine if the state is meeting the terms of the lease because the terms are completely open to interpretation. This fully favors the state of Michigan and puts Detroit in a very weak position.

Mayor Bing and Governor Snyder also claim that the city workers who now work on the island or service the island park will be able to be relocated to others city parks. This is supposed to make us believe that there is a shortage of workers at other city parks and those additional workers would then equal improvements in other city parks. This premise is false. The Belle Isle proposed lease will likely lead to layoffs for city workers. Ten years ago the city contained a budget to accommodate about 100 hundred workers for Belle Isle and the riverfront parks and marinas. This included maintenance of city cemeteries, city owned marinas, the revenue generating facilities such as the golf course or giant slide and the administration of contracts like the city wide ice cream vendors. Most of these positions will likely be eliminated under the proposed lease if they even still exist. The state of Michigan would be given control over all of these areas, specifically those that generate revenue. Because these duties do not transition to other parks, the city positions and employees would probably face termination. The lease will then cost the city jobs.

This is similar to the state of Michigan taking over control of Cobo Hall. The city gave control to the state and eliminated the city jobs, and city contracted vendors, within Cobo. The state assumed control and hired other contractors and other employees to manage and maintain the facility. These jobs did not exist for Detroiters as they had when the city maintained control. The vendors are not required to be Detroit based businesses. The same will exist for the state controlling Belle Isle. The sole Black owned business was evicted from Cobo for no other reason than the new controllers didn’t want them inside Cobo Hall. Will Black owned businesses have any opportunities if the state gets control of Belle Isle and all of the contract opportunities?

Under the proposed lease, things like the greenhouses, infrastructure like the power lines, water sewage, etc. (see 2.1.3, 2.3) remain the city’s responsibility and therefore will require staffing and money. These are other jobs that will not be transferred to other city parks. Additionally those areas which the city will retain will continue to require funding from within the city’s budget. Because the state is taking away some of Detroit’s revenue sharing and obtaining control over the revenue generating properties and events, Detroit will have to spend more money on these positions that will remain under the city of Detroit. The city will lose any opportunity to increase revenue through the use of Belle Isle and will have to continue to pay for services and structures on Belle Isle.

The state is initiating, for its own use, an entry fee onto Belle Isle. This money will be under the sole control of the state and will become part of the state park funding system. State law does not allow money collected through fees or gate passes for a state park to remain solely within that state park. The state park system is free to use that money in all state parks. The fees to enter Belle Isle are not guaranteed for use on Belle Isle. Belle Isle will become a revenue generator for the entire state of Michigan parks system. Money collected in Detroit could be used in places too far away for Detroiters to use as frequently and as easily as Belle Isle.

All revenue generated by or on Belle Isle while under the terms of this lease become property of the state. This includes the entry fee. With the exception of special funding such as grants, the remainder of the revenue must be appropriated exclusively for Belle Isle by the state legislature if it is to be used solely for Belle Isle. (see 9.7) The state of Michigan cannot retain or use funds exclusively for a state park without the necessary appropriation by the legislature. If this lease is approved the state will have to budget for the state employee positions for Belle Isle and then fund specific projects on the island. These projects will have to compete for funds as do the projects at all state parks. Therefore money that is being promised to be used for Belle Isle may not be guaranteed. The lease terms agree to this and prohibit citing this as a reason to cancel the lease. If the state does not spend a single dime on the island, the state will not violate the terms of the lease. If the republican controlled legislature or a democratic controlled legislature that at times is not supportive of Detroit does not budget specific money for Belle Isle, the state is not in default on the lease terms and the island park will get less under the state than it does now under the control of the city.

This lease is unfair. The lease divides the Detroit park system and creates a social divide. The other Detroit parks get nothing in return. If an entry fee is indeed something that is needed, Detroit could itself create and administer an entry fee and share that revenue with all of the Detroit parks. Belle Isle is unique. The island has only a single public entrance and exit, the Belle Isle Bridge. The yacht club allows for its members to come and go via their leased boat slips. This makes it easy to setup and control the entry onto Belle Isle. For this reason the fee has been opposed by the citizens of Detroit for the past two decades. The island is now open twenty four hours a day. This would change once the island became a state park. Proponents of the lease insist that a park is better as a state park because of the money that can be spent by the state. The other state parks are not at their best as a result of severe cuts in funding over the last twenty years. Belle Isle may already be in better condition than many state parks. Also, under this theory, as money is spent on Belle Isle, other state parks will receive less money. Will those residents who live near and visit state parks, as Detroiters live near and visit Belle Isle, not protest if their nearby park experiences a reduction in funding as a result of the state having to share money with Belle Isle?

The parks system in Michigan and Detroit has been the victim of budget cuts for years. This is due to the poor economy and the lack of or reduced number of jobs in the city and the state. The state legislature has been focused on cutting taxes for business over the past two decades and has reduced or eliminated funding for things like the arts, zoos, science centers, museums, etc. Will the state now reverse course and allocate more money for a new addition to the state parks system? That is unlikely, the money the city is giving up for the lease of Belle Isle is likely the only money that the state will use for Belle Isle. The state will not be able to do anymore than can the city of Detroit. The state will control the island and control who may or may not visit the island. The state will get the revenue and the ability to generate more revenue. The state cannot do more with the money Detroit is currently spending on Belle Isle. This is just a shift in who controls the checks and pays the bills. This is still Detroit’s money being used on a Detroit park. The state does not have good intentions in this planned takeover. Detroit’s mayor lacks common sense in his approval of the lease. Some members of city council are not performing to their responsibility in overseeing the city, the city assets and the best interests of city residents.

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One Response to Truth and Faults with the Proposed Lease for Belle Isle

  1. Sheila Jackson says:

    The lease agreement is still for a 90 year period, broken down into 3 30 year agreements, further broken down into 10 year increments.

    If the city decides to opt out after 10 years and the state has floated bonds for belle isle, the city will be responsible for paying back the bonds. I couldn’t decipher whether or not the city would have to pay the bonds back anyway but definitely if they opt out of the lease.

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