Low student turnout to budget discussion doesn't provide full picture
It's an often-discussed topic: how East Lansing likely wouldn't exist if not for MSU and its large student population.
Yet at Wednesday night's community budget discussion, city government appeared to be getting along just fine without them; there were very few students in the crowd. Overwhelmingly, those in attendance were older, permanent city residents. It was a scene that hardly reflected East Lansing's makeup, as approximately 70 percent of city residents are younger than 25.
Journalism junior Eli Pales was one of the few MSU students in attendance. As the community liaison for ASMSU, it is Pales' job to attend meetings and community events like this, to keep abreast of what's going on around town. Pales said the low student turnout wasn't too surprising, as the Wednesday night time slot likely meant students were busy with other responsibilities.
Pales wasn't too concerned about it, though. He pointed to high student turnout on Election Day in November 2017 as proof that Spartans aren't completely oblivious to the issues facing East Lansing.
"As we saw in the city council elections last year, there was a huge boost in turnout compared to the prior city council election year," Pales said. "A lot of people voted on the income tax, a lot of people went out to vote for the city council candidates."
Aaron Stephens, who in that same election became the first student to serve on city council in 40 years, said the responsibility for reducing student apathy falls on the council. He said he believes the city can do better when it comes to getting students to care about the future of the city they inhabit, even if it's only a temporary residence.
"I think our city needs to be a lot more proactive with using social media and some of the methods that the younger generation use to get news and information," Stephens said.
But increasing outreach isn't a simple task. Hiring a social media intern to connect with the student population or holding more discussions on campus requires additional resources. Stephens said the city's communications department has already seen significant cuts through the last decade, making it unlikely such changes would come immediately.
Stephens said he doesn't solely rely on official city outlets to try and drum up student participation. Since the city doesn't have the resources to initiate more student outreach, Stephens said he tries to do that outreach on his own time, meeting with student groups like ASMSU to hear concerns. He said these are all responsibilities that come with the job.
"I try to post as regularly as I can, I sponsor posts, I try to get out there at every meeting that I can on campus," Stephens said. "I think it's the job of us on city council to not only reach out to members of the community that are within the neighborhoods, but also the ones that are on campus."
City Manager George Lahanas, in his presentation to open the night, mentioned East Lansing's obligation to provide services on campus as one of the costs putting pressure on the city's finances. Under state law, municipalities with state-owned facilities must provide fire protection to those facilities, and affected cities receive a yearly payment for those services.
In 2015, the city received a $1.1 million payout from the state, but Lahanas said that number was only half of the true cost of providing fire services to MSU. Whether the state payout matches the actual cost or not, the city still must continue to provide fire protection.
Given that MSU students receive this direct benefit from East Lansing services, resident Gretchen Couraud said she hopes students will understand the full impact MSU has on the city — especially as campus fire protection directly adds to the city's financial woes.
"I'd like students to be more educated on the actual costs, what pieces the city is picking up and where the deficits are that are subsidizing MSU," Couraud said.
Couraud said outreach is necessary to educate students on city government, but acknowledged the difficulty of adding services as the city seeks to free up $3 million this year. Beyond attending meetings and making their voices heard, she encouraged students to appeal directly to the university about making the MSU-East Lansing relationship more mutually beneficial.
"MSU students could talk to the trustees about the need to support East Lansing," Couraud said.
Although Wednesday's budget meeting didn't have a high student turnout, there is still another discussion session scheduled for Jan. 18. Stephens was optimistic when it came to student participation in politics as a whole, saying he expects in the coming months to see a boom in students' political influence.
"I think young people care a lot more about what's happening in their situations than people give them credit for," Stephens said. "Young people are getting involved, and they're getting involved in droves, and it happens here."