LANSING — State senators authorized the potential sale of their downtown office building on Wednesday, drawing criticism from a top Democrat who alleged a secret deal already has been struck to move into nicer offices nearby.
The legislation, approved 22-14 primarily with Republican support, would let the Senate secretary sell the state-owned Farnum building for fair market value, with proceeds going to the Senate to acquire or lease office space. The 1959 building near the Capitol houses most senators’ offices and some committee rooms.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville said it needs extensive work to remove asbestos, upgrade security and heating/cooling and make other improvements. It could cost a “scary” $24 million to upgrade the building, so it may make sense to sell it and lease other space, the Monroe Republican said.
“These people deserve and the staff deserves a secure, safe environment that is up to speed,” he told reporters, saying he is open to ideas. “We’re taking care of constituent kind of things in that building. ... It’s a fiscal responsible thing to look at where we are and how we’re doing.”
But Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat, told the Associated Press in a phone interview that a behind-the-scenes deal may have already been done.
The Senate would sell the building to developer Ron Boji, she said, and broker a lease-to-own agreement to move into the nearby Boji-owned Capitol View building that opened in 2005. State Department of Community Health employees in that building would be moved to another building for which the state already is paying rent, she said.
“It looks as though the deal is done. We’ve got rules with regard to transparency and requests for proposal and the ability to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely,” said Whitmer, who questioned whether it makes financial sense to sell the building. “For it to be fait accompli kind of offends all those notions.”
But Richardville denied having an “overall plan,” saying he has gotten some suggestions and ideas. He acknowledged speaking to Boji and developer Joel Ferguson but said no decisions have been made.
Boji spokesman John Truscott confirmed that the developer is interested in the building, but said at this point “there is no deal to be done” and there has been no opportunity yet to make a proposal.
“His understanding is will be competitive and the process will be transparent,” Truscott said, adding that he assumes other developers are interested as well.
Richardville said the legislation would merely give the Senate the authority to deal with its own “crappy” building. He also said there are a limited number of options close to the Capitol where senators could move.
Whitmer said she knows nothing about how a sale of the Farnum building would be structured but said she’s seen plans for what Senate office space would look like at the Capitol View.
Nineteen Republicans and three Democrats voted for the bill headed to the House. Eight Democrats and six Republicans voted against it.
“The optics are terrible,” Whitmer said. “They move to fancy offices while making tough choices on other budget items.”
The state bought the Farnum building in 1978 for $3 million. The building was recently appraised at $5.4 million and its parking lot for $225,000, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis.
Senate Bill 509: http://1.usa.gov/1bg8ubE