Lame-duck senator pushing for new offices that plenty of lawmakers don't want

LANSING (WXYZ) - Since the 1970s, the Billie S. Farnum Building has been the home to Michigan’s state senators. After more than three decades of use, it's showing signs of wear and tear. But to many lawmakers, it more than does the job.

"It's a good solid building. Just needs some updating," said Senator Glenn Anderson (D-Westland).

"It's a typical government building," said Senator 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, and it's serving its purpose well," said Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren).

But talk to the state’s top senator, majority leader Randy Richardville, and you might be surprised the Farnum Building hasn’t been condemned.

"I think 'crap' is a pretty good word for it," he said.

Richardville says the Farnum just doesn’t cut it anymore, with problems ranging from outdated technology to lingering asbestos issues. On a tour his office provided us, it appeared more than adequate, with spacious offices, nice amenities and state-of-the-art committee rooms.

Richardville see's it differently.

"It’s the worst facility I’ve worked in during my professional career, going back to the 1980s," he said.

Now, Richardville—whose term ends in December— is using his powerful perch to upgrade senators to a much swankier space. He introduced a bill that would give the Senate permission to sell the Farnum Building, freeing up cash to move into newer office space. 22 voted for it and 14 voted against, including 6 of Richardville’s fellow Republicans, and many Democrats like Westland’s Glenn Anderson. 

"There seems to be a very small handful of people that are pushing this along," Anderson said. "I'm really concerned with whether it's the best for the taxpayers and the state."

"Do you need a new office building, or do you just want one?" asked 7 Investigator Ross Jones.

"I think it is a need," Richardville said. "I worked in the Farnum building for four years. It is way subpar to what offices should have."

But other legislators aren't as sure. When Richardville's bill moved on to a committee in the House of Representatives, members like Rep.Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) were skeptical of the need.

"The person who gave the presentation emphasized things...that just didn’t make a lot of sense to me," Greimel said. "I don’t think it’s a good idea to build a new building so senators have a better view of the Capitol, for example."

Greimel isn't exaggerating. Interested bidders were told that only buildings that offered an unobstructed view of the capitol would be considered.

Right now, the bill to sell the Farnum Building is stalled in committee, but Richardville is soldiering on, soliciting bids from developers interested in providing a new senate headquarters, even if legislators recently left Lansing for the summer without addressing problems like our crumbling roads.

"You left without a resolution, should you be talking right now about upgrading the offices of senators?" Jones asked.

"Yeah, I think so," Richardville said. "What we would be doing, at least it looks to me, is analyzing another long term solution."

Part of Richardville’s rationale for moving out of the Farnum Building is that fixing it up would cost too much, pointing to an estimate that pegged remodeling costs at more than $25 million.

But that’s not true, according to Governor Snyder’s own administration officials. According to the state, the real cost to fix-up the Farnum is much cheaper: as low as $11,464,500.

Despite the resistance he's received, Richardville isn't giving up.  Bids for the project were due yesterday, and on August 15, they’ll be opened and considered. While he says he could have sole authority to pick the winning bid, he’ll likely seek out the opinions of others, like his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing).

She told us the Farnum Building is just fine.

"I don’t think legislators need plush office space, I think we need office space that works," Whitmer said. "And the Farnum building has worked for a long time."

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.


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