In an unexpected vote, Lowell City Council not only terminated its agreement with the owner of the failed Lowell biodigester but also approved a 10-year lease of the facility to local manufacturer Litehouse.
After that action, it was on to the regular City Council meeting in which several resolutions were passed and money was expended for various city needs.
Closed Session Leads to Vote on Biodigester Facility
Prior to its regular meeting, Lowell City Council met jointly with the Lowell Light & Power Board to discuss in a closed session “a legal opinion subject to attorney/client privilege.” That session lasted nearly one and a half hours.
After returning to open session, the council and board heard a short review from city attorney Dick Wendt of resolutions before them.
The resolution brought before the Lowell Light & Power Board authorized the termination of the purchase power agreement entered into between the utility and Lowell Energy AD, the operator of the Lowell biodigester. The termination agreement with LEAD also released claims between the two entities which ensures no further legal action can be taken by either party.
Lowell City Council had a similar resolution before them. However, theirs also included a lease agreement with Litehouse to allow them to use the biodigester facility to treat water used in their salad dressing production. The lease is for a 10-year term and can be renewed for two consecutive five year terms. Either party can cancel the lease with a 365 day notice.
Representatives of Litehouse were in attendance and explained that the treatment would occur using an aerobic process that should not produce odor. While Litehouse has purchased the biodigester equipment from LEAD, the manufacturer plans to remove everything related to the anaerobic process which is said to be responsible for the odor that had been emitted from the facility when it was previously operational.
The new facility will not produce energy or operate as a biodigester. It will be solely for treating water from the company’s production process.
Vote on Lease Agreement Not Announced in Advance
Both the Lowell Light & Power Board and Lowell City Council resolutions passed unanimously with no discussion and no public comment offered.
While it hasn’t been a secret that the city has been working with Litehouse to address the added costs it’s incurred since the closure of the biodigester, Monday night’s action was unexpected. There had been no indication in a public meeting that a vote on the matter was forthcoming.
While the intention to vote wasn’t announced prior to the meeting, it apparently wasn’t a spontaneous decision. Litehouse president and CEO Jim Frank traveled from Idaho to be at the meeting, and the city had a press release ready to be distributed immediately after the vote.
Lowell’s First Look reached out to Mayor Mike DeVore and City Manager Mike Burns to ask why no public hearing was held on the issue. Burns says the council typically only holds public hearings when required by law. While acknowledging public perception of the vote might not be positive, he assures residents the agreement was drawn up in such a way to assist a major local employer without negatively affecting neighboring homes.
“[Lowell Light & Power General Manager Steve Donkersloot and I] were directed 18 months ago to amicably terminate the agreement with LEAD and avoid litigation,” Burns said. He adds that the city felt an obligation to assist Litehouse which, since the closure of the biodigester, has spent $2.4 million annually to truck its wastewater to a site in Muskegon. “Part of the reason it took 18 months is because we were thinking about residents,” Burns explains
Burns also says the agreement termination with LEAD and the lease agreement with Litehouse had to be completed at the same time, and there was no option to wait to provide an opportunity for public input. “We followed the legal advice from our city attorney in doing this,” he says.
Regular Meeting Approves Three Spending Items
After a short break, the Lowell City Council reconvened for their regular meeting at approximately 7:30pm. During that meeting, the council approved several expenditures:
- $20,000 to Hearthstone Design Studio of Grand Rapids for interior design work on the new Showboat
- $15,622 to Beachum Flooring of Lowell for new carpeting on the second floor of City Hall
- $55,200 to Kamminga & Roodvoets of Grand Rapids to replace 20 water valve boxes and 20 sanitary sewer castings prior to the Hudson Street repaving project
It’s unclear if the design work for the Showboat was placed out for bids, but the City Hall flooring project was bid out. Two companies responded, and Beachum Flooring had the low bid.
Citing time constraints, the city opted not to bid out the water valve box and sanitary sewer casting replacement project. Instead, the city approached three specific contractors to request quotes. One turned down the job and another did not respond. Kamminga & Roodvoets was the only firm to provide a bid. Since the city is providing the materials, their quote is for labor only.
“Twelve hundred bucks a piece for labor seems a bit steep,” Councilmember Greg Canfield noted, adding that it was shame the project couldn’t be put out for bid.
However, Councilmember Jeff Phillips suggested the money might be worth it given the city’s previous dealings with the company. “The good thing is we know we’re going to get quality work out of them,” he said.
All expenditures were passed unanimously.
Other City Council Action and Meeting Details
City Council also unanimously passed a resolution to request $9,980.09 in reimbursement from the state for overtime and other costs associated with responding to the 2018 flood.
A May 21st public hearing on the proposed 2018-2019 city budget was approved as well.
Finally, the council approved a resolution in support of the Village of Caledonia entering the Grand Valley Metro Council.
In his manager’s report, Burns noted Hudson Street repaving from Grand River to Main Street would begin on June 11th and run for five days. On two of those days, the road would be closed and traffic diverted to Jackson Street.
During citizen comments, State Representative Tom Albert was on-hand to provide a legislative update. Among other things, he mentioned the state has funds available for road resurfacing around railroad tracks and offered to assist the city if it would like to pursue a grant. “I’m happy to do anything I can from my office,” he said.
Albert also introduced Representative Chris Afendoulis who is running for Senator Dave Hildenbrand’s seat. Hildenbrand is unable to run again because of term limits.
At the conclusion of the regular agenda, the council went into a closed session to discuss labor negotiations.
The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on May 21, 2018 at 7pm in council chambers at City Hall.