City Council Recap: 4 Hours in City Hall

Thanks to Presidents Day, this week’s city council meeting was bumped to Tuesday night. However, it wasn’t just the regular Lowell City Council meeting that occurred last night but a Committee of the Whole and a closed session too. The result was nearly four hours of discussion for councilmembers.

Staffing for the Department of Public Works, dismantling the Showboat, the Riverview Flats proposal and a presentation from the Lowell Area Historical Museum were all on the docket. Then, the council ended with a lengthy closed session that ended with a mysterious vote to do whatever it was they discussed.

Keep reading for all the details of this marathon night in City Hall.

Department of Public Works to Add Employee

Lowell City Council kicked off their evening at 5:30pm with a Committee of the Whole to discuss staffing for the Department of Public Works. Rich LaBombard, assistant city manager and DPW director, led the discussion with a presentation of current DPW staffing and upcoming needs.

The department normally has eight full-time workers but is currently working with a staff of seven since one position is vacant. There is also one part-time employee in the department and approximately six seasonal workers are brought on to help in the summer. The DPW is responsible for a broad range of services including street repair, park maintenance, snowplowing, water treatment and facilities upkeep.

LaBombard noted there are a number of projects the DPW would like to pursue, such as enhanced use of GIS technology, implementation of an electronic work order system and installation of smart meters for the water system. However, the department currently lacks the manpower to pursue these projects. “We are so busy putting out fires that we can’t get ahead of these future needs,” LaBombard said.

DPW is proposing the addition of one full-time worker to the department as part of the upcoming budget. When the current vacancy is filled, that would bring the full complement of workers to nine. LaBombard is also requesting funding for one quarter of a position to allow a retiring worker to train his replacement for a few months.

City Manager Mike Burns said the additional cost would be approximately $144,000 annually. He mentioned a water bond was paid off this year which frees up $100,000 in the budget, and that finding the extra $44,000 wouldn’t be “earth-shattering.” That is in contrast to what the Lowell Area Fire Department was told last month when they requested $67,000 to fund three full-time positions. At that time, Burns indicated it would be difficult to come up with $67,000 without a new revenue source. (Editor’s Note: After publication, Burns wrote to clarify that the money for a new DPW worker would come primarily from the water and sewer funds while firefighting positions would need to be paid out of the general fund.)

Although not directly related to the DPW discussion, Burns noted during the Committee of the Whole that water and sewer rates would be rising approximately 4-7 percent in July. (Editor’s Note: This expected increase breaks down to 1-1.5 percent for water and 3-6 percent for sewer.) The increased rates are needed to offset a loss of income from Litehouse and pay for facility upgrades, particularly in the wastewater system which is now 30 years old.


Promotions in DPW and Police Department

After the Committee of the Whole, Lowell City Council went into its regular meeting. Two personnel changes were announced at the start of that meeting. LaBombard announced that Ralph Brecken was being promoted to the role of utility supervisor, and Police Chief Steve Bukala introduced Mike Stephens who has been a part-time officer for 2.5 years and is moving into a full-time position.

Update on Riverview Flats Project

Burns noted there has been confusion about how to handle a land swap request from developers who own the former Unity High School property. However, the matter seems to now be clarified.

At the next meeting, Lowell City Council will be presented with resolutions to remove land from Riverside Park as well as approve the requested land transfer. Both resolutions will have a 20 day waiting period and are contingent on approval from the Department of Natural Resources.

Councilmember Greg Canfield said he supported the development project, but he felt the council needed to address the south parcel adjoining the library first. “I won’t be able to support this until we tie up all the loose ends,” Canfield said.

Developer Jerry Zandstra apparently told Canfield in a meeting that it may have been best if the city had bought the south parcel when it was for sale and that perhaps there could be an option to make that purchase happen. Canfield asked Burns if he had pursued that matter, and Burns replied that he had not been authorized to do so.

Councilmember Cliff Yankovich echoed Canfield’s comments. “I don’t think we should continue to leave things undone,” he noted. “Obviously, if we could purchase the south parcel that would solve all the problems.”

Mayor Mike DeVore indicated that wasn’t the current discussion before the council and moved on to the next agenda item.

Showboat May Be Dismantled Next Week

Next, the Lowell City Council approved a $6,000 bid from Earthworm Dozing and Excavating to remove the Lowell Showboat from the Flat River. The company says it could begin work as early as next week.

The family of the late Ivan Blough, who was instrumental in building the current Showboat, asked if they could receive the boat’s paddlewheel. Council members agreed that the Blough family could take any items from the Showboat that they would like. “If they want the paddlewheel, they should have the paddlewheel,” DeVore said.

Other salvaged items may be directed to the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

Lowell Area Historical Museum Presentation

Lisa Plank, executive director of the Lowell Area Historical Museum, was on-hand to provide her annual update to Lowell City Council.

Nearly 30,000 visitors went through the museum in the past year, and the museum website has been visited more than 28,000 times. “It’s a rather astounding number for an organization our size,” Plank noted. The museum hosted 23 free admission days, clocked in nearly 2,500 volunteer hours and had 104 artifacts donated.

Central to the Lowell Area Historical Museum’s activities are educational programs. One of the latest offerings is a museum immersion program for third grade students. Teachers are provided the opportunity the use the museum as their classroom for two full days. “This year, every third grade class in the district will be participating,” Plank said.

Tax Credit Extended to King Milling

There was a short public hearing prior to the council’s approval of an Industrial Facility Tax Credit for King Milling Company. Resident Perry Beachum addressed the council to share his support of King Milling but also his hope that the company would help pay to put in sidewalks along the newly reconstructed S. Broadway Street. No other public comments were received.

DeVore noted that usually these tax credits are extended when companies create new jobs, but the expansion at King Milling isn’t expected to result in any additional employment.

“While I know they meet the criteria, I was a little disappointed about the job creation aspect,” Councilmember Jim Salzwedel agreed.

Ultimately, the council decided the $6 million investment from King Milling would reap long-term property tax benefits for the city and approved the credit.

Administrative Updates

The next two items on the agenda dealt with administrative issues.

First up was a decision to switch to BHS Insurance as the administrator for the city’s employee health benefits. “The biggest thing we have to offer you is your time,” said Charley Schlosser, team leader with BHS. Currently, the city uses a paper system for enrollment, but BHS would transition that to an electronic onboarding and benefit administration system.

BHS Insurance already handles the city’s property and liability insurance so the switch to BHS consolidates all city insurance products with the same administrator.

The second piece of administrative business was a presentation of the timeline for the adoption of the 2019-2020 budget. The budget will be presented on April 27th with a public hearing planned for May 20th.

Lowell Light & Power Resolutions

The final three agenda items pertained to Lowell Light & Power.

Steve Donkersloot, general manager for the utility, addressed the council about the need to the purchase a $497,000 control panel for its Solar brand combustion turbine. The turbine’s current panel dates to 1988 and is considered obsolete and unreliable. Lowell Light & Power has the cash to purchase the panel but discovered that it could save $1,000 by financing the purchase at a 2.15 percent interest rate over a three year period instead.

Lowell City Council voted to approve two resolutions related to the sale. One authorized the purchase agreement for the panel and the second approved the payments for the purchase.

In a final bit of LLP business, Donkersloot shared that the utility recently discovered there is a joint use pole agreement in place between the Village of Lowell and the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. The agreement, signed in 1927, allows AT&T – the successor of Michigan Bell – to use LLP poles at a rate of 10 cents each. Donkersloot said that rate is approximately 45 times lower than the current going rate and many of the other provisions of the agreement are out of date.

At Donkersloot’s recommendation, Lowell City Council voted to terminate the 1927 agreement. It will remain in effect until 2020, but Donkersloot said he will be working with AT&T to see about terminating the agreement and replacing it with a modern one prior to next year.

Mysterious Closed Session Caps Night

With all the open session business complete, Lowell City Council went into a closed session “at the request of the City Manager to discuss the purchase of property.” Joining the City Council for the session was Donkersloot, Beachum and City Attorney Dick Wendt.

After more than an hour, the City Council reconvened in open session and voted to “direct the city manager to take action as discussed in closed session.” They adjourned for the night at approximately 9:20pm.

The next, perhaps shorter, city council meeting will take place on Monday, March 4 at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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