City Council Recap: Budget Amendments and So Much More

It was a full house in council chambers on Monday night for the regular meeting of Lowell City Council. Councilmembers first convened at 5:30pm for special meeting regarding Riverside Drive, and then worked through a long agenda during their regular meeting which started at 7pm.

All councilmembers were present for the meeting which started with approval of the consent agenda. This included approval of the agenda, previous meeting minutes and the payment of invoices in the amount of $177,746.

Many, Many Public Comments

Most of those in attendance did not speak, but they appeared to be there to lend their support to those who talked about the state of the Flat River. At the start of the meeting, one person placed a large jar full of river vegetation on a table at the front of the chambers, but Mayor Mike DeVore quickly instructed Police Chief Chris Hurst to remove it.

Diane Smith read a letter to the editor she had previously sent to Lowell’s First Look, and a long-time server at Flat River Grill noted that the river “isn’t what it used to be.” A third resident noted that she had stopped taking her boat on the water.

Rich Perry, a Lowell resident and manager with Solitude Lake Management, suggested the city create a special assessment district to pay for river maintenance. Once that is created, a survey of the river can be completed to determine how best to manage the vegetation growth. While a river survey typically costs $5,000, Perry said he would ask his company to complete it for free.

Councilmembers did not respond to the concerns raised about the river, but during his manager’s report, City Manager Mike Burns alluded to a fountain that had been approved for the river so long as it was removed during the winter. Asked for more details after the meeting, Burns said the decorative fountain would be paid for by the Downtown Development Authority and installed between the Showboat and dam. It is hoped that it will help keep water moving in that area.

Resident Bruce Matthews presented a proposal to create a no-wake zone in the Flat River. He noted that Vergennes Township passed a similar proposal in 2007.

Grant Hengesbach reported that the 2024 River Trail Triathlon had been a success with 65 participants, and there was interest in growing the event next year. Another public speaker noted that a piece of carpeting used during the triathlon had been left hanging over the guardrail by the boat launch and someone was apparently sleeping under it. Hengesbach said he would ensure it was removed.

Perry Beachum shared that Lowell Light & Power General Manager Charlie West spoke at the American Public Power Association National Conference and represented the community well. Beachum also referenced the council’s earlier special meeting in which it was mentioned that water and sewer lines at the end of Riverside Drive would not be replaced during an upcoming repaving project as previously promised.

“To find that out in the last meeting, that was wrong,” Beachum said.

During his manager’s report, a visibly irritated Burns said that the utility work on Riverside Drive had always been dependent on the city receiving a grant, which it did not get. “I communicated it to the council which is my job,” Burns said. It does not appear anyone communicated that information to residents, though.

One person told Lowell’s First Look that a private septic company doing work at a home in the area had pumped out sand and other debris which they said probably indicated a broken tile in the sewer line.

On Monday, Lowell’s First Look asked Councilmember Marty Chambers about the decision not to do utility work at the same time as paving. The council has repeatedly said during meetings in the past that it does not want to complete roadwork only to later dig up the road to replace utility lines.

Chambers said that the repaving project was still two years away and whatever council was in charge then might think differently than the current council. He also didn’t think it would be an issue if the utility work needed to be done later since it would only affect one block of the road.

Other public comments came from Heidi Stoller who noted that the Alto Active Achievers met two times a month at the King Building at Recreation Park. “Please remember the youth of Lowell when talking about the King Building and the Reath Building,” she said.

Jon Paasch, who is running to be the 63rd District Court judge, also spoke during public comments to introduce himself and share his background.

Split Vote on Budget Amendments

With public comments done, the next order of business was to review and approve amendments to the city’s current fiscal year.

Burns reviewed the major changes, noting that the city took in more than $330,000 of revenue than what was originally projected. The majority of that — $220,000 came from the marijuana excise tax – while $84,000 came from personal property taxes and $5,000 for grave openings in the cemetery.

In terms of spending overages, council salaries and conference expenses were up, and the city spent $150,000 on the Ware Road landfill compared to the $134,000 that was budgeted. There was also a miscalculation of contributions to the state’s retirement fund that needed to be corrected and overruns in both the police and fire departments.

Councilmember Eric Bartkus noted that it appeared the city was $200,000 over budget, and he questioned the numbers for the Downtown Development Authority and wondered why there was a $27,000 overage for the Lowell Airport. Casey Brown, airport manager, said that was not accurate and disputed the numbers that Bartkus read off.

Barktus also noted that the council has budgeted $4,000 but spent $11,000 on conferences. He wondered how the council could avoid an overage like that in the future.

“I would argue that’s a pretty good category to be over in,” DeVore said. He noted that more councilmembers were attending conferences now and thought that the budgeted amount probably hadn’t been increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bartkus asked about how to better budget for that expense in the future, and Chambers replied, “I don’t think you could put a number on it. If you put a number on it, put $30,000 to cover it.”

There was some further discussion of Bartkus’s overall concerns about the accuracy of the numbers presented. In response to those concerns, it was noted that figures could be carried over from year-to-year and not all figures were yet finalized for the current year. DeVore assured Barktus that Burns does a good job managing the budget.

Bartkus said he didn’t dispute that, but “I’m a black and white guy” and that the numbers in front of him were what he needed to vote on.

“The way I manage (the budget), it’s very grey,” Burns said.

No other councilmember commented on the discrepancies noted by Bartkus, and the council voted 4-1 to approve the budget amendments. Bartkus was the lone no vote.

Contacted after the meeting, Bartkus told Lowell’s First Look that the revenue numbers he had been provided showed airport revenues of $77,000 and appropriations of $104,000. However, it isn’t clear where that $104,000 number comes from, and no one has been able to explain it so far.

“I will never vote yes for things I don’t understand or are wrong,” he said.

Presentation on Recovery Court

Judge Jeff O’Hara

63rd District Court Judge Jeff O’Hara attended Monday’s meeting to provide an overview of the recovery court program he oversees. The court began in 2020 and was certified in 2022. It is a two-year program intended only for those with at least two drunk or drugged driving convictions and who are considered at a high-risk for continued substance abuse.

There are about 25-30 people in the program at any time, and they meet with O’Hara twice a month and agree to regular substance testing. While sobriety is at the cornerstone of the program, it is also about taking a holistic approach to creating healthy habits and changing lives.

The three principles of the program are:

  • Honesty and self-accountability: O’Hara said he expects relapses but tells participants he wants to know before they test positive.
  • Determination: O’Hara described this principle as, “How bad do you want your life back?”
  • Persistence: O’Hara tells participants to never give up.

“We’re treating the disease and not punishing the person who has a chemical imbalance,” O’Hara said. For that reason, even those who relapse aren’t jailed for the first two times they test positive. If jail time is needed, it is kept to only a few days to serve as a wake-up call rather than a punishment.

So far, only one person has dropped out of the program. “We’re trying to change lives,” O’Hara said. “We offer hope.”

LARA Trail Easement

The Lowell Area Recreation Authority had been working for years to connect trails on the east and west sides of town. Key to making the connection will be easements across private property along the Grand River, most notably on land owned by Grand Rapids Gravel and the Reagan Family.

Originally, the city had approved an easement on Grand Rapids Gravel property which paid the company $1.24 per square foot. The easement for the Reagan property – which is classified as agricultural – was $0.08 per square foot.

Changes to the Reagan easement needed to be made to address concerns from the state about the placement of the trail. As part of negotiating those changes, the LARA board felt it appropriate to compensate the Reagan Family at the same rate as Grand Rapids Gravel.

Beachum, who sits on the board, said he wanted to be clear that this was a suggestion from LARA and not something the Reagans had requested. While the easement payment must be approved by Lowell City Council, the funds come from LARA money raised for the project.

Lowell City Council unanimously approved the new easement and payment as recommended by LARA.

Lease of Reath Barn

Assistant City Manager Rich LaBombard presented a proposal to lease 460 square feet of office space in the Reath Barn to King Milling at a cost of $1,840 per year ($153 per month). The lease would be for a 10-year period.

Councilmembers had immediate issues with the proposal with Chambers noting the monthly price was cheaper than renting a storage unit. Even with no water and sewer in the building, he felt the rental cost was far below market rate.

Councilmember Leah Groves pointed out that the council has been clear in its desire not to be a landlord. “We have made efforts to get out of the rental…business.”

“I’m a no,” Bartkus said, adding that he thought there should be an annual inflation increase in the rate as well.

“I think that’s crazy low, especially for an entire year,” DeVore said.

Beachum said from the audience that he thought maybe King Milling could be allowed to use the space just for the harvest season.

Steve Doyle from King Milling was present and said that the company would have 1,500 trucks arriving in the coming weeks to deliver wheat. Apparently, when the Kent County Youth Fair controlled the fairgrounds, they had an agreement with King Milling to allow them to use the building. “We’ve used that area for decades,” Doyle said.

After some brief further discussion, councilmembers voted unanimously to allow King Milling to use space in the Reath Barn for the remainder of June plus July and August at the $153 per month price. After that, they would determine how best to proceed in future years.

Other Meeting Items

Lowell City Council also addressed the following agenda items during the meeting:

  • Lead service line inspection and replacement: Lowell City Council voted unanimously to pay $44,250 to Earthworm Dozing and Evacuating for labor to replace 17 service lines on Lafayette and adjoining cross streets. The council also approved using Earthworm as the sole vendor for service line replacements in 2024-2025.
  • Public Art Policy: Lowell City Council gave its approval for LowellArts to work with the organization Lions and Rabbits to develop a public arts policy for the city.
  • Comprehensive tree plan: Jim Reagan, chair of the Arbor Board, provided highlights from the city’s Comprehensive Tree Plan.
  • Lowell City Airport MDOT loan: Councilmembers unanimously approved a request by the Lowell Airport to apply for a loan to facilitate repaving a runway. The airport will be responsible for paying back that loan out of their funds, and Brown says the facility currently runs about $40,000 in the black.
  • Temporary sale ordinance: Councilmembers unanimously approved an ordinance recommendation from the Planning Commission to restrict outdoor sales. The ordinance was introduced in response to concerns about a temporary car sale held in the city two years ago.

The meeting adjourned at 9:05pm. The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be on Monday, July 1, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.