City Council Recap: Budget Passed, High Street Partially Vacated, Furloughs Discussed

Lowell City Council met for more than two and half hours last night on the Zoom video conferencing platform. During the first half hour, councilmembers sat as members of the Zoning Board of Appeals to consider three variance requests. Afterwards, they reconvened as the City Council to discuss an agenda that included a dozen topics. All councilmembers were present.

ZBA Approves Three Zoning Variances

Lowell City Council serves as the municipality’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and in this capacity, they review variance requests. A variance is a permanent exemption from a requirement of the zoning ordinance.

Three variance requests for the property at 1242 E. Main Street were brought before the ZBA. These requests were for the following:

  • Construction of an accessory building in the front yard, which is normally not permitted
  • Exemption from the requirement for a hard-surfaced driveway
  • Construction of a 1600 square foot accessory building, which is greater than the 1200 square feet allowed in the zoning ordinance

Andy Moore, a planner and consultant from engineering firm Williams & Works, walked councilmembers through the six standards that must be met in order to grant a variance. These standards include, among others, that there are extraordinary circumstances or conditions present that apply to the property in question and that the variance would not be detrimental to the adjoining properties or neighborhood.

Moore noted that the property is a 3.6 acre lot that is largely in the 100-year floodplain. It would be difficult to build the accessory building anywhere other than the front yard. He added that the depth of the property and existing trees would provide screening. Since much of the property is in the floodplain, having a porous driveway surface also seemed ideal. The applicant was proposing to pave the section of the drive near the road to prevent mud or dirt from being tracked onto Main Street.

While Moore felt the application met all required standards for the placement of the accessory building and the non-hard surface driveway, he wasn’t sure about the size of the building. “This is a much larger parcel…but I just don’t know that it meets the standards,” he said.

Applicant Ryan Gould was participating in the meeting and explained that he had four boats, several trailers and other equipment he needed to store. He would also like to have room in the building should his son want to have chickens at some time in the future.

Councilmembers decided that the property’s lot size justified the larger building and unanimously approved all three variance requests.

Council Approves Budget, Ok’s Bonding for LLP Projects

DPW Director Dan Czarnecki apparently had morel hunting on his mind when selecting his Zoom background last night.

During its regular meeting, Lowell City Council held a public hearing on the 2020-2021 budget. There were no citizen comments although City Manager Mike Burns said he recently received updated numbers from the state regarding revenue sharing payments. Currently, the City of Lowell is expected to see a $25,000 reduction from previous estimates for the current fiscal year and a $45,000 reduction in payments for the upcoming fiscal year.

The council previously held an all-day work session to review the budget, and it was passed unanimously last night.

Councilmembers also reviewed the Lowell Light & Power budget during the meeting. Steve Donkersloot, general manager for the municipal utility, noted that the budget had been adjusted significantly as reduced usage from industrial customers has impacted revenues. The utility originally planned to hire a two-person tree trimming crew for the summer but has dropped those plans and have reduced capital projects by about $600,000.

After approving the Lowell Light & Power budget, City Council then considered a resolution that would allow the utility to issue up to $995,000 worth of bonds. These bonds would be used to pay for a number of projects that have been deferred at the Lowell Light & Power facility on Chatham Street. These include repairing the roof, repaving the driveway, making interior renovations and safety and lighting upgrades.

Donkersloot said the utility could pay for these expenses over a 3-4 year period out of their budget, but there were several reasons why he felt it would be better to issue bonds and complete the projects this year:

  • Debt is extremely cheap right now with interest rates on bonds being 2% or less.
  • Being able to hire contractors and engineers to complete the work this year could provide a boost to the local economy.
  • This would reduce the amount of time work at the facility would be disrupted by projects.
  • It guards against construction costs rising because of inflation.

The resolution does not obligate the utility to go into debt and does not affect city finances. Lowell Light & Power would be solely responsible for the debt should they decide to issue the bonds.

Councilmembers passed the resolution unanimously. There is now a 45-day window in which residents can petition if they think the issue should be placed on the ballot.

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Furloughing Workers Discussed

Burns presented to councilmembers a proposal that would make use of the Michigan Work Share program. It was a program he became aware of during a webinar with the Governor’s office and is being pursued in other communities such as Muskegon and Ithaca.

Under the proposal, 15 of the 19 full-time city workers would be furloughed for one day each week. This would save the city $45,000 in payroll costs through July 31. The furloughed employees would be eligible to claim unemployment benefits for one day plus receive $600 weekly from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. As a result, employees may receive more money than they would otherwise earn by working a full week.

“There is just something fundamentally wrong with working 20% less and getting paid 50% more,” said councilmember Greg Canfield. “This is a money grab that is wrong on multiple levels.”

Other councilmembers felt differently. “I have a hard time saying no to any money coming in,” said Mayor Mike DeVore.

“It’s not free money,” Canfield replied. He added the federal money would need to be repaid by taxpayers and noted that if the city could reduce hours by 20% than maybe there were positions that didn’t need to be refilled once they became vacant.

Burns agreed the proposal was unusual. “Personally, this is the most bizarre government program I’ve ever seen,” he said. “However, there is a significant savings to the city, and I have a fiscal responsibility to bring it to you for consideration.”

The proposal had previously circulated on social media, and three city and township residents submitted comments or attended the meeting to share their opposition to the idea.

Ultimately, no councilmember made a motion to approve the proposal and no councilmember made a motion to table the proposal. It appears that ends discussion on the matter and workers will not be furloughed.

Partial Vacation of High Street Approved

In bringing the city one step closer to completing its settlement with the Unity Schools Investors, councilmembers unanimously approved vacating a 15 foot section of High Street, running from Monroe Street to the Flat River. The vacation was included in the settlement of a lawsuit levied against the city by the developers of the RiverView Flats condominium project.

Canfield asked about the status of the land swap that was included in the settlement. The building developers wanted a 273×7 foot strip of land in front of the former bus garage on the property. They agreed to give the city a 10×50 foot parcel in exchange. However, since the strip of land in front of the bus garage is part a park created with state funds, the Department of Natural Resources needed to approve the transfer.

“The state wasn’t in favor of the original land swap,” Burns said. The original agreement would give developers 1,911 square feet in exchange for 500 square feet. Rather than getting more land from the developers, Burns said the DNR seems agreeable to the city encumbering some of its own land to even out the amounts. This means the city would take some of the existing land in the Riverside Park that isn’t already subject to DNR requirements and restrict its use so it can’t be developed in the future.

Memorial Day Parade Cancelled, Honor Guard Allowed in Cemetery

Councilmembers had previously been informed that the Memorial Day Parade had been cancelled to comply with government restrictions on public gatherings. However, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion would still like to have an Honor Guard in the cemetery, along with a rifle salute and the playing of taps.

Burns worried this activity would run afoul of the state’s stay-at-home order and could have negative ramifications for the city, such as a reduction in revenue sharing.

However, Police Chief Steve Bukala said he had been in contact with Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker who said such an event would be interpreted as a funeral and shouldn’t be a problem. “I’m all in favor of the honor guard being up there,” Bukala said.

Councilmembers agreed there should be no problem in allowing a brief ceremony of this type in the cemetery to commemorate Memorial Day.

Other Items on the Agenda

The following are the other items discussed during last night’s meeting:

  • Councilmembers agreed to continue to waive late fees on water and sewer bills for another month.
  • Department of Public Works Director Dan Czarnecki was instructed to work on changes to the water rules regarding whether the ready-to-serve charge can be suspended.
  • Representatives of the Michigan Municipal League presented the results of a compensation study, commissioned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which found city pay was commensurable to what would be expected based on job duties and the pay offered by comparable communities,
  • Council deferred a decision on how to use a monetary gift from the Staal estate.
  • Council approved $4,428 to be spent on routine HVAC maintenance provided by Progressive Heating, Cooling & Refrigeration, Inc. This company has provided such services to the city since 2016.
  • Council approved an ordinance amendment which would allow waste haulers to collect refuse within the city only from 7am to 9pm. This was in response to concerns about early morning trash collection that was raised at a previous meeting.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be held Monday, June 1 at 7pm. It’s expected to be held on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

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