Lowell councilmembers held their regular meeting last night via the Zoom video conferencing service. It was the council’s first meeting since Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay at Home” order was issued. In order to comply with the Open Meetings Act, the conference was open for the public to observe and, if they’d like, participate. About a dozen people joined city staff in logging onto the video call.
Issues related to COVID-19 generated the most discussion although traffic speeds in the downtown, a sidewalk waiver request and noise generated by trash haulers were also on the agenda.
COVID-19 Issues and Discussion
Under new business, City Manager Mike Burns brought three issues to councilmembers for consideration.
Burns explained that more than two weeks ago, signs were posted at all City of Lowell-owned playgrounds to inform parents that the structures were not sanitized and anyone using parks should stay ten feet away from others. While Platinum Property Solutions has offered to power wash park equipment weekly for free until the pandemic is over, Burns said proper protocols called for equipment to be sanitized every four hours.
Some cities have chosen to close their parks and have gone so far as to put police tape and snow fencing around play structures, but Burns thought such a move might give the impression of a militarized environment and spur unnecessary fear. However, he thought it would be appropriate to change the park signs to say the playgrounds are closed.
“I’d like to see the playgrounds taped off,” said Councilmember Cliff Yankovich. “[Coronavirus] sits on surfaces for a long time.”
A report published in The New England Journal of Medicine found coronavirus can remain on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for 72 hours in a laboratory setting although temperature and humidity may affect its viability.
“I’d just assume leave the parks open for now,” said Councilmember Greg Canfield, noting there aren’t many places for people to go.
Police Chief Steve Bukala said that while officers were continuing to patrol the city, he was trying to limit the amount of contact they need to make with the public. “If you put the police tape around [playgrounds], our calls will go up,” he said.
“I don’t want us to seem like we’re not taking [coronavirus] seriously,” Yankovich said before making a motion to close the playgrounds. The motion passed with Councilmembers Marty Chambers and Mike DeVore voting yes and Canfield voting no. Due to technical difficulties, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel was not online at the time of the vote.
Next was the question of utility billings. Burns explained 150 people had not paid their water and sewer bills at the end of the March billing cycle. This number is the double the amount from the previous month. Services cannot be shut off during the statewide emergency, and Burns elected not to charge late fees for March. However, he was seeking advice from council on how to proceed going forward.
Councilmembers agreed to place a moratorium on late fees for the time being. At the end of the current billing cycle, those with outstanding bills will be contacted to determine if they have a financial hardship, and if necessary, payment plans will be developed
Water and Sewer Rates
Finally, Burns noted the upcoming budget was to include a 6% increase in water charges and a 2% increase in wastewater charges for the 2021 Fiscal Year. However, in light of the current economic situation, the city manager said that he would not include those increases in his budget recommendations.
To adjust for the change in income, Burns recommended moving a utility project scheduled for Washington Street in 2021 to 2023. Later in meeting, Burns also said he was anticipating $100,000 less revenue from the state for the upcoming fiscal year as a result of lower sales tax and gas tax revenues. That reduction may affect capital projects but shouldn’t result in changes to services provided by the city.
Councilmembers decided to revisit the issue of water and sewer rates next month before making a final decision on whether to proceed with them as planned or eliminate them from the budget.
Other Agenda Items
In other agenda items, Bukala shared a report of speed data from Main Street. The electronic signs in the downtown record speeds as vehicles pass, and it showed the average maximum speed for 85% of drivers is 27.5 miles per hour. Less than 1% of traffic moving through the historic downtown exceeds 40 miles per hour.
Councilmembers also waived the sidewalk requirement for a home being renovated on East Main Street. The property is near the city limits in the vicinity of the Moose Lodge. Councilmembers unanimously approved the waiver request, noting the remote location of the property and the fact that no other sidewalks are present in the area.
The council also unanimously amended the city trash ordinance to stipulate that waste can only be collected between 7am and 5pm. Bukala noted one trash hauler emptied dumpsters on West Main Street around 5am. While the police had cited the hauler under the city’s construction noise ordinance, Bukala suggested adding hours to the trash ordinance. Chambers recommended the hours of 7am-5pm based on his experience driving trucks in other communities.
The meeting adjourned at 7:53pm, and the next regular meeting of Lowell City Council is scheduled for Monday April 20, 2020. It is unknown whether that meeting will also occur via Zoom or be held in City Hall as usual.