City Council Recap: Estate Gift, Infrastructure Projects and Outdoor Dining

On Monday night, Lowell City Council was joined by city staff, consultants and a few members of the public for an approximately hour long Zoom meeting. It was the first regularly scheduled meeting of May, and councilmembers heard an update on the city’s COVID-19 response, discussed infrastructure projects and gave their ok to outdoor dining at downtown restaurants.

Mayor Mike DeVore was absent so Mayor Pro Tem Jim Salzwedel conducted the meeting in his stead.

City of Lowell COVID-19 Update

First on the agenda was an update from City Manager Mike Burns regarding the local government’s COVID-19 response. The Department of Public Works returned to full staffing last week, and Burns anticipates city staff will be back to work at city hall on May 18, 2020. Currently, staff is working from home with the exception of one worker who stays in the office to answer the phone.

Burns said he would like to have all city staff tested for COVID-19 before returning to the office, and a cleaning company has been contacted about the possibility of weekly fogging of city facilities and vehicles. Plexiglass partitions have been installed at both the city and police service counters, and employees will wear masks when interacting with the public. Employees would also be asked to take their temperature at the start and end of every shift.

While it is unclear when the state will allow large gatherings to resume, Burns said he would like to have festival and event organizers submit a written plan for how they will adhere to social distancing and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

“I have concerns about creating additional work for festival organizers,” said councilmember Greg Canfield.

“The reason I put it in their hands is that I didn’t want the city to be the bad guy and dictate what they are going to do,” Burns responded.

Councilmember Marty Chambers said he didn’t think the requirement would be a burden while Salzwedel commented he didn’t want the city to have to be the expert on determining what safety precautions were appropriate.

Burns wrapped up his COVID-19 update by noting the Memorial Day Parade was cancelled, but organizers were still looking at doing some type of program in the cemetery.

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Gift from the Staal Estate

At their last meeting, councilmembers were informed the City of Lowell would receive a gift of more than $78,000 from the estate of Cheryl Ann Staal. While some of the money will be used, at the suggestion of the estate, for a memorial bench in honor of Staal’s parents, the council has not yet decided how to use the remainder.

Burns has recommended placing the remainder into a fund for retirement health care payments since the city has eight employees who will be eligible to retire by 2025. However, councilmembers had mixed feelings.

“I’m thinking that a gift should help as many people as possible,” Salzwedel said. He preferred using the money in a way that would benefit a greater portion of the community. However, Chambers said he didn’t have a problem using the money for the retirement health care payments.

Lowell resident Mark Mundt suggested using the money for the new Showboat. “[It’s an] excellent way for the city to support the showboat without using taxpayer dollars,” he said.

That suggestion was well-received, and councilmembers agreed to table to the matter for further consideration.

Infrastructure Projects

DPW Director Dan Czarnecki opted for a city hall backdrop for the council’s latest Zoom meeting.

There were several infrastructure projects on the night’s agenda.

One was for crack filling on Bowes Rd., Gee Dr., Foreman St. and five downtown parking lots. This maintenance work is intended to extend the lifespan of these surfaces. The council unanimously approved an expenditure of $15,770 to Wolverine Sealcoating in Jackson, the lone bidder for the project.

DPW Director Dan Czarnecki also explained the city had discovered a broken sewer line in the alley behind stores in the 200 block of E. Main Street. While repairs could be made in conjunction with an upcoming Monroe Street project, that work isn’t scheduled until 2022. Plus, doing the work now might be ideal seeing that most businesses are partially or fully closed at the moment.

Czarnecki contacted Lee’s Trenching Service which estimated the work would be $21,000. “They’ve done quite a few other projects around town, and we’ve been pleased with what they’ve done,” he said. Money for the project could come from the amount currently budgeted for main repairs.

Lowell City Council unanimously approved the repairs to be conducted by Lee’s Trenching Service in Byron Center.

Finally, there was extensive discussion about a sanitary sewer replacement project on Foreman St. The city was awarded $132,000 from a state grant program to help pay for a portion of the $350,000 project. However, the funds came with a mandate to follow Michigan Department of Transportation procedures and prevailing wage requirements. As a result, new engineering and design work needed to be completed.

Canfield expressed concern that the MDOT requirements would quickly add to the total cost of the project and outweigh any benefit of receiving the money. “I think this will turn into a $500,000 project with MDOT’s specifications,” he said. What’s more, in order to comply with the state’s process, the project must be bumped back from 2020 to 2021.

However, after some clarifications and calculations, it was determined the city would net approximately $80,000 from the grant after additional costs were factored. The council voted unanimously to approve $44,800 for design and engineering work that would meet the state’s specifications.

Outdoor Dining at Downtown Restaurants

Last month, it was suggested the city allow downtown businesses to use some parking spaces from adjoining public lots for outdoor seating. With it unlikely the state will allow restaurants to open their dining rooms to full capacity in the near future, outdoor seating may allow businesses to serve additional customers.

Burns said he had investigated and learned it would be possible for businesses to extend their liquor licenses for outdoor service. The city’s insurers also seemed receptive to the idea. However, the city attorney noted there may be a liability issue should someone contract COVID-19 in one of these areas. “There is a possibility the city could be named in a lawsuit,” Burns said.

However, councilmembers said the risk was minimal, and the city should do whatever it could to help area restaurants. Burns said he would begin working with property owners to draft agreements for use of a portion of the lots.

Other Items on the Agenda

In the evening’s other agenda item, Lowell City Council set a public hearing on the proposed budget for 2020-2021.

Burns noted in his final comments the city would receive a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant to help repave Amity Street. The Planning Commission will meet via Zoom next Monday to discuss marijuana facility applications at two locations – one for the northwest corner of Main Street and Valley Vista and the other across from the First Baptist Church.

Council comments were the final item on the agenda with Canfield reminding everyone to wear a mask. “You’re wearing it to protect other people, not yourself,” he said. The meeting adjourned at 8:06pm.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be held at 7pm on May 18, 2020.

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