City Council Recap: Full-Time Firefighters, Manager Compensation and More

Lowell City Council covered a lot of ground over the course of its regular meeting last night. Clocking in at about an hour and a half, the session featured multiple public hearings and some lively discussion.

Fire Authority: Full-Time Staffing Needed

Shannon Witherell explains why the Lowell Area Fire Department needs full-time staff.

The longest portion of the night was dedicated to a presentation by Shannon Witherell, deputy chief of the Lowell Area Fire Department.

Witherell ran through a slide presentation as he made his case for hiring three full-time workers to staff the fire department from 6am-4pm on Mondays-Fridays. Currently, with the exception of the fire chief, the department is staffed exclusively by paid, on-call workers.

“Right now, we have no guarantee of a response crew (during the day),” Witherell said. He noted most of the on-call staff have first shift jobs elsewhere and those who do have daytime availability are relatively new to the force. Hiring three full-time staff members would ensure the department is able to respond to daytime calls, which have been increasing in recent years.

In 2016, the department handled 773 emergency calls. The number jumped to 800 the following year and hit 881 in 2018. Witherell expects those numbers will continue to increase as the Lowell area grows. “We are the busiest non-staffed department in the county,” he said.

Bringing on full-time workers would also have fringe benefits by allowing the department to expand fire prevention education programming in local schools and reduced response times could lead to better ISO scores. An area’s ISO score is used by insurers when setting property insurance rates with better scores correlating to reduced insurance costs for local residents.

The Lowell Area Fire Department is funded by the City of Lowell, Lowell Charter Township and Vergennes Township. Witherell estimates each municipality would need to pay approximately $67,000 more each year to cover full-time staff.

City Manager Mike Burns thought that would be problematic. “We couldn’t afford our share without additional revenue,” he said. “You’ll have to either special assess or add a millage to fund it.” When Councilmember Greg Canfield noted the city typically saw a $40,000 increase in revenue from rising property values every year, Burns responded that money would likely be absorbed by liabilities in the city’s pension fund.

An alternative, Burns suggested, would be to train police officers to serve as medical first responders or use Department of Public Works staff to respond to calls. However, Mayor Mike DeVore pushed back on that suggestion.

“City taxpayers pay police and DPW,” he said, arguing it wasn’t appropriate to divert city workers to provide services in the townships. “I think you’re going to get so much blowback from the people who pay taxes here,” DeVore said. “I think it’s a can of worms that’s dangerous to open.”

Witherell has already made his presentation to the Lowell Township Board, where he says it was well-received. The proposal will be presented to Vergennes Township next week. Lowell City Council members asked for Witherell to return once he had received feedback from both entities.

City Manager Compensation Amended

Lowell City Council members unanimously approved changes to the employment agreement for Burns. The changes presumably came out of a December closed session held at the request of Burns for his personal evaluation. However, city council members offered no explanation or justification for the changes before their vote.

The amended employment agreement includes the following provisions:

  • Guaranteed raise of at least 3 percent each year, for three years, after the completion of a summer performance review
  • Increase in severance pay from 6 months to 12 months
  • Increase in vacation time to be in line with other city management positions
  • Option to cash out unused sick time each year
  • Reimbursement of up to $1,500 each year to attend the International City Managers Association Conference
  • Requirement to live in the City of Lowell unless suitable housing is not available, in which case residency must be within 20 miles of the city

Public Hearing Set to Remove Riverside Park Land

A public hearing regarding the removal of land from the Park and Recreation Master Plan was set for February 4, but not before some discussion from councilmembers.

Developers want to turn the old Unity High School property into condominiums and need a seven foot strip of land in front of the former bus garage to do so. However, before that can be done, the land needs to be removed from the master plan. At a contentious Parks and Recreation Board meeting, that body declined to recommend the removal.

“I’m not opposed to it,” said Perry Beachum, the board chair, when addressing the council on Tuesday night. “There are just some questions I thought needed to be answered.”

Beachum and other board members are concerned about preserving public access to the boat launch. What’s more, Beachum noted the developers’ plans seem to be in flux. That has led to hesitancy to recommend a land swap without seeing an entire site plan first.

“We really need to see the whole plan for this because it really affects our access for the boat launch,” said Canfield, who is the council representative on the parks board. “It’s such an important piece of the city.”

DeVore appeared visibly frustrated by these comments. “It sounds like we’re ready to sink this whole development based on asking for something that’s in the third phase of the plan,” he said.

That comment alluded to the possibility that developers may be willing to swap the north side of the park property, where the high school crew boats are stored, for the parcel of land next to the library. However, Beachum said the developer was clear in their meeting that this land swap wasn’t of particular interest to them.

Councilmember Cliff Yankovich added that he too is concerned about access to the boat launch. He thought it would be best to get everything in writing at the start of the project rather than waiting to iron out details during a future phase. “Let’s get that all spelled out,” he said.

The council set the public hearing and agreed to discuss the matter further at their next meeting.

Public Hearings on Industrial Development District, Road Repairs

There were two public hearings at last night’s meeting. The first was to create an industrial development district for King Milling. Creating the district gives the company the option to request a tax abatement for the addition of a packing facility and warehouse on its property. The resolution creating the district was passed unanimously.

The second public hearing was regarding the city’s participation in the Small Urban Program. This federal program provides up to $375,000 for road work, and Monroe Street is eligible for funds. Williams and Works provided a conservative estimate of $702,000 to reconstruct Monroe from Avery to Fremont. Burns said the additional money could come out of the Major Streets Fund. No public comments were offered during the hearing, and no council action was required. Burns will move forward with applying for the funds.

The next regular city council meeting will be held on Monday, February 4, at 7pm in City Hall.

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