City Council Recap: Museum, Fire and Housing Presentations

All members of Lowell City Council were present this past Monday for a meeting that ran approximately an hour and a half. It was the first regular meeting of the month for councilmembers and featured an agenda that had seven pieces of new business on it, including presentations on multiple topics.

One person, Perry Beachum, spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting. He encouraged members of the public to attend the monthly Coffee with Council meetings that occur on the first Saturday of each month at the Chamber of Commerce office from 8-10am.

Beachum also expressed concern with an approximately $700,000 deficit in the water and sewer funds. It had been mentioned in the city’s annual audit, and Beachum said he understood most of it was the result of depreciation.

Finally, he shared his experience of receiving a past due notice for his water bill despite it having been paid at the Lowell Light & Power office. His online bill also showed a different amount due than what came in the mailed statement. Since City Hall is not open on Fridays, the matter couldn’t be addressed until the following week which added to the frustration regarding the matter.

Annual Report from the Lowell Area Historical Museum

The first piece of new business on the agenda was an annual report from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

Executive Director Lisa Plank shared that nearly 38,000 people passed through the museum doors in 2023. “That’s a huge number for a museum our size,” she noted.

However, in-person visitors were only a small part of the overall reach of the museum. Plank noted that the Lowell Area Historical Museum also interacted with people in these ways last year:

  • Newsletter: 800 direct subscribers
  • Email newsletter: 32,000 readers
  • Facebook: 294,000 readers
  • Website: 8,000 visitors
  • Oral histories: 3,500 viewers

The ABCs of Lowell History and Along Main Street have both been popular online series in the past, and the museum is working to compile histories of “lost buildings” that no longer exist on Main Street.

The museum hosted five speakers in 2023, accepted 300 artifacts and logged more than 2,600 volunteer hours. It also offers an immersion program for 3rd grade classes as well as other programming for students.

Fire Department Budget Update

Next, Interim Fire Chief Cory Velzen was on hand to present data about the Lowell Area Fire Department budget. The presentation was similar to that given last month to the Lowell Township Board.

The proposed budget includes $230,000 for part-time payroll, but Velzen noted that wasn’t simply for time spent responding to calls. Last year, the department spent $50,000 in payroll for firefighters to attend training as well as $30,000 for department members to come in on the weekends for different activities and team training.

City Manager Mike Burns said he didn’t dispute anything Velzen said about the amount of money needed to run the department. However, he also added there may need to be a conversation about how the department is funded in the future.

According to Burns, the City of Lowell spent $118,00 in the year prior to the hire of a full-time fire chief. With the full-time fire chief, the city’s share of the department budget rose to $140,000. Last year, the city paid $187,000, and next year, its share is expected to be $230,000.

In addition, the city is required to share the cost for capital expenses, such as new trucks and equipment. The annual cost of that has risen from $27,000 to $66,000. As a result, Burns said the city will be paying more than $300,000 for fire service in the next fiscal year.

“We’re going to do a little bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Burns said, adding that he felt the level of service currently provided by the department was needed.

Housing Next Presentation

Brooke Oosterman, executive director of Housing Next, addressed Lowell City Council at the invitation of Burns.

Housing Next was originally founded in Ottawa County and expanded to Kent County in 2022. The organization advocates for the creation of housing at all price points, and Oosterman told councilmembers there is a particular need for homes for middle-income households who earn up to $100,000 per year.

To meet demand for housing, Oosterman said zoning reforms are needed to allow for smaller units and smaller lot sizes. She also noted that many people have shown an interest in accessory dwelling units, which are sometimes referred to as mother-in-law apartments or carriage houses. These units are essentially small homes that occupy the same lot as another house.

Funding is available from the Kent County Municipal Grant Program to help offset the cost of passing new zoning laws. Money is also available to developers for new construction through several state sources.

Burns noted that Oosterman would also be at next Monday’s Planning Commission meeting as well as a future Downtown Development Authority meeting to discuss the matter further.

Purchase of Police Cruiser Approved

The Lowell Police Department has been replacing old patrol vehicles annually, and on Monday, Police Chief Chris Hurst requested $64,074 to purchase and outfit a 2025 Ford Police Interceptor. Of the total price, $49,017 is for the vehicle itself while the remainder is to install equipment such as emergency lights, technology and a partition.

Burns noted that after this vehicle is purchased, it should be four years before another patrol car needs to be replaced. While the vehicle will be ordered now, the expense will be paid after the start of the new fiscal year in July.

Councilmembers voted unanimously to approve the purchase.

Storm Sewer Inspection Approved

Councilmembers were presented with a proposal to have Plummer’s Environmental Services clean and inspect sewer lines along streets scheduled for upcoming maintenance. The cost of the services is $10,779.

Councilmember Marty Chambers asked if these streets had been missed when the city previously inspected sewer lines in 2018. Burns said they had been inspected, but that city staff wanted to recheck before beginning roadwork.

Councilmembers unanimously approved the expense.

Other Votes by Lowell City Council

Councilmembers unanimously approved two other requests during their Monday meeting:

  • A memorandum of understanding with the Lower Grand River Organizations of Watersheds in support of the creation of the Lowell Grand River Water Trail.
  • A public hearing to be held on Feb. 19 about an Industrial Facility Tax Credit for King Milling Company.

Manager and Councilmember Comments

During his manager’s report, Burns reported that 39 wells surrounding the Ware Road landfill have now been tested and no PFAS have been detected.

In councilmember comments, Chambers noted the good work being done at the Lowell Area Historical Museum while Councilmember Eric Bartkus said he appreciated Burns and the “phenomenal” work he does. Bartkus also said residents with concerns can send emails to councilmembers, and they will respond to them.

The meeting adjourned at 8:24pm. The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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