City Council Recap: Planning Commission Resignation, Fire Chief Hire

Anyone who showed up on Tuesday for this week’s Lowell City Council meeting was a day late. While councilmembers voted in December 2023 to always meet on a Tuesday when a federal holiday fell on Monday, that wasn’t the case for this Presidents’ Day.

The change was “approved by the Mayor as City Hall is no longer off that day,” according to the city clerk, who also noted that all public notices and postings included Monday’s date of Feb. 19. There is no word on whether this was an isolated change or if the policy enacted last December has been rescinded.

All councilmembers were present for the meeting which had two business items on the agenda and ran for approximately 30 minutes.

Bruce Barker Resigns from Planning Commission

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Bruce Barker addressed the council to tender his resignation from the Planning Commission. He had served on the commission for approximately 8 years and, until recently, had been its chair since 2017.

Earlier this month, planning commissioners voted to make Tony Ellis chair of the commission. No explanation was given by commissioners during the meeting as to why Barker was replaced.

Barker has declined to speculate on the matter and did not offer a reason for his resignation on Monday either. He did thank both past and present commissioners for their work and said he appreciated the opportunity to serve in this capacity.

“Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it,” Barker said in concluding his comments, “and good luck in the future with your new Master Plan.”

During board updates at the end of the meeting, Councilmember Marty Chambers said the commission “reset our board.” Chambers is the Lowell City Council representative on the Planning Commission and made the motions to elect Ellis and Mike Gadula as the new chair and vice chair, respectively.

“The board thought younger people might be the better way to go with everything we have going down the pike, with the new Master Plan and all that,” Chambers said. It is unclear when the commission made that determination since they have had no public discussion on the matter.

Cory Velzen Named New Fire Chief

Also during board updates came an announcement that a new fire chief had been hired. The previous fire chief resigned after being charged with crimes unrelated to his position with the department.

Mayor Mike DeVore shared that acting Fire Chief Cory Velzen had signed a contract on Friday, Feb. 16, to become the new permanent fire chief. That contract was apparently discussed by the Lowell Area Fire & Emergency Services Authority Board on Thursday night.

However, details of the contract were not shared and could not be found online. As of this writing, no board agendas or minutes for 2024 have been posted on the City of Lowell website or the Lowell Area Fire Department website.

Tax Credit Approved for King Milling

In 2019, King Milling was approved for an industrial facility tax credit for the construction of a new warehouse at its property. The credit means the Downtown Development Authority only captures 50% of the taxable value of the new construction. The portion of property tax earmarked for school funding is not reduced by the abatement.

Industrial facility tax credits can be approved for up to 12 years. In 2019, the council approved the abatement for five years with the understanding that the company would later request an extension for the remaining seven years.

A public hearing was held on the abatement during Monday’s meeting, but no public comments were made. Representatives of the company noted that about 12 new jobs had been added since the abatement was first approved, and City Manager Mike Burns said King Milling met all legal requirements for the credit.

Councilmember Eric Bartkus noted that even with the abatement, King Milling Company pays more than $200,000 per year in local taxes, and he appreciated that the company had decided to expand here in Lowell.

The extended property tax abatement was approved unanimously by Lowell City Council.

Repair to Well No. 2

Lowell councilmembers also voted unanimously to pay Peerless Midwest $34,883 for repairs to well No. 2 at the water plant. The cost includes $19,883 for a pump repair and $15,000 for well cleaning. For comparison, the city paid $29,529 for the same work to be done on well No. 4 in 2020.

Assistant City Manager Rich LaBombard said the well had been scheduled for maintenance this summer but broke before that work could be done.

Bartkus asked if the work had been placed out for bid, and Burns said it wasn’t because Peerless Midwest is considered a preferred vendor by the city.

Later, during the budget report, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel asked if this well pump was scheduled for replacement later.

“Is that one of the wells that we’re going to put one of the new, higher speed motors on in a capital project?” Salzwedel asked. “Would it be beneficial if it were available to get it now?”

“We talked about that…(but) we didn’t want to spend $150,000 when we really just needed to repair this right now,” Burns said.

Councilmember and Manager Comments

While providing their board updates, Bartkus said the Arbor Board voted to have four of the largest trees along Main Street shaped. For Arbor Day, the board would also be planting a tree by the library in honor of Jim Hodges, the 2024 Lowell Person of the Year.

Salzwedel, who sits on the Arbor Board as a citizen, shared that the board had previously looked for business locations where they could plant a tree for Arbor Day, but it had become increasingly difficult to find interested businesses. As a result, Bartkus had suggested planting the trees in honor of residents instead.

During his manager’s report, Burns said 12 people had participated in early voting in the City of Lowell as of Monday night.

He also shared that there have been several water main breaks along Bowes Road. It appears the problem is because natural fill, rather than sand, was used to backfill the water main when it was put in about 15 years ago. As a result, rocks in the fill are causing breaks as they move and compact. Bowes Road is scheduled for road work in 2028, but Burns wasn’t sure if the water main repair would be able to wait until that time.

The meeting was adjourned at 7:35pm. The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Monday, March 4, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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