City Council Recap: Roadwork Changes, Utility Issues

There were seven business items on the agenda for last night’s Lowell City Council meeting. All councilmembers were present for the session which lasted one hour and 17 minutes and covered topics such as water service rules, road projects and wastewater plant maintenance.

Before getting to its new and old business, the council heard public comments from one resident.

Dick Johnson, who lives on Sibley Street, spoke earlier in the month about the condition of his lawn after utility work had been done in the area. Last night, he was again before the council, but this time to thank Lowell Light & Power for quickly addressing his concerns and restoring and seeding the section of yard in question.

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Water and Sewer Agreement with Lowell Township

The first piece of business on the agenda was the latest episode in an ongoing discussion about how to meet future water and wastewater needs for area residents and businesses. In particular, Lowell Charter Township is working to find a way to bring utilities to a proposed commercial development near the I-96 interchange.

Mayor Mike DeVore and City Manager Mike Burns said they recently met with township officials, and it was agreed that each municipality would formally propose their solution for funding a potential expansion of utilities.

On the city side, that means proposing a 425 agreement. This would result in all properties in the designated area being subject to city property tax rates. Burns said such an agreement is the only way extending city utilities further into the township would make financial sense.

“We’re creating a tax base for the township that we aren’t collecting on,” the city manager said.

He pointed to an analysis he did two years ago based on property values in a section of Cascade Township. According to his calculations, that section of Cascade Township could result in $78 million in property taxes collected over a 50-year period and $307 million over a 100-year period.

Even if the property in Lowell Township had only a quarter of the value of that in Cascade Township, property tax collections could equal $20 million and $83 million over a 50 and 100-year period, respectively.

DeVore added that he and Burns thought an agreement with a 3-mill return would be fair. That means that of the property tax collected by the city for the 425 area, 3 mills would be returned to the township. As a result, the township would actually gain more property tax revenue through the 425 agreement than it would by assessing the property at its own millage rate.

Lowell City Council voted unanimously to propose to Lowell Charter Township a 425 agreement with a 3-mill return. It is expected that the township board will pass its own proposal to send to the city for consideration.

Change of Plans for Roadwork

The City of Lowell is planning an approximately $4 million project on Monroe Street that will replace the sewer lines and reconstruct the roadway. While the majority of the project will be funded with USDA bonds, the city had planned to use $375,000 from the state’s Small Urban Program as well.

However, Department of Public Works Director Dan Czarnecki explained on Monday that this would make the project subject to both federal bond requirements and state grant regulations.

“[MDOT’s] funds are only 10% of the project, but if any of their money is used, their process dictates the entire project,” Czanecki explained. “It may be simpler for our project not to use the Small Urban funds.”

Instead, he proposed shifting the Small Urban Program grant money to a Gee Drive project. This project would also make the city eligible for an additional $81,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. It is estimated that the cost to mill and repave Gee Drive will be $450,000, and the major street fund has a large enough balance to easily accommodate the 20% match required by the state for the Small Urban Program.

Lowell City Council voted unanimously to request that MDOT allow the city to use the Small Urban Program funds for Gee Drive instead of Monroe Street.

Residential Water Service Rules Discussed

Greg Canfield addresses Lowell City Council

The final agenda item to garner significant discussion was a proposed change to the water service rules.

When a plastic or galvanized pipe between the main shut off near the street and the meter in a home is leaking, the city has been requiring those service lines be replaced with copper pipes. The reason for this requirement is because if there is one leak, it is likely the pipe will leak elsewhere as well, Czarnecki said. If a leak occurs before the line reaches the meter, the city could be losing water and have no way to bill for it.

However, the requirement to use copper is not listed in the city’s water service rules which has led to some questions from area plumbers as to whether the municipality can make this requirement.

At Monday’s meeting, Czarnecki presented new water service rules that would prohibit repairs to plastic and galvanized lines between the shut off and the meter and require their replacement with copper. Residents who do not want to replace their entire service line could choose to move their meter next to the shut-off by the road. He estimated the cost of the underground box needed for meters in this location to be $300,

Greg Canfield, owner of Canfield Plumbing & Heating, was present for the meeting and asked to comment on the matter. He said half the time when old, galvanized pipes are leaking, it is at a fitting and a relatively minor repair. However, replacing a service line can cost significantly more.

“Instead of a $100 repair, [customers] are going to be spending $4-$5,000 for a new service line,” Canfield said. He thought the cost of moving the meter could be more than Czarnecki estimated too since there would be trenching work involved to place the box. Canfield also noted that Grand Rapids allowed residents to fix a plastic or galvanized pipe once before it required the line be replaced.

“Is there a simple way to fix that?” Burns asked Czarnecki.

“I suppose we could keep track of everyone who repairs [a pipe] one time,” the DPW director replied. “Not sure who is going to do that,” he added, mentioning staffing concerns.

Councilmember Leah Groves thought that requiring a service line replacement would be difficult for those with low or fixed incomes. Allowing a leaking pipe to be fixed once would provide an opportunity for families to prepare and save for the bigger expense in the future.

Meanwhile, DeVore did not seem inclined to put any cap on the number of fixes allowed. “If you want to fix it 25 times, you should be able to do that,” he said.

Councilmembers agreed unanimously to table the issue for further consideration.

Other Meeting Items

The following are among the other agenda items and updates from Monday’s meeting:

  • A resolution was passed unanimously to support a downtown liquor license for Rio Plano Taquiera. Lowell City Council passed a similar resolution in the summer, but the Michigan Liquor Control Commission said it was missing needed information and sent it back for a second vote.
  • The mowing contract for 2022 was awarded to Manszewski Landscaping in the amount of $41,000. The company has satisfactorily mowed city parks and properties for the past nine years. Councilmember Jim Salzwedel suggested it might be a good idea to send the contract out for bids for 2023.
  • Lowell City Council authorized Burns to begin the process of refinancing bonds used to pay for Lowell City Hall. Refinancing will cut the interest rate from approximately 3.5% to 1.8% and save the city almost $218,000 over the next 10 years.
  • Council unanimously approved an expenditure of $9,450 to Franklin Holwerda Company for maintenance tasks at the wastewater treatment facility.
  • In his manager’s report, Burns said MDOT was once again looking at the possibility of allowing a left turn light from Main Street onto Hudson. He also said he had been approached about whether street performers were allowed in Lowell, and it was determined they were so long as they completed a waiver.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Monday, November 1, at 7pm.

New Owner of Line Shack Decided at Special Meeting

On October 11, 2021, Lowell City Council held a special meeting to hear proposals from bidders seeking to buy the former Lowell Light & Power line shack building on Riverside Drive. All members were present for the session except Councilmember Marty Chambers who was absent.

Six bidders were provided 30 minutes each to present their plans for the future use of the site. Suggestions included condominiums, retail space and a distillery.

After hearing all the presentations, councilmembers each listed what they thought were the top three proposals. Each named BGR Investments as their top choice with the exception of Groves who liked the proposal from The Edge Company Michigan best. Her second choice was the proposal from BGR Investments.

Represented by Brent Slagell, who has headed up other local projects such as Superior Lofts and Rio Plano Tacqueria, BGR Investments LLC proposed tearing down the building and constructing a two-story building that would include covered parking on the first floor, five residential units and a potential space for a retail establishment.

The Edge Company Michigan envisioned using the existing building to create a business modeled on The Edge store located in Alexandria, Minnesota. That business combines an apparel and home goods boutique with a coffee bar.

Groves cited a concern that the BGR Investments proposal including units that would have a “premium” price attached. DeVore and Burns replied that no one is expecting riverfront property to be affordable.

“I’m not asking for affordable housing on the riverfront,” Groves clarified. However, she worried about the optics for residents who may be struggling to find affordable housing and wondering what the city was doing to keep them from being priced out of the community.

Councilmember Cliff Yankovich, who owns Chimera Design in downtown Lowell, said he initially hoped a retail establishment would fill the vacant space. However, after giving it more thought, he decided residential uses would result in more revenue for the city.

Ultimately, council decided to accept the $100,000 bid from BGR Investments LLC. The decision was unanimous.

A resolution will need to be approved at a future city council meeting to the finalize the sale.

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