City Council Recap: Showboat Update, Further Pension Discussion

Lowell City Council met for nearly an hour and 20 minutes last night to discuss a variety of topics. All councilmembers were present at the meeting which took place at the pavilion in Creekside Park.

At the start of the meeting, City Clerk Sue Ullery read a citizen letter from Debra Duiven Dunning in response to comments made by the pastor of the Lowell Church of the Nazarene at the previous city council meeting. The church had held an outdoor service, but a noise complaint was made about the event. Pastor Trevor Workman asked if the church could be exempt from the noise ordinance or if the city would consider amending it since it dated to the 1970s and some provisions may be outdated.

Duiven Dunning, who lives next to the church, noted that the noise from the service wasn’t limited to Sunday morning and included sound checks on Saturday. She also said that sound from the service was clearly audible in her house on Sunday morning even with windows closed and the radio on. While her husband, who has some music experience, offered to help the church reconfigure its speakers away from neighboring homes, the church declined his help. Duiven Dunning noted the couple had been previously rebuffed by the church when they tried to talk to leadership about damage caused to their house by debris from lawn mowing on the church property.

After the citizen comments portion of the meeting, Lowell City Council moved through nine agenda items that included the city pension system, the Showboat, a fireworks display request and more.

Further Discussion on City Pensions

At their last meeting, councilmembers heard an update from a representative of the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System, more commonly known as MERS. The organization manages the city’s pension system and provided an overview of what is being required to fully fund pension liabilities within the next 19 years. According to the MERS funding schedule, the amount needed by the city for the final years of the payment plan will equal about a third of the city’s current general fund.

City Manager Mike Burns said MERS has long required communities to have a plan for fully funding their pension systems within 30 years, but that period used to roll over each year. “It was [like] a rolling mortgage with no end date,” he explained. However, that changed around 2008 when MERS decided to put a fixed date on when city pension funds needed to be fully funded.

At that time, the Lowell pension fund was 77% funded. Since then, it has dropped to 60% funded, despite cost-savings changes from the city such as the elimination of some cost-of-living adjustments and an increase in employee contributions.

Burns said a complicating factor is that MERS expects pension fund investments to perform better than they have. The organization, which controls the fund’s asset allocation, has planned for a 7.75% return on investments in recent years. However, the city fund only gained 1.5% last year, according to Burns.

“They’ve overinflated their values for years, and they won’t admit it,” Burns said. With investments not performing as expected, the percentage by which the pension system is considered funded has dropped.

“Is it legislated that our retirement accounts have to be with MERS?” asked councilmember Greg Canfield.

No, Burns replied, but he added that the only alternative would be for the city to create and fund its own pension system. That could be a costly proposition.

Going forward, Burns said the city is moving to a defined contribution system for new hires which would operate similarly to the 401(k) plans used by private employers. He also noted there are vacancies in the Department of Public Works that have not yet been filled and hiring could be delayed as a cost-saving measure.

Showboat Committee No Longer Requesting Loan

Next on the agenda was an update from Mark Mundt, who was representing the Showboat Committee. The committee held a lengthy meeting with councilmembers last week to discuss the possibility of the city taking out a loan to cover remaining construction costs for the new boat while fundraising took place.

Since then, the Showboat Committee has withdrawn their request for the loan. Instead, Mundt says 17 people have signed on to help with a fundraising committee. The group has already met once.

“It was a great, great meeting, and we’ve already have people drop off checks at the Chamber,” Mundt said, adding, “not itty bitty ones either.”

Brochures and forms are being created, and several people have volunteered to head up the public relations effort. The group will next meet on Thursday August 27 at 7pm at Creekside Park. Anyone interested in helping with the effort is invited to attend.

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Fireworks Planned for October

The Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce came to the council with a request for a fireworks display on October 10, 2020. The display would coincide with the annual Harvest Festival.

“We want to keep it low-key and want to have fireworks at the end,” said Liz Baker, executive director of the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. She envisioned doing a drive-in event at Recreation Park with some food trucks. People could park on the grass and view the fireworks from their vehicles.

Burns said he spoke to the city attorney who noted that outdoor gatherings are currently limited to no more than 100 people. If everyone were to remain in their cars, then they would be technically indoors, in which case it wouldn’t run afoul of state mandates so long as not more than 10 unrelated people are in a vehicle. Before approving the fireworks permit, Burns wanted council input.

“You’re not going to get 300 people at the fairgrounds,” said Mayor Mike DeVore. He noted many people watch Lowell’s fireworks displays from their backyards or at a friend’s house.

Other councilmembers agreed that they did not see the request as problematic and gave their approval to the event.

Other Agenda Items: Amity Street, Late Water Payments and More

The other items on the agenda covered a variety of topics, and Lowell City Council took the following actions:

  • Decided against a $15,000 study of water and sewer rates to determine the impact of losing Lowell Charter Township customers should the township build its own water treatment system. The study wouldn’t be done for two to three months, by which time, the township is expected to have already made a decision on how it will proceed.
  • OK’d the closure of a portion of Riverside Drive on Saturday, September 26th, for a weaving and fiber arts market hosted by Ability Weavers.
  • Approved the expenditure of $36,500 to engineering firm Williams & Works for design work in anticipation of resurfacing Amity Street next year. The city received a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant for the work, and the Downtown Development Authority is also contributing nearly $143,000 to the project. The city share will be $107,000.
  • Agreed to continue waiving late fees for water payments.
  • Adopted a resolution to proclaim September 3, 2020 as Pink Arrow Pride Day.
  • Gave their blessing to Lowell Light & Power to purchase an easement for $1 from Lowell Area Schools. The easement will allow the utility to install underground lines and infrastructure.

During his manager’s report, Burns sought to quell rumors that the city shut down the Lowell Youth Football program. “Me and my staff have not had any contact with anyone from Lowell Football until we heard from them at 11:30 today, and they told us we had shut it down,” Burns said. “It was news to me.”

He said that the city did verify with their insurance company that so long as the program followed the same protocols as other organizations operating in the city, there should be no problem on the city’s end with the program continuing.

Burns noted that longtime city employee and resident Bob Robinson had passed away and extended his condolences to the family. He also congratulated Scot VanSolkema for his promotion to Sergeant in the Police Department. Finally, he discussed options for addressing truck traffic traveling down Monroe Street to the Attwood facility. Those vehicles should be taking a designated truck route on Jefferson Street, and Burns is investigating the legality of placing cameras on Monroe to capture data on trucks traveling the street.

The next Lowell City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, September 8, at 7pm. Weather permitting, it is expected to be held at Creekside Park.

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