City Council Recap: Social District Approved, Water Rates Discussed

Lowell City Council met for approximately 90 minutes on Monday night for its second regular meeting of January. All councilmembers were present for the meeting which was held on the Zoom videoconferencing platform as a result of state restrictions on indoor gatherings.

In total, there were eight agenda items planned for the night, ranging from a COVID-19 update to approval of the Lowell Area Fire Authority budget.

Showboat City Social District Created

At its last meeting, Lowell City Council laid the groundwork for creating a social district in the downtown. These districts were authorized by the Michigan Legislature last summer and allow cities to create common areas where alcohol purchased at participating establishments can be consumed.

Cities that create social districts often provide outdoor seating and warming stations in the common area, and it is expected Lowell will do the same. The goal of the districts is to support restaurants which have been either closed to indoor dining or subject to capacity limits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

On Monday, councilmembers approved the resolutions needed to open the district, which will run along Main Street from New Union Brewery to Big Boiler Brewing and include the Riverwalk. A section of Monroe Street just north of Main Street will be closed as well to accommodate the district.

Hours for the social district will be as follows:

  • Monday- Friday: 4pm-10pm
  • Saturday: 12pm-10pm
  • Sunday: 12pm-8pm

City Manager Mike Burns said the district could be simply called the Lowell Social District, but the initials LSD might be problematic. He asked Mary Ann Sabo, who does public relations work for the city, to help with the naming.

She offered the following ideas: Flat River Social District, Main Street Social District or Two Rivers Social District. However, councilmembers nixed those in favor of Mayor Mike DeVore’s suggestion of the Showboat City Social District. Councilmember Jim Salzwedel thought having a paddlewheel as a logo on the cups which will be used in the district would complement the name, and councilmembers agreed with that as well.

There was some discussion about trash and recycling of cups before councilmembers unanimously approved all resolutions related to the social district. An opening date has not yet been announced.

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Presentation of Water and Wastewater Utility Rates

The longest item discussed on Monday was a presentation of a water/sewer feasibility study conducted by Utility Financial Solutions. With Lowell Charter Township considering the creation of its own water and wastewater facilities, city councilmembers requested the study to determine how city ratepayers would be impacted in various scenarios.

Mark Beauchamp, president of Utility Financial Solutions, presented a summary of the study findings. He and his staff calculated the anticipated utility rates under three scenarios:

  • City only service with no township customers.
  • City and current township service, which would include all customers currently using city water and wastewater services but no new customers from future township developments.
  • City and all township service, which would include all current township customers plus future township customers including those from any development by the I-96 interchange.

Both the water and wastewater systems are in need of capital improvements regardless of whether additional customers are added. If future development in Lowell Township is added to the systems, the facilities will need to be expanded as well. Factoring in those costs, here’s the impact Utility Financial Solutions predicts for ratepayers in each scenario:

Water costs for City of Lowell ratepayers in 2022

  • City only service: 21% increase in rates
  • City and current township service: No change in rates
  • City and all township service: -7% decrease in rates

Wastewater costs for City of Lowell ratepayers in 2022

  • City only service: 36% increase in rates
  • City and current township service: 7% increase in rates
  • City and all township service: -33% decrease in rates

Water costs for Lowell Charter Township ratepayers in 2022

  • City and township system: 17% increase in rates
  • Township only system: 42% increase in rates

Wastewater costs for Lowell Charter Township ratepayers in 2022

  • City and township system: 240% increase in rates
  • Township only system: 237% increase in rates

“I do want to emphasize that this is a snapshot for one year,” Beauchamp said. The actual study includes data going out several decades.

When calculating costs to township residents, Utility Financial Solutions used numbers from a report completed by Moore & Bruggink. Those numbers apparently show there is a 30% gap between the amount collected from township ratepayers and the township expenses for the utilities. Beauchamp was uncertain for the reason and how the township covers the additional expense.

He also noted that the figures assume the township will be able to come up with $12.56 million in cash for system upgrades or expansion. If that’s not possible, there may be additional bonding costs for both the city and township.

Lowell Area Fire Department Budget and Updates

Lowell City Council unanimously approved the recommended budget for the Lowell Area Fire Department for the upcoming year. Funding for the department is shared by the city, Vergennes Township and Lowell Charter Township.

Last year, the City of Lowell’s portion of the budget was approximately $118,000. For Fiscal Year 2021, it will be $262,229.80. Of that increase, $135,200.70 is to pay for a new county fire truck. The increase also reflects the addition of a full-time fire chief.

Fire Chief Shannon Witherell was also present during the meeting to discuss a fire cost recovery ordinance. If adopted, this ordinance would allow the fire department to bill for services in certain instances.

“We’re not looking to be billing our current tax-paying citizens,” Witherell said. Instead, the department could use the ordinance to bill for responding to repeat alarms or similar instances.

For example, the department recently spent many hours on site of a gas main break while Consumers Energy worked to fix the problem. A fire cost recovery ordinance would allow the department to bill Consumers Energy for that time. Witherell explained that some departments also use these ordinances to recoup costs from drunk driving calls.

Near the end of the meeting, Witherell provided a general update on operations for the Lowell Area Fire Department. He shared that 62% of department staff had received two rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As for staffing, nine applicants tried out for paid on-call positions, which is the most applicants Witherell can ever remember. If all approved applicants complete training and become firefighters, the department will have a full roster.

Other Meeting Items

The following updates and action items were also covered during Monday’s meeting:

  • Members of the Lowell Police Department are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. It will likely be May before other workers, such as those in public works, become eligible.
  • Fundraising for the Showboat and Riverwalk upgrades is continuing at a brisk pace. Only $160,000 more is needed to pay for all facets of the project.
  • Lowell Light & Power received approval to enter into a utility easement for the Stony Bluff development in Lowell Township. The council also approved compensation for Lowell Light & Power board members. It will remain at the same level as last year, $45 a meeting for a maximum of 20 meetings.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be Monday, February 1, at 7pm.

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