With social distancing now being the norm, Lowell City Council held a sparsely attended Monday meeting. Seating in the council chambers was greatly reduced, with significant space between each chair. The meeting was livestreamed for residents to watch at home, and video has been made available for later viewing on YouTube.
At the start of the meeting, a moment of silence was held for Ben Lauren, a firefighter who died in the line of duty while battling a blaze in the Upper Peninsula’s Forsyth Township. Lauren is the nephew of Lowell Police Detective Gordy Lauren.
Then, City Manager Mike Burns shared an update on city activity pertaining to the coronavirus. He said he closed city hall to the public and was working on a contingency plan should the state shut down city offices completely. He noted that because of the Open Meetings Act, he was unable to prevent the public from attending the evening’s city council meeting but hoped that guidance would come from the state soon on holding virtual meetings instead.
Councilmember Greg Canfield responded with his concern that the council wasn’t consulted about the closure of city hall. “You made a decision at midnight on a Friday night to close city hall on Monday,” Canfield said. “I think that could have waited for the council to become involved on Saturday. We are the elected officials, and we are responsible for decisions.”
“Obviously I had a conversation with the mayor,” Burns responded. “We made a decision we felt was in the best interest of the city…and I will stand by that.”
Old Business: Wastewater Agreement, Public Hearing on Trails
As part of the council’s old business, councilmembers unanimously approved a five year extension of the contract with Suez, the company which manages the city’s wastewater treatment facility. The contract is largely an extension of the previous agreement and provides Suez $38,490 per month through the end of Fiscal Year 2021.
Next up was a public hearing on a grant application to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund for $300,000 to complete a connector trail through the City of Lowell. Two area residents submitted comments for the hearing.
City of Lowell resident Jim Pfaller wrote to say that while he supported the project, he was concerned about the funding sources. He did not think the state should be funding items such as trails when there were more pressing needs, such as street repairs, which could be funded instead. Pfaller was also concerned about the city agreeing to take on maintenance costs should the Lowell Area Recreation Authority be unable to maintain the trail itself. “The city should not commit to any more potential future expenses until we restore our streets, services and community to a condition that is acceptable,” he wrote.
The other comment came from a Lowell Charter Township resident whose property on Grand River Drive is along the proposed trail route. She was concerned about the lack of notice given to her and other property owners. She also expressed concern about the impact of a trail on her quality of life.
“This did come about very quickly,” acknowledged Canfield, who is the council representative on the LARA board. “We did do our best to let people know.”
Dave Austen, a Lowell resident representing LARA at the meeting, agreed. He said that until very recently, the board had planned to use a railroad trestle to allow hikers to cross the Flat River in town. While initial conversations with the rail company had seemed positive, they were not receptive to the idea when it came time to draft a formal agreement.
“There’s plenty of time to talk to property owners,” Austen said. He noted that changes had already been made to bring the trail behind the property of the writer instead of along her front year. Austen added that it was in the best interest of everyone to find a solution that would address resident concerns. Public comments on the project are also still being accepted via an online form or the LARA Facebook page.
While plans can be changed later, the grant application is due now and needs to include a tentative route. Councilmembers voted unanimously in support of a resolution authorizing the application. Councilmember Cliff Yankovich said that while he understood and shared Pfaller’s concerns about state funding priorities, he also knew that the state had earmarked the money for trailways so it couldn’t be used for any other purpose. What’s more, he felt the benefit of the trail would outweigh any potential cost to the city.
New Business: Lowell Light & Power Retirement Plans, Fireworks for Riverwalk
The two pieces of new business on the agenda were addressed in short order.
First was the unanimous agreement to adopt an amended defined contribution plan agreement for all new hires of Lowell Light & Power. In January, Lowell City Council approved moving all new, non-union hires at LLP to a defined contribution system. Now that union negotiations have been completed, the amended agreement will included new union hires as well. Defined contribution plans include 401(k)s and similar retirement accounts.
In the next item of new business, Lowell City Council unanimously approved the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce’s application for its annual fireworks display that coincides with the Riverwalk Festival in July.
Manager and Council Comments
In his comments, Burns noted he had been on a personal leave until last Thursday and has only had time to deal with COVID-19 issues since his return. However, he did add that a second application for a marijuana facility in the city had been received.
During his board reports, Yankovich noted there was significant discussion during the Chamber of Commerce meeting about the timing of the delivery of the Showboat. There is a concern that the boat will sit for 8-10 weeks while construction is being completed onsite, and board members are worried about it disrupting the Riverwalk Festival and Showboat Concert series. However, Burns replied that he believed the boat was scheduled to arrive the Monday after Riverwalk so as not to disrupt the festival.
Councilmembers also shared their concerns about local businesses weathering the recent spate of closures mandated by the government in response to coronavirus. “As a community, we need to support our restaurants,” said Councilmember Marty Chambers. “Some of them may make it. Some of them may not.”
As a final comment, Canfield asked Burns if credit card processing fees could be temporarily halted for utility customers. He was sharing the suggestion on behalf of Perry Beachum, Chair of the LLP Board, who could not be at the evening’s meeting. Canfield added that LLP does not charge customers any fees when paying by credit card.
Burns replied that a third-party vendor charged the fee, not the city. He said that having the city absorb the fees could be a violation of the Michigan Constitution and if the city decided to do so, it would probably need to modify sewer and water rates as a result. When pressed by councilmembers who said it would be a short-term change while the city was not accepting cash payments because of the coronavirus, Burns said he could look into it.
The next regular City Council meeting is scheduled for April 6, 2020 at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.