Lowell Township Board Recap: Budget, Wastewater Appraisal Discussion

The Lowell Charter Township Board met for approximately 90 minutes on Monday night for its regular January meeting. All board members were present except for Steve Vander Ziel. To comply with state restrictions on indoor gatherings, the meeting was held via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

Lowell Area Fire Department Updates

At the start of the meeting, Fire Chief Shannon Witherell provided several updates from the Lowell Area Fire Department. He noted several promotions were recently made and those will bring the department to a full set of command staff. The department also had nine applicants during recent try-outs for paid on-call positions, and Witherell was hopeful that the strong turnout will give the department a full roster of firefighters by the end of the month.

Witherell also reviewed the upcoming budget. Overall, the recommended budget from the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority has an increase of $65,640, not including capital expenses. That increase is a result of the move to a full-time fire chief, the addition of daytime part-time shifts and other minor line item increases. The increase will be shared by all members of the authority: Lowell Charter Township, Vergennes Township and City of Lowell.

The budget also includes $400,000 for a new county truck. The total cost of the truck is expected to be between $600,000 – $650,000, according to Witherell, but the county will pay for $204,000. That leaves approximately $133,000 for each municipality to cover for the truck. The Lowell Area Fire Department is also applying for a grant from the Community Fund, which could reduce the cost.

After reviewing the budget, Witherell outlined a cost recovery ordinance the department is asking each municipality to adopt. It would allow the department to bill for services in certain instances, such as calls involving hazardous materials and incidences that occur in the commission of a crime.

“The vast majority of these are going to be direct bills to insurance companies,” Witherell said. He also emphasized that taxpayers would not be billed for calls such as medical emergencies and structural fires.

The Lowell Township Board appeared receptive to the idea but wanted their attorney to review the proposed ordinance before taking action.

Budget Items Discussed

Later in the meeting, board members set a public hearing to receive comments on the upcoming year’s budget. That will be held during their February 16th meeting.

In discussing budgetary changes, Clerk Monica Burtt noted a 1.4% increase had been slated in compensation for elected officials and employees. Trustee Bill Thompson thought a higher increase would be appropriate for the elected officials who work at the township office, which include the clerk, treasurer and supervisor.

Supervisor Jerry Hale noted that growth in the township meant increased duties and responsibilities as well as more unpaid meetings to discuss township business. “It’s becoming more of a full-time job,” he said. Board members agreed to amend the proposed budget to include a $1,200 increase in compensation for these members in the new fiscal year.

Burtt mentioned that she was also looking into adding an administrative fee for tax collection. Lowell Charter Township is one of the few municipalities to not already charge one, according to Hale. Burtt also thought the township should look into the process of holding its millage rate steady.

“Our millage is at 0.75, and it goes down each year,” she said. While growth in the township has offset the declining millage rate, board members noted they have been unable to put money aside for roads and need funds for public safety expenses such as the fire department.

Trustee Carlton Blough, who represents the township on the Fire and Emergency Services Authority, said that body had been discussing the possibility of all three municipalities putting a public safety millage on the ballot during the same election. Blough thought Witherell would be talking to the municipalities about that in the future.

Wastewater, Water System Appraisal

Lowell Charter Township and the City of Lowell have been discussing for some time the future of the water and wastewater systems, which residents from both municipalities use.

“They’ve even approached us with a proposal to maybe even buy the wastewater treatment plant from them, and then they would become our customer,” Hale said.

However, first an appraisal of the facility must be completed. While Lowell City Council declined to help pay for an appraisal last year, developer Sid Jansma, who owns property near I-96, has offered to cover the $37,000 cost. His only stipulation is that if the appraisal leads to an agreement between the city and township, he will be reimbursed.

Hale said City Manager Mike Burns has indicated he is agreeable to this arrangement, but the supervisor thought it important to draw up a memorandum of understanding before further action is taken.

“They are going to discuss that at tomorrow night’s [city council] meeting,” said Trustee Mark Anderson.

However, Lowell City Council did not bring up the memorandum, appraisal or sale of the wastewater treatment plant at their meeting. Instead, their discussion focused on a review of a rate study for the water and wastewater systems.

Township board members were provided that study as well. During Monday’s meeting, Hale said that he thought the numbers for the township were skewed since they didn’t take into account the contribution Jansma is expected to make if the township creates its own system. “Our rates wouldn’t be up near as much as that report says,” Hale noted.

Citizen Comment About Noise, Camping Complaints

Resident John Wenger addressed the board during the citizen comments portion of the meeting. He noted he had recently had a hearing regarding complaints made against his property, and the judge had encouraged him to work out a resolution with the township.

The complaints apparently revolve around the use of Wenger’s property as Camp Clear Sky, a music venue that also allows tent camping. Wenger said he understood there were three issues being raised: noise complaints, building permits and the property’s use as a private campground.

“My feeling on the noise complaints is that it’s harassment,” Wenger says. He noted that complaints were made at times when he wasn’t even home, and police officers have never issued a ticket when responding to these complaints. According to Wenger, officers tell him, “No laws have been broken here.”

“John, you’re running a campground that’s not legally allowed in that zoning district,” Hale said.

Wenger disagreed. He said the State of Michigan defines a campground as a place with five or more overnight RVs, and he doesn’t allow RVs on his property. Only tent camping is permitted.

“My property is always open and available for my friends to come and spend the night, and the township has no right to tell me that can’t happen,” Wenger said.

“That’s your opinion,” Hale responded. “The township has another opinion.”

Wenger requested a special meeting to discuss the matter further, and Hale suggested he meet separately with township staff to address the issues.

Other Board Action and Updates

Other business conducted during the Monday meeting included the following:

  • Approval of a resolution, as required by the state, related to the examination and audit of charitable exemptions.
  • Approval of a resolution recognizing the Lowell Red Arrows Shooting Team as a non-profit, which will allow it to receive a charitable gaming license and hold a fundraising raffle.
  • Review of the disc golf course layout at the Grand River Riverfront Park and discussion of the removal of trees in the park that are either blocking the course or in danger of falling.
  • Approval of a resolution pertaining to the placement of street lights in the Twin Oaks development.
  • Review of personal property tax that has been deemed uncollectable. Treasurer Ronda Benedict has exhausted all possible means of contacting the previous owner of the former Deer Run Golf Course property for payment of outstanding taxes. Now, the township must wait for a total of five years before the tax bill can be turned over to the county for striking from the rolls.

The next regular meeting of the Lowell Charter Township Board will be on Tuesday, February 16, at 7pm. A special meeting is also scheduled for January 28 at 6pm to hold a public hearing on a proposed Parks and Recreation Plan. The plan is available for review on the township website.

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