By Sue Moore
The Vicksburg Village Council took several steps to eliminate taxpayer support of the Historic Village at its December meeting. It raised rental rates for the Community Pavilion and approved a tentative lease agreement which would require the nonprofit Vicksburg Historical Society to shoulder all utility and maintenance costs.
Although no firm figure was discussed, one estimate is that annual operating costs to Vicksburg for the Historic Village are about $12,000.
The steps were recommended by Village Manager Jim Mallery who had been meeting with representatives of the Historical Society since October.
Mallery cited a memo from Village Attorney Andrew Horne saying it’s “unlawful for the village to give money to a nonprofit,” but acknowledging that the village has done so for many years.
The practice has to stop, Mallery said.
Don Wiertella, president of the Historical Society, acknowledged the need for a legal agreement but asked for further research on the question of allocating village funds to the nonprofit organization.
Mallery also called for an end to the use of a community garden in the Historic Village to raise vegetables.
“The use of the community gardens must cease immediately. Growing edible plants on public land that predictably would require phase 1 and phase 2 environmental assessments would cost an estimated $20,000. It would probably prove the land was not suitable to grow edible plants, due to the previous use as a landfill.”
Growing flowers in the park “will need to be on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Mallery’s report said. Members of the Victorian Garden Club have been volunteering time to plant and weed the foundation plantings around the buildings in the Historic Village. The group and individuals would be required to sign a form stating they’re not selling the flowers grown on the site.
All recommendations dealing with the gardens, rentals of the pavilion and oversight of volunteers who take care of the Historic Village were approved by the Council with an extension of time on the lease agreement until June 30, 2020. Mallery originally had asked that the Society agree to the lease by Dec. 16, 2019.
The village manager, in calling for an end to taxpayer support of the village, said providing payments from public funds for buildings when the public has no access to them raises concerns about best practice and use of public funds. “We cannot justify providing these services without compensation. The village needs to be able to concretely justify the public benefit that the residents are receiving from the expenditures.”
Mallery questioned the actual value citizens of Vicksburg are getting for their money when they are paying for utilities and maintenance in the Historic Village. The previous agreement meant that the Village was responsible for major maintenance problems such as a failed furnace.
An agreement which outlined the use of the entire site was drafted several years ago but lacked fundamental elements of a legal agreement, he said. Mallery presented the new lease agreement for the Historical Society to sign, recommending the village Council approve the ongoing functions of the entire park including the buildings and the grounds.
Also, in his recommendations to the council were new rental rates for the pavilion. These will increase from $25 to $100 for private events. Activities and events open to the public such as the Farmers’ Market, the Lions Club B&B and a proposed antique show from May to September would be charged $25 per day.
The Thursday Guys who have helped to maintain the buildings in the park, the so-called “Rembrandt Painters” who have kept the buildings fresh with paint and all other volunteers will face new requirements, including signing a volunteer release and waiver of liability form prior to conducting any work within the park. They must also receive permission from village staff to perform work on the site.
The operating agreement between the Historical Society and the village provided the bulk of the staff recommendations presented to the council. It requires the society to sign a lease for the use of the buildings and to pay the utilities and any maintenance needed for the duration of the agreement.
Wiertella noted in his prepared statement that the Historical Society has obtained all of the funding to relocate and erect five historic structures and six replica structures, using no village funding to do so.
The existing agreement, he noted, recognized that the society did not have the funds to maintain the structures on the grounds. Therefore, the earlier agreement called for the village to take ownership of the buildings once they were completed and furnished with historic artifacts.
Wiertella added, “We request the following: that the Michigan Compiled Laws be reviewed to determine if the village can, or would, continue to provide funding for utilities and building maintenance.” He also asked for and received an extension of the existing lease to the end of Vicksburg’s fiscal year, June 30, “to review our budgeting and operational requirements.”
“We stand before you in good faith and in support of developing a mutually beneficial agreement. We understand that times change and we must adapt as well. Our objective is to continue to deliver our mission in a sustainable and effective manner. We are certain that with the support of village residents, management and council, we can achieve these goals. We look forward to finalizing an agreement within the coming months.”
Village Trustee Julie Merrill asked Wiertella how much the buildings were worth to the village and the capital that was raised to pay for them.
Wiertella didn’t have a ready answer: “I am fighting for the life of the Historical Society. Thanks to Jim, we need to get our ducks in a row. Our major request is more time to work on this to find multiple solutions.”