Category Archives: Government

Village Council Combines DDA with Planning Commission

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The Vicksburg Village Council along with all the other sub-committees of the village are now meeting in one place at 13318 N. Boulevard, in the former South County EMS building.

By Sue Moore

The Vicksburg Village Council at its September meeting approved an ordinance rolling functions of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) into the village’s Planning Commission.

It will be phased in over the next three months with the agenda of the commission changed to include the business of the DDA in January 2020.

The collection of funds through tax increment financing, now performed through the authority, will be administered by the Planning Commission. The ordinance changes approved by the council will expand the commission from seven to nine members. Applications for the two new seats will be accepted at that time.

Façade grants and loans for downtown businesses have been a large part of recent DDA agendas. Its members have been the originators and organizers of the Christmas in the Village event since its inception five years ago. They also administer the tax-increment-financing money of approximately $75,000 each year that is used to further improve the area within the district, which includes the downtown area on Main and Prairie streets.

“We believe this [combining of the DDA and the Planning Commission] is the best-practice model for a municipality with our population,” Village Manager Jim Mallery told the council. “This will be a more efficient manner for our sub-units of government to function with appropriate village council oversight. It will also positively impact the long-term master planning and zoning improvements.”

Many changes are scheduled to take place in the downtown area during the summer of 2020 when new sewer and water lines will be installed on Main and Prairie streets. Some TIF money has been earmarked to build a parking lot next to the Vicksburg post office on N. Kalamazoo Avenue in 2020.

In other business, the council contracted with J.L Schippers and Associates for demolition of a fire-damaged house at 421 Spruce Street. It has been deemed a dangerous structure since the fire in 2018, but owners have not been willing to pay for the demolition. The cost of $7,400 will be charged to the owner’s next year’s tax bill. If the owner fails to pay taxes on the property, it goes to the county to collect. If not paid in three years after proper notice, the property would be sold at auction. If the full amount of the sale does not include all of the back taxes and demolition, the difference reverts to the village coffers to be paid, according to village Treasurer Michelle Morgan.

The construction of a third water well in the village has been approved by the Michigan Department of Environment Quality. The village has received a Wellhouse Protection grant from the state for $11,240 which will help to offset the cost of locating the well to serve the village residents and businesses. This third well has become necessary as the current wells are at 70 percent capacity, Mallery said. A preferred site will be researched by Prin & Neuhof and recommended to the council at its October meeting.

Yard Signs Draw Schoolcraft Village Council Members Ire

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These yard signs dot residents’ homes in Schoolcraft.

By Sue Moore

Words flew between Schoolcraft village council President Keith Gunnett and Trustee Mike Rochholz on how to interpret the village’s sign ordinance at its first September board meeting.

The words involved whether signs that have been appearing in people’s yards including Gunnett’s were legal. The wording, “Sewer? Let the homeowner decide,” was questioned by Rochholz because he felt it expressed an opinion and therefore was outside the boundaries of the village’s sign ordinance. Gunnett said he didn’t think the signs violated the ordinance since they are similar to signs the school is putting out on the proposed bond issue.

Rochholz replied that “The members of the council should hold to the ethics and impartiality of the ordinances because we are asking residents to abide by the ordinances which some council members are not abiding by themselves.”

Village Manager Cheri Lutz asked the council if they would like to have her seek a legal opinion on the matter and bring it back to the next meeting. They all agreed that would be the best approach to take. At its following meeting in September, the village attorney indicated the signs were in violation of the ordinance and should be taken down.

In other business, the sidewalk/right of way committee recommended dividing the village into quadrants for inspecting violations of the ordinances governing the village’s rights of way. Of particular concern is the placement of gravel in the right of way to increase residential parking. Other concerns include landscaping items, plantings and rocks in the right of way, parking and placement of mailboxes in the right of way. It was agreed that Gunnett, Lutz and Rob Coffman, DPW chief would undertake this task.

The audit was reviewed and given an unqualified stamp of approval by Doug Wohlberg, the village’s auditor. He complimented Tammy Young, the village’s financial assistant, and the Schoolcraft Library, which he said have good controls in place.

Schoolcraft Village Council Meets Over Newsletter Fracas

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Members of the Schoolcraft Village Council from left to right: Sy Spears, Russell Barnes, Larry Gunnett, Mike Rochholz, John Stodola. Missing from the picture but in attendance: Kathy Mastenbrook and Todd Carlin.

By Sue Moore

In a 4-3 vote, Schoolcraft’s village Council voted to remove comments by village President Keith Gunnett in the village’s upcoming newsletter calling on homeowners to sign a petition if they want a sewer system and the expenses of building it.

Trustees opposed to inclusion of Gunnett’s comments said his personal opinions should be left out of the village publication.

Gunnett defended his effort. “Three members of the council choose to have a petition.” Gunnett included himself, Trustees Russell Barnes and Todd Carlin saying they represent the wants and needs of the citizens of the village, as they would be the ones paying for it.

He said his calculation of costs per home came to $50,000 or more. Council members opposed to including his comments “must have something personal to gain because nothing else is logical.”

“President Gunnett is entitled to his opinion and has the right to express it but not in the Village’s newsletter,” said Trustee Kathy Mastenbrook. “neither he or his opinion reflect that of the entire council or community,” she said. “To maintain the integrity of the Village, its staff and the council itself, information presented in the newsletter should be based on fact versus assumptions,” she added.

Trustee Mike Rochholz agreed. Gunnett’s comments are ‘being used to mischaracterize or misrepresent staff or other council members.”

Gunnett characterized the two sides of the issue in the village. One side, he said, believes the village council should make the choice for residents; the other believes homeowners should make the sewer decision which he said he believes is the correct one.

He asked for a show of hands for those who support his beliefs. Before anyone could raise a hand, Trustee Sy Spears interrupted: “I will not vote on anything that is so irresponsible to make a decision without all the information at hand. We are not to the point where we can decide, as we are still gathering information.”

Trustee John Stodola said the “Newsletter is the instrument of the village. It should be factual, timely and forward leading as we all incur the costs of publication.” He quoted state law that says no one should give his personal opinion in an instrument paid for by the people. “We have lost sight of how to move our business in a professional and thought-provoking manner. We want to have a clear, calm, and deliberate discussion.”

“The financial information Gunnett wrote about in his message to the public is not factual,” Mastenbrook said. “Do you want to start a petition process now based on your numbers that are not accurate? “There is no project that has even been decided. None of the entities have voted on costs but we expect to have the beginning of the numbers when Wightman & Associates comes to the October 7 village council meeting.”

Gunnett answered with “It’s all been done over and over again and you know that. True you won’t know the final numbers until its paid for and all the contractors are on the dotted line. I’m not asking anybody to go out and petition now. The petition doesn’t even need the exact numbers. It’s about how do people feel about what Wightman has told us?

A Wightman engineer provided some numbers at a public meeting in June. Alan Smaka estimated it would cost a residential homeowner about $13,000, including an estimated $10,000 “benefit” fee, an estimated $2,000 connection fee and an estimated $5-per-front-foot charge. The benefit fee could be paid over the period of a bond issue, as long as 40 years, and those costs could be offset by the proportion of grant money received for the sewer system project, as much as 45 percent.

Longtime Fourth of July Parade Chair Resigns

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Deb Reynolds, long-time parade chair; Virginia Mongreig, committee chair for the July 4 event; Jon Krum, fireworks money solicitor asked the Schoolcraft Village Council to come up with their replacements.

By Sue Moore

Deb Reynolds won’t organize another 4th of July parade, she told the Schoolcraft Village Council at its August meeting. “I’m tired, it’s not fun anymore, it’s a headache and I’m backing down.”

“If nobody comes forward [to volunteer] there won’t be a parade next year,” Reynolds said. “This is really hard and it’s emotional for me. I don’t just need help with the parade, I want to have someone who will take it over,” as she waved the long list of duties and contacts that she keeps each year in front of the council members.

When Reynolds started chairing the parade in 1981, there were 11 members on the committee, she said. Now there are three: Reynolds, Virginia Mongreig and Jon Krum, who said he would stay on one more year to collect money for the fireworks display. Mongreig has also officially resigned from the organizing committee.

“You can’t feel guilty,” council President Keith Gunnett told Reynolds. “You are due a big thank you. We will try to publicize the need and hope someone will step up.” Trustee John Stodola said it is time for the next generation to step up in Schoolcraft.

“It’s what you do because you live in Schoolcraft,” Mongreig said. “We’ve all grown up here but we are tired [after working on the 4th of July event] for so many years.”

Spring Clean-up to See Big Change

To save money, the Council voted to use a central drop-off place instead of the curbside clean up that cost $7,577 for the village in 2019. The drop-off is estimated to cost $1,830. It will be held on June 6 in 2020 from 9 a.m.-noon. The location is still to be determined.

The Sidewalk/Right of Way Committee Recommendations Tabled

Sidewalks have been a priority for a long time for former village council trustees. The most recent committee appointed to look at the issue turned into a combination sidewalk and right of way committee, according to Village Manager Cheri Lutz. “I saw sidewalk concerns morphing into right of way issues so renamed the committee to address it as a whole,” Lutz said in response to Trustee Mike Rochholz’s concerns. “It’s the procedural part of this recommendation that I object to,” he said.

The recommendations were to divide the village into four quadrants and have them inspected for violations of the ordinances that govern right of way from street pavement to sidewalk. Safety issues in the right of way, the report said, involve driveway approaches, mail box placement, signs, parked cars and piles of gravel.

All of these matters lead to damage to the edge of the road, DPW’s ability to access the right of way for emergency issues, snowplowing and general detraction of appearance to the community. The inspections would be carried out by Gunnett, Stodola, Russell Barnes, Todd Carlin, Rob Coffman and Cheri Lutz, according to the memo.

Rochholz felt the village council committee members are not qualified to make these decisions but are on the council to set policy and ask the administration to carry it out. “We want to be a great functioning village council.” The recommendations were tabled with the understanding that the whole Council would be involved in discussion and setting of a policy at the next board meeting.

The Council also approved two requests for street closures for block parties, one on West Street and the other on Tulip, with some restrictions.

The Future is Bright in Vicksburg

By Sue Moore

“It’s a rare thing to see a village reduce its millage rate,” said State Senator Sean McCann. He was among the politicians invited to the village council meeting on July 15 to a “Celebration of Community. The special event sponsored by the village was keynoted as “Our Future’s So Bright We Gotta Wear Shades.”

Two of the politicians present were presented with a special resolution for the help they provided the village five years ago after the state put it on notice for deficiencies in its financial practices. Former State Senator Margaret O’Brien and County Treasurer Mary Balkema received thanks from Village President Bill Adams and Manager Jim Mallery for their assistance in correcting the deficiencies.

“Thanks for your leadership,” replied Balkema after the resolution was read. “I was pulling back the sheet and there was a dead horse under there. Now you have wow service, tax base growth, clean audits, a healthy fund balance and no foreclosures in the village this year. Plus, you have the largest investment the county has ever made in the Mill when it was part of the country treasurer’s responsibilities. You now have a strong tax base and transparency.”

O’Brien remembered meeting with the Department of Treasury when it looked like the village was on the brink of needing an emergency manager from the state. She pointed at the village trustees seated in back of her, saying it wasn’t easy to run for office in those days and now you have to be a part of one of the most successful turnaround stories in the state. Dissolution of the village might even have been an option, she said.

Mallery’s opening statement was about the crossroads the village has reached. He named “Historic Boulevard” and “Potential Avenue as special street signs. “Our goal is to be the model municipality our size in America. We have three core values that are the blocks of our foundation: Deliver WOW Service; disciplined to being fiscally responsible with the people’s money; complete and full transparency for all to see.”

Mallery announced the hiring of Alex Lee as a communications specialist, saying “He serves people and that’s what we are about in the village.” Adams then closed the meeting with an announcement that Mallery’s contract as village manager had been extended for another five years, at an annual salary of $76,500 from July 2019 to 2024.

Residents Ask Hard Questions on Proposed Sewer Project

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Front row, from left: Todd Carlin, Russell Barnes, John Stodola, Wes Schmitt, Mae Pfost. Back row, from left: Lucas Pols, Vern Johnson, Michael Rochholz, Sy Spears, Alan Smaka, Kathy Mastenbrook, Keith Gunnett, Susan Hendriksma, Kirk Bergland. Photo by Travis Smola.

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft residents finally got their opportunity to ask public officials and consultants about the proposed sewer system.

Members of the Schoolcraft Village Council, the Planning Commission, the Kalamazoo County Health Department and consultants from Wightman and Associates were on hand to answer questions.

If the applause which followed a comment is an indication of community sentiment, many would like to vote on the issue.

Village Council President Keith Gunnett, opening the meeting, acknowledged that the sewer project is controversial and that gathering public input is important. “The Village Council really wants to hear your questions, comments and ideas so we can better understand the direction we should take for the future of the village.”

He opened the meeting by asking the officials and consultants to answer questions citizens had written on cards at a previous meeting on the issue in June. Some addressed issues such as possible locations of a lagoon/treatment plant, the costs of filling in old septic tanks and how the costs and assessment for each property would be determined.

The meeting became more heated when Gunnett opened it up for questions and comments from the audience.

One of the first: Why didn’t the project happen 30 years earlier?

“This is a project that has a lot to do with the sustainability of the village,” village council member John Stodola replied. “We’ve lost some businesses and we’ve lost some opportunities. There’s an effect on home values both ways. We’re trying to make a very informed decision based on all the studies and the folks you see here. Why now? Because it’s our turn to think about it.”

One of the primary concerns of the audience was the estimated cost of the project to citizens. Max Hutchinson told the group he just moved to the village a month ago and is concerned the costs could cause foreclosures for some residents. The cost may delay his plan to start a family, the main reason he moved to the community. Hutchinson said he did some research into the financial assistance that may be available for the project and found it may only be available to elderly and disabled people with no income and low assets.

“What do you plan to do or what would you say to the people who feel like they’re staring down the barrel of an economic gun here?” Hutchinson asked.

Village council member Kathy Mastenbrook answered: “There are a lot of unknowns currently in the planning that won’t be known further for some time.” It’s possible some other forms of local assistance could open in the future, she said, adding she couldn’t be certain.

“We do not know what the cost to the homeowner is going to be until a potential project is submitted to the state through the application process and the USDA comes back and tells us, ‘This is what you can receive in grants to help offset those costs,’’’ Mastenbrook replied, adding she’s uncomfortable for “any of us to project to anyone here what this is going to cost.”

She said once they get information back from the USDA, village officials will begin having bigger conversations on costs with the community. “We want to … make sure we are doing our best to secure any funds that might be available to us,” Mastenbrook said. USDA loans could cover the costs for as much as 45 percent of the project, although that’s uncertain.

Wightman and Associates representative Alan Smaka echoed Mastenbrook’s comments. “We really won’t know truly what the cost of this project is until it’s in hand,” Smaka said. “But it’s a refining process all along the way.”

Stodola encouraged everyone to take a long view on things and to compare the costs of sewer vs septic. He also encouraged people to not be afraid to ask for public assistance in paying for the project. “We will try to find every possible opportunity to help fund everybody,” Stodola said.

Hutchinson said he appreciated the answers, but added they weren’t what he was looking for. He noted that the septic system in his home is new and that his roof is going to need replacement. And there are other improvements he wants to make to his home. Hutchinson said he didn’t anticipate he would have problems paying the costs of sewer over seven to eight years, adding that he would be forced to make lifestyle changes.

Earlier in the meeting, Gunnett went over his own estimates for the costs of sewer for his own home over the course of 40 years. He noted the combined costs of everything were a little over $50,000.

Hutchinson addressed that number.

“That is a child’s tuition. That is the improvements on the home that I want to make. That is a lot more than it is going to cost to do that roof,” Hutchinson said. He said he didn’t like the uncertainty of there “may be” loans and assistance available. He added, “There will be people whose homes get foreclosed upon.” That was met with a round of applause.

Stodola responded by noting that this is a challenge faced by everyone. “We’re all in this together,” he said. He compared it to getting a car loan. “We’re going to have bills, we can’t tell you that you won’t,” he said, adding that even those with septic systems will face long-run costs anyway. Stodola said he was told recently his own septic field was a few years away from failing and he is now facing replacement costs himself. “I sympathize with your concerns. We will try our very best to help support you if we can,” Stodola said.

Resident Will Bogema said the issue affects too many people for the decision to be made by a small group and asked if the project could be put to a village vote. “We should get a say-so in this because this decision is huge,” Boegma said. “This is an astronomical cost. There’s no way a project of this magnitude should go through without a vote. Ever.”

That statement was met with thunderous applause.

Building sewer is not an issue that goes on a ballot, Gunnett responded. He recommended starting a petition for citizens to get their concerns across. “That, in my opinion and many people’s opinion, is the best way to do it,” Gunnett said. Later in the meeting, someone suggested the possibility of a petition on the village council’s website. Gunnett said village officials may look further at doing that in the future.

Gunnett acknowledged the subject of sewers has always been a hot button issue in the village. Efforts to build a system have been started at least four times before. He said he expects there will be much more debate before a decision is made.

“This is a very contentious subject and it’s been that way for 40-something years,” Gunnett said.

He encouraged people to attend additional meetings to come. The next meeting will include members of the school board who will be on hand to discuss the possibility of parallel school bond and sewer projects.

Traffic Stops are Up in Schoolcraft

By Sue Moore

Schoolcraft Police Chief Bryan Campbell reported his department had an increase in traffic stops and therefore revenue from the months of January through May compared with the first five months of 2018 Traffic stops went from 260 to 389, tickets issued from 191 to 239 with accompanying revenue up from $3,302 to $4,729. Activity complaints for this time period also increased from 335 to 389.

“This is not a bad thing,” Campbell said. “No extra hours of staff time were encountered but it was a trade-off of traffic stops to patrolling the back streets of the village. We don’t have quotas but it is more expensive to the village when our officers have to go to court if someone pleads not guilty to a complaint citation. This also doesn’t include attorney expenses. The village policy is that the officer has to attend a court hearing but if they have a day job that costs extra too.”

Jennifer and Jager Doorn are involved in trying to save the B & O railroad tower in Kalamazoo near Bell’s Brewery. They cited the state’s intent to tear the historic switching monolith down by the end of August if someone doesn’t pay for asbestos abatement of $3,500 before that time.

The Doorns won a resolution of support from the village council as they try to raise funds to prevent the tear-down from happening. Jager explained they have utilized a Go Fund Me site and received a promise from Jamie Clark to locate the building on his land that abuts the railroad while attempting to get a time extension from the state to explore other avenues to save the building.

Spring curbside clean-up options were also discussed to save money for the village. It cost $7,700 this spring for the collection of unwanted objects people put in front of their homes to be carted away.

A central drop-off was proposed to reduce costs. Five 30-yard containers were priced at a total of $2,500 for the total operation. The problem has been non-residents putting objects out in people’s yards which might pose the same problem for containers. To mitigate this, residents would need to show ID when they drop items off. Trustee Todd Carlin questioned how people without trailers could transport their items to a drop off site.

The decision was tabled until more information could be obtained.