Fire Chief Tracy McMillan was happy to report to trustees of the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority (SKCFA) board that the department’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating has been lowered from 7 on a 10-point scale to 5, with 1 being a perfect and virtually unattainable rating.
The ISO rating is important to some insurance agencies which base their rates on the designation. They gather statistics every five years by examining the records of each fire department in the state. They look at training records, types of equipment, capacities, dispatch capabilities, the estimated response time and how many firefighters are put on the scene, McMillan said. The response time has improved over the last six months with an average of 5.96 minutes from the time a station’s pager goes off to the time the command vehicle gets to the scene. This is based upon five miles in any direction from the station, McMillan said.
He also described the busiest day in his memory: There were 11 total calls on March 8 when a windstorm of up to 50 miles per hour hit south county. Three semi-trucks rolled over on U.S. 131 by Schoolcraft, there were grass fires and every township in the service area was having problems.
Jim Mallery, a member of the volunteer advisory board, said members have been meeting with the chief each month and making progress. “The goal is to look at the CPSM consultant’s report to see if we meet the goal we set for the month and then move on to the next goal.”
As the meeting was about to end, Vicksburg resident Denny Olson accused Randy Smith, Brady Township Supervisor and Fire Authority board trustee, of trying to get rid of the chief and said he personally “wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. You should resign or retire. I’m coming for you, Randy!”
Smith said in response that there was “No shred of truth by what’s been stated about my repressing the report on the chief. The secondary report was shared with the board a month ago. It has all been done within the law. It’s just the opposite of these charges. I’ve been protecting the chief for two years. You are uninformed and ignorant of the facts.”
“I’m embarrassed this happened under my watch,” said Vicksburg Village President Bill Adams, in response to an accusatory letter sent by Denny Olson to the Village Council dealing with several issues.
Adams walked the Council through each point that Olson raised in his April 15 letter to clear up what he called misperceptions. He apologized again, saying he has taken steps to correct any actions that might have been misinterpreted and that this is a good time to start anew to make the village the “best of the best.”
Olson’s letter contended that Adams mistreated Fire Chief Tracy McMillan of the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority through his actions while on the authority’s board. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Adams said, adding that the chief would agree with him. “We found that proper procedures were not being followed at the Authority, so we brought in the top commanders such as Tracy and his son, Branden McMillan, the captain at the Schoolcraft station, to discuss problems.
“I stressed the importance of working together as a team from the top down. Behavior started to change. Then we brought in CPSM, a consulting group to focus on policies and procedures, training and education, all key metrics to 911 calls and response times. We appointed an advisory committee to help the chief be successful, by starting to look at the most important things that are vital to the community. The chief has gone through a lot of trauma in his position, but I feel he is a valuable asset to the community going forward. I would like to have us work together to find out what more we could do, such as a scholarship program for cadet Rangers and the recruitment of firefighters.”
Also mentioned in the letter by Olson were financial losses to the village by giving away free golf at Angels Crossing, the village-owned golf course. Adams said this was corrected with new policies implemented in 2016, although free golf to those who invested in the original construction of the golf course happened long before he became village president.
The most effusive apology from Adams was in response to an accusation about a private party, a “Speakeasy” at which free alcohol was paid for by the village and prizes were awarded to wives of village council members. “This too is not true,” Adams said although he took the blame for the incident that was reported by Channel 3. The station described it as an “expose” but didn’t really prove anything, according to Adams. “Still, I should have exercised more oversight. The Speakeasy was planned as a kickoff to the Vision Campaign to raise awareness. We didn’t expect a lot of money coming in but most of those attending did contribute later on during the campaign. We have instituted new policies to head off anything like this ever happening again.”
“There were a lot more people involved than just me on the Speakeasy,” Adams said after the meeting. “I could have had better oversight but was also three levels down in the decision making. Many of those who were below me still say nothing wrong was done. My apology was for not having better oversight of what others were doing.”
Olson questioned free chairs given by Adams to two local start-up businesses. Adams said, “I was under the impression they were free when I offered them, but found out later that they weren’t free, and by that time, they were sitting in the shops in the village. I’ve taken steps to correct these actions and am asking to be forgiven for my errors and mistakes.”
Trustee Gail Reisterer thanked Adams for his statement and emphasized that “We are trying to go forward now as a team. We will need a little more time to change things, but they will be changed.” Trustee James Earl, said “It will be a new age in Vicksburg as we are not going to let speculation and rumor go on in the village.”
DDA Boundaries Revisited
In other business, Village Manager Jim Mallery reported to the Council on expansion of the Downtown Development Authority’s boundaries in December of 2014. The request was to assess the financial cost to the village’s general fund budget. This was in response to a request of several members of the Council who asked Mallery to research the impact of this decision. The DDA executive board is willing to look further at the new boundaries. The Council directed Mallery to join in further talks with the DDA and come back with a recommendation. He reported that for 2017 the total Tax Increment Financing collected by the DDA, levied on improvements to properties within the authority, will amount to $32,758.37.
Pension Plans Get a Make Over
“The Village is in the hole on its pension plan funding,” according to Mallery. At its earlier meeting in April, he proposed scrapping the current defined-benefit plan for employees starting May 1 and after, substituting a defined-contribution plan. With the defined benefit plan, the village pays costs of pension and benefits. With a defined-contribution plan, the village will set aside pre-tax dollars for employees to make their own investment decisions. The village would be gaining more control over the amount of money going into the plan. Mallery chose to accept such a plan when he was hired on July 1, 2016.
In the wake of some questionable financial practices revealed last year, Vicksburg Trustee James Earl at a March council meeting pledged better, sounder village government henceforth.
“We will be a much better government moving forward,” he said in a statement. Earl said he is making a “commitment to change our paradigms. It is time to throw out the old way of doing things. We will do things the right way every time. We will do things better than we ever have. We will create a culture that cultivates a high level of customer service for all of our citizens. We will create a culture that makes everyone proud to be a Vicksburg resident.”
His statement was made in part to clarify the audit report and the impending budget planning process that the council is facing this spring. “Reaching our goals will require a level of analysis and transparency that has likely never been seen in Vicksburg,” he said. “We must adapt our goals and our expectations based on sound governmental practices. We must continuously improve our performance in every department, including this Council, to meet these new expectations. The expectations are to make Vicksburg the best village in America, where the residents and our visitors receive ‘wow!’ service.”
Village Manager Jim Mallery at the next meeting in March, introduced policy changes to council rules of order that call for the meetings to be run more efficiently. Residents will have four minutes to comment on agenda items at the beginning of each meeting. For non-agenda items, there will be three minutes allotted at the end of each meeting. Each speaker will be asked to come to the podium, state name and address, and address any questions directly to the council president and not individual council members.
In other business, the Council approved a change to the Brownfield Authority membership that put all of its members on the authority with separate lengths of service defined. They added village residents Steve Goss and Don DeBruin for their expertise in business and finance. The village is expecting possible applications from local entities in the near future so it will be imperative that the council members gain an understanding of this tool for economic development in the village, Mallery said.
Spending on resurfacing major and local streets in the village was discussed. The council granted approval to subcontract with the Kalamazoo County Road Commission to bid the paving of the major streets planned for improvements. Repair of the storm drain pipe at the corner of Boulevard and W. Prairie Street was approved for the village’s DPW crew to fix.
Danna Downing presented her yearly report on the South County Community Services (SCCS) activities with her usual passionate review. She introduced Diane Durian, who is in the midst of conducting a senior services outreach campaign, funded in part by the Vicksburg United Way. She related that there are 3,000 seniors in the south county service area. A third live in poverty; 700 live by themselves. She is making in-person calls on seniors to determine the extent of services they are likely to need now and in the future.
Kathleen Hoyle resigned as the Downtown Development Authority’s director at their meeting in February. She cited the need to move on with other projects. “I like to leave things better than when I came,” she said.
“I have really appreciated being part of Vicksburg and working with the community over the last few years to assist in moving the village forward to become the fastest-growing municipality in the state,” she said. “The residents have expressed their vision of Vicksburg’s future, planning was completed and implementation has begun, so now it’s time for me to move on to other projects. It has been an honor to work with the Vicksburg community and I know the future is in good hands.”
Board President John DeBault accepted the resignation. He told the board it might want to confer with all the entities the DDA has worked with. “Maybe we moved too fast, doing three projects last year. Maybe two is enough in 2017.”
Rudy Callen, president of the Vicksburg Foundation, told the board not to forget what the DDA was before Hoyle was hired. “There was little or no money, a skeleton crew and no activity. Great things have happened since then. Now is a chance to step back and get in sync with the village. There is so much potential and so many good people here.”
To that end, the board is getting ready to restart its “Façade Loan” program on April 1. A committee was appointed to handle details of the offer to Vicksburg business owners. Members will report back at the regular March meeting. There is also a revolving loan fund available for building owners to improve their properties. Applications will be taken from March 10 to April 28. Those qualifying will have money released by May 10, Hoyle reported.
A special meeting of the DDA trustees was scheduled to review priorities and begin to chart the authority’s next course.
“The audit report by Siegfried Crandall for the fiscal year 2015-16 on the village of Vicksburg’s books was a bit unsettling,” said Bill Adams, village president. “Most of their recommendations are now in the rear-view mirror as we have reviewed them and implemented better internal controls with new policies and procedures.”
“All of the monies are accounted for and secured in the proper fund accounts. We want to be transparent and have taken a series of steps to protect our community and the village council. It is rare for a governmental entity to implement fixes even before the audit comes out,” he said.
Steve Bryer, the Siegfried Crandall vice president who presented the audit to the village council in February, said it was a “clean audit” with the general fund in pretty good shape, considering the deficit the village had in 2013 when Adams became president.
However, the report cited ten recommendations that Bryer felt compelled to bring in front of the council for action. They include the following along with the actions taken in response:
• Recommend that the village consider an outside firm other than its auditor to prepare routine financial statements. This is being evaluated in light of the possible increase in costs. Such reports in many local governmental entities are prepared by staff members.
• Bank cash reconciliation was not done right. This was rectified in November of 2016 with the council approving the checks and balances policy between the village treasurer and clerk.
• The village was in non-compliance with its payroll taxes and reporting. New staff and accounting software are in place to assure compliance with federal and state filing requirements.
• Journal entries were not effectively monitored. A policy was passed in January to ensure proper procedures over preparation, review and approval of journal entries.
• Dual check signatures at Angels Crossing need to be in place. The council passed a policy in January that dual signatures would be required on all checks. The golf course has implemented a system for electronic payment to vendors.
• A conflict of interest policy is needed. Such a policy was adopted at the council’s December meeting.
• The DDA needs to be sure that all money spent is for public purposes. In January, a purchasing and procurement policy was passed to ensure a formal requirement is in place to ensure proper controls.
• A written policy for the sale of capital assets is needed. The council approved a policy for asset sales and dispositions at its January meeting.
• A policy is needed to justify free golf for course employees and contractors. A golf memberships and fees policy was implemented at the January meeting to ensure that procedures are in place to authorize, approve, and monitor Golf Fund revenues.
• No more expenditures for goods and services prior to village council approval should take place. In January, the council approved a procurement policy for goods and services expenditures in accordance with state guidelines. The village manager does have limited discretionary up to a certain amount to spend without prior approval.
“Many of the recommendations have been put in place and the rest will be by the council meeting of April 17,” according to Village Manager Jim Mallery.
A window for comments about a proposed backup electrical transmission line between Schoolcraft and Vicksburg closed a few days ago. Residents along the two proposed routes are waiting to learn which of two routes Indiana Michigan Power (IMP) will choose.
The plan calls for a second 69-kilovolt transmission line between the communities. The existing line mostly follows the CN railroad between a Vicksburg substation south of VW Avenue and the existing substation north of the tracks in Schoolcraft.
Although the new line will be built mostly along W Avenue from Portage Road west to a new substation north of the existing one in Schoolcraft, the utility is presenting two alternatives from east of Portage Road into Vicksburg.
One follows the tracks from the Vicksburg substation to the grade crossing at W Avenue. The other extends south from the substation across the Simpson mill property, then west on W to the tracks.
From there, both proposed routes follow the tracks south of W for a few hundred feet west of the grade crossing, then jog north back to W east of Portage Rd.
A spokeswoman for the utility’s parent company, AEP, was asked if the second line mostly along W Avenue is needed because the existing transmission line is considered vulnerable to railroad mishaps. “Not necessarily,” she said. While she acknowledged that there is one short segment where both lines would parallel the tracks, it’s preferable to have a second line on a different route. “It’s not that the railroad route is especially vulnerable.”
A public presentation by representatives of the company took place in Schoolcraft in January. Company representative Mark Robinson attended the Vicksburg Village Council in February to explain the two routes and seek feedback.
He got plenty from Mark Maki, a resident of the Greensborough neighborhood, and Jackie Koney of Paper City. Both testified that the sight of the 69-kilovolt line would directly impact their distinctly unique properties. Maki cited the need to preserve the village gateway on W Ave. when travelling east, as a good impression coming into the village. He spoke of the unsightliness of the poles and transmission wires overhead and the impact it could have on the land values and the sale of the remaining vacant lots in the subdivision, since they would be located at the entrance.
Koney stressed the impact the high wires would have on the wetlands, the nature setting of the mill and its environs, especially the blue heron rookery on the property which would be bisected by the W Avenue route.
Maki and Koney opposed the routing of the new power line along W Avenue. “We prefer the route along the railroad grade,” Koney said. The council instructed the village manager to work with this citizens group to determine what if any action the village should take.
The Schoolcraft Village Council approved a major water rate increase at its early February meeting to fund replacement of an aging water main.
The big focus is the replacement of a 100-year-old water main running from the well house along Cass Street to Center Street. With a recommendation by the water committee, trustees approved two 13 percent increases, the first taking effect over the next two years. The Council noted it will be 26 percent overall when accounting for inflation.
The issue of the aging water main has been something the council has wanted to address for at least the last decade. “If it breaks, we’re in big trouble,” President Keith Gunnett said, noting there would be no pressure for fire hydrants, and customers could be left without water.
He also said the Council is feeling some increased pressure from the state to make these kinds of required improvements to aging infrastructure. The approval also increases the payment grace period from 15 to 20 days and increases the late fee to $15.
The Council also interviewed candidates for two vacant council seats prior to the meeting. School board treasurer Kathy Mastenbrook and 33-year resident and active community member John Stodola were selected to fill the vacancies.
Stodola brings a long history of volunteering in many community and youth sports programs to the table. “I was taught to serve when I was brought up,” Stodola said. “This is the next step for me.”
Personally, he finds it increasingly important to make the village better for his children and grandchildren. Stodola is interested in working more on the village vision planning project for community development. He had already been invited as a citizen to be a part of the project.
“The more input we get from citizens, the better that’s going to turn out,” he said.
Mastenbrook becomes the second council member to serve a dual role with the Schoolcraft school board along with Michael Rochholz. While she knows it’s important to keep the school and village separate, she believes it will also help to build relationships and communication between the village and schools.
She said she wants to help Schoolcraft thrive.
“It’s a transition to continue community service at a broader level besides education,” Mastenbrook said.
As for something she’d like to work on as a council trustee, Mastenbrook noted the increasing number of aging residents in the village, people she deals with daily as a Life and Health Department Assistant at Ayres-Rice Insurance.
To help these residents, she would like to have discussions about the possibility of a senior housing complex in the future, perhaps working in collaboration with Vicksburg.
The other interviewed candidates, Joe Beck, Don Hunt and Kirk Bergland will be considered for a position with the Planning Commission. Gunnett praised all the candidates for their interest, noting other communities struggle to find interested parties for council trustee positions.
“This is really good seeing that we had five people to pick from,” Gunnett said.