Category Archives: Government

Village and State Officials Address US-131 Needs

Photo Jul 13, 4 18 25 AM
State Senator Margaret O’Brien on the left, walks along with Schoolcraft Village President Keith Gunnett on Grand Street. On the right is Mike Rochholz, a member of the village council, and State Representative Brandt Iden. Photo by Brian Freiberger.

By Brian Freiberger

With over 20,000 vehicles traveling through Schoolcraft on US 131 each day, why isn’t this village a customer destination?

The answer: speed, safety and perhaps a lack of interest.

That was the conclusion of several village and state officials walking along busy Grand street to discuss the Vision Improvement Plan, proposed to provide the village with a business-friendly and slower-paced environment.

Portage-based Wightman and Associates proposed a 12-foot wide landscaped median from Cass Street to Eliza to help slo traffic, according to Wightman engineer Jordan Parker. Grand Street, five lanes and 76 feet wide from curb to curb, is owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

In 2005, a similar landscape median in the downtown area was removed by MDOT. Removal was to provide space for new 14-foot wide sidewalks through the downtown, said Village Manager Cheri Lutz.

A public workshop in late August or early September will be scheduled to reveal the Vision Improvement Plan.

Parker also said the plan includes the development of Cass Street into a commercial district.

The biggest safety concern is being able to cross the street safely from one side to another, according to Village President Keith Gunnett. “You don’t understand it until you walk it,” said Gunnett. Traffic signals at two marked crosswalks on opposite end of the half-mile downtown allow 20 seconds for residents to cross the street.

The separation between the narrow sidewalk and the road is just two feet. “You can feel the cars when they go by,” said State Rep. Brandt Iden during the walk. “I’ve walked down these streets and talked to a lot of people that have property here. For the business community to grow we must find a way to slow the traffic down and help people cross the streets.”

“Traffic scares off people who want to use the village. Right now, 131 is a divide right down the middle of Schoolcraft, and we need to do something to make this community safer for all,” said State Sen. Margaret O’Brien.

First Public Meeting of Schoolcraft Elected Officials

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Schoolcraft Township elected officials were well represented at the July gathering of locally elected officials. From left to right: Supervisor Don Ulsh; Treasurer Teresa Scott; Trustee John Stodola of the Schoolcraft Village Council; Trustee Greg Feldmeier of the Schoolcraft Township board.

By Sue Moore

The 22 local elected officials and administrators, meeting for the first time as a group, agreed that Schoolcraft’s future growth is predicated upon obtaining sewer connections, at least down U.S. 131 for businesses. What they also agreed in unison, is they like the small-town atmosphere and didn’t want that feeling to change if it meant too much growth.

Representatives from the school, the village, Schoolcraft and Prairie Ronde townships were asked to meet together by Superintendent Rusty Stitt, to consider the future for each entity and how they could work together to solve problems for the community.

“The most important take away from the meeting was that building trails and a sewer system would be the key to attracting new residents,” said Kathy Mastenbrook, representing the village and the school board.

Each representative of their unit of government, reviewed what they were doing to plan for growth and yet, keep it in check. Don Ulsh and Barry Visel, Schoolcraft Township supervisor and planning commission member respectively, noted that the township was the second fastest growing entity in Kalamazoo County after Texas township. The planning commission’s land use plan seeks to control where the growth will occur by limiting businesses to the U.S. 131 corridor and making sure that the rural agricultural low density on the land will stay in tact. It does envision higher housing density on the borders of the village. “We don’t see a lot of big developments on the horizon, Visel said.

The village of Schoolcraft is land-locked with only small parcels to build upon, Cheri Lutz, village manager, noted. The recent visioning plan that will reflect the village’s core values will be finalized in July has lofty goals and some that are very doable as it looks 20 years out, she said.

“Downtown property values are receding because there are no sewers for the businesses,” Greg Feldmeier, said. As a township trustee, he sat through several hearings on whether sewers should be built around the lakes and in the village. Village Trustee John Stodola cautioned, “we are talking about a lot of investment here. The council is trying to protect the poorest segment of the population.”

School board Trustee, Jennifer Gottschalk challenged the township and village officials to just go ahead and approve the sewer construction. She was quickly answered by Trustee Mike Rochholz. “We can’t dictate but we do need to educate and have an understanding of how this would help.”

Jason Walther, school board trustee, offered that lots of people are turned off by the word growth. “In my mind it’s about sustainability. Our school enrollment is tied to having sewers. I didn’t realize that until this discussion.”

As an example, Teresa Scott, Schoolcraft township treasurer said she and her husband had to build a house in Vicksburg because there was no land available in the village suitable for them to build upon.

Trails are the number one issue for people moving into the community, Ulsh said. We are talking with Three Rivers and Portage about a trail going north and south to connect these two entities.

Other ideas for better communications between the four groups represented at the meeting, included a central hub for finding volunteers to act as a clearing house. Stitt volunteered to look into this possibility as a school sponsored initiative and to initiate quarterly meetings with the four units of government. Stoboda, commented on the “great base of talent here, especially the library volunteers who have rallied around a cause. They are the most active volunteer group in the community.”

Vicksburg Village Council Seeks New Police Chief

By Sue Moore

A new police chief is in the works for the village of Vicksburg, according to Village Manager Jim Mallery. He received 49 applications, narrowed them down to five to interview, then to two for final interviews with a recommendation to come to the council at its next meeting.

“The caliber of the candidates was very impressive,” said Trustee Tim Frisbie. He and several other citizens were invited to participate in the interviews. Eric West, the long-time police chief, was not offered a contract once his duties were up on June 30.

At a special meeting in July, council members approved a five-year contract for Mallery. It contains a 2.2-percent pay raise, a small increase in an allowance for truck and phone expenses and a severance package should the need arise. Mallery initiated a change to his pension plan by asking the council to contribute to a defined contribution pension plan instead of the defined benefit plan that the village had contributed to for prior village managers, thus saving the village several thousand dollars per year.

Work on the new water main that is to run the length of Boulevard Street on the west side of the village was slowed when a gas line was hit slightly by the construction crew. It was immediately fixed by Consumers Power and will not hold up the end-of-July completion date, Mallery said. The village will be conducting flow tests once the valve is turned on before water is piped to residents in the west-side housing developments.

Vicksburg Village Council Clarifies Budget

By Sue Moore

A slight reduction in the operating tax for Vicksburg Village was approved by the Council at its June meeting following a budget process started by Village Manager Jim Mallery.
The rate will decline by 18 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation, from $15.93 to $15.75, to more closely align with what other municipalities are doing by lowering their millage rates.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Mallery said. “We have plans on track to be debt free by 2033 while lowering the millage rate to voters in the interim.” He stated that this was an activity- based budget as opposed to the line item budget council members had worked with for many years.

The newest trustees, Gail Reisterer and Tim Frisbie, thanked Mallery for the clarity of the budget descriptions and the time he’s devoted to placing the village on sound financial footing.

The total general fund revenue from the tax is estimated at $1.23 million. Spending is estimated at $1.17 million. Mallery indicated the reduction in millage is possible because the estimated taxable value of property in the village will increase to $83.4 million from $78.4 million in 2016. The village’s total debt is about $3.67 million, with a little more than $252,000 anticipated to be paid toward principal in fiscal 2017-2018. The separate street expenditures, water and sewer funds are not included in the general fund and receive dollars from the village, user fees and the state.

Mallery noted that the police department appropriation is 50 percent of the general fund but was two-thirds of the budget just four years ago. The Vicksburg Foundation has pledged $32,150 for the purchase of two police vehicles. The village will pay the remainder. The department budget includes a chief, a sergeant and four full-time officers, one of them the school resource officer.

In other business, Mallery announced the appointment of Michelle Morgan to become the village treasurer on a part-time basis. “She is knowledgeable and capable with a degree in accounting and many years of experience. She will also work on Angels Crossing financials.”

The largest street and water main repair will take place on Boulevard beginning July 10. The target date for completion is August, before Sunset Elementary begins classes in early September. The village will re-install no-parking signs in front of the school and begin enforcing them.

Several village residents of South Street voiced concern about potholes at the west end of the street. It isn’t on the current schedule for improvement, Mallery said. He and DPW chief Randy Schippers will investigate to see what might be possible in the way of temporary fixes.

Maturen Lauds Local Winner of Essay Contest

State Rep. David Maturen is joined by Natalie Lahrke and her great grandmother, Alice Pew.

Natalie Lahrke, a fifth-grade student at Indian Lake elementary, was the winner in this year’s Celebrate Elderhood Essay Contest sponsored by the Area Agency on Aging Region IIIA.

Rep. Maturen presented the framed award. “It’s always a pleasure to honor and encourage our hard-working students,” he said. “Natalie’s writing is exceptional and her love of family is admirable. I hope she continues to excel in her school work.”

Maturen sustained injuries in a recent car accident which have prevented him from attending legislative sessions since June 9. “I take my responsibilities as a legislator seriously and I have never missed a vote, so I am eager to get better so I can return to my duties serving the citizens of the 63rd House District. Until then, my office is open and I am in regular communication with my staff. Constituents will see no interruption in service.”

The single-car accident occurred in Climax Township on at about 5:30 p.m., Friday, June 9. The legislator sustained multiple broken bones that have kept him in the hospital. He was released recently to recover at home. He has a broken leg and cracked ribs. He will be undergoing rehab while using a walker, but is in a wheelchair. “I am so grateful that no one else was injured,” Maturen said.

Maturen is serving his second term as a representative. Constituents may contact the office at 517-373-1787 or via email at Cards may be sent to his home at 11911 LeeMar Dr., Vicksburg.

South County EMS to Join with Pride Care EMS

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Robert Lohrberg, operations manager and Becki Russon, director of operations for Pride Care where at the Fire Authority board meeting in June.

By Sue Moore

The non-profit South County Emergency Medical Service (SCEMS) will sell itself to Pride Care EMS, one of three for-profit companies licensed to operate in Kalamazoo County. The decision, reached in a meeting with the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority, guarantees that an ambulance and crew will continue to be housed in Vicksburg, retaining the current rapid response times to area communities.

“I’m excited that we finally have a decision for an emergency medical services provider in South County,” said Wes Schmitt, president of the board that owns and operates South County EMS. [Editor’s note: Schmitt also holds a position on the South County News board of directors.] “No matter which of the three possible providers may have been chosen, we will be OK,” Schmitt told the Fire Authority board. They eventually chose Pride Care from among the three companies contending to offer EMS services to South County.

Voting on the board at a meeting in mid-June began as a stalemate. Board members voted 3-3 on which outside provider would be acceptable. And there was debate about which should happen first: the sale of the South County EMS or renegotiation of the operating agreement with the firm which would buy the non-profit’s assets and liabilities. All three bidders had similar proposals. Schmitt said his board was willing to work out details of a sale with any of the three.

The Fire Authority for many years has contracted with the South County EMS board as the primary responder to emergency service calls. SCEMS in turn has sub-contracted for paramedic services, providing more advanced care, with Pride Care, one of the three bidders approved by Dr. William Fales, Kalamazoo County Medical Control Authority’s medical director. SCEMS employees provide entry-level medical care.

Life EMS and Pride Care EMS each had three votes on the first and second ballots. Several in the audience seemed to prefer Pride Care because it is currently working with SCEMS from its facility on N. Boulevard in Vicksburg. Randy Smith, Brady Township supervisor pushed for a decision that night due to the urgency of finding a replacement for South County EMS, in a precarious financial position.

Smith explained that the EMS board had not been able to make payroll the week before the meeting. That board had come to the Fire Authority in May to say that it would be impossible to move forward as a viable entity. Supporting Smith’s motion to go with Life in the 3-3 vote were Mike Tomlinson, Prairie Ronde township trustee, and Ken Hovenkamp, Schoolcraft township trustee. Opposed were Colin Bailey, Vicksburg village council trustee, Todd Carlin, Schoolcraft village council trustee and Jason Gatlin, Wakeshma township supervisor.

Once discussion took place, members of the audience showed a clear preference for Pride Care. Hovenkamp said he would change his vote in support of Pride Care. Life Care, the third provider who had presented a proposal, did not seem to be in the running during the voting. Following Hovenkamp’s change, the final vote was 4 -3 to go with Pride Care. Life Company had been the recommendation of the SCEMS board.

Once the decision was made, the Fire Authority board voted to leave the legal arrangement up to Schmitt and his board to sell the business to Pride Care. Once the Fire Authority is notified of the sale, a revised operating agreement with Pride Care will be a formality.

Schmitt told the authority board members none of the providers was willing to buy the SCEMS business unless the fire authority can say categorically it will approve whatever sale is approved by SCEMS.

Schmitt and his board will now meet with Pride Care to arrange the sale. Pride Care is offering to buy the mortgaged facility at 13396 Boulevard, purchase two vehicles bought new about two years ago and hire current employees. Pride Care also agreed to keep the name “South County Emergency Medical Services” on the vehicles. Pride Care will work with the Fire Authority to approve the revised operating agreement that includes maintaining the current response times to 911 calls and keep a physical presence at the current facility. It will also provide reports required by the Fire Authority.

Pride Care expressed a willingness to keep the deal in place well past the March 31, 2020 expiration of the Fire Authority’s current contract with SCEMS.

Ambulance Service Will Go Forward Uninterrupted

By Sue Moore

The South County Emergency Medical Service (SCEMS) can continue to operate during the changeover to Pride Care. That was heartening news to the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority (SKCFA) board at its regular meeting. Bill Mears, CEO of Pride Care, the acquiring ambulance service, wanted to reassure the community and the board that ambulance service would continue to operate as usual during the transition.

“The purchase may take several more weeks while the attorneys figure out whether it should be an asset purchase and how the transfer of receivables and payables to Pride Care will happen. Because the agency was a nonprofit, we have several transition questions to answer right away,” Mears said.

“Wes Schmitt, the president of SCEMS board and I are on the same page. He is a delight to work with. We will keep the status quo or even improve the service if that is possible. We will be able to get better pricing on consumables right away and will make sure that the staff is paid,” Mears said.

Pride Care is owned by a wealthy patron in California and venture capital investor, Mears told this newspaper. Mears explained that Smith sold his software business to Dell for $2.1 billion some years ago. “The ambulance service is his charity, as he truly believes in community service. All he asks me to do is come out even.” Mears has been with Pride Care since January 2015, having been in the business for 27 years.

The Fire Authority passed a resolution assigning its operating agreement to Pride Care as an indication of its intent to accept the company as the buyer of South County EMS.