“I hope that the townspeople appreciate and the businesses appreciate your generosity,” Christmas walk organizer Deb Christiansen told the Schoolcraft Village Council.
“But in organizing the event this year I was getting a little bit of pushback,” Christiansen added. She said she had asked each of the business owners to contribute $50 towards expenses for the walk. The annual event is highlighted by arts and crafts sales, bake goods, holiday music, food service and other items for sale at local businesses and churches. Christiansen has been involved with the walk for a few years since the walk’s founder, Norma Tackett, passed away.
Christiansen said much of the $642 she was asking for goes to advertising in the South County News. “I feel it is very important to have the advertisement there,” she said. Christiansen also plans to use the funds for other promotional materials and presented posters and brochures for the event to the council.
She also asked about the possibility of the village opening its building during the walk as a restroom stop and a place for walkers to warm up in case of bad weather. “The public restrooms are really kind of limited downtown,” she added.
When the Council discussed the matter, Trustee Todd Carlin asked if the funds could possibly come out of the Downtown Development Authority’s fund. Village Manager Cheri Lutz and Finance Director Tammi Youngs said funds are available there and could probably be used for the purpose.
Council members unanimously agreed to approve the financial assistance and rounded the number up to $650. Lutz also told Christiansen they could discuss possible use of the village’s building for the event. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Christiansen said.
The council at the meeting also approved $510 in financial assistance to Eagle’s Nest. The Nest operates the Schoolcraft Food Pantry and Friday Pack, which provides meals to students on weekends who might otherwise not eat. It also operates Adam’s Kids, which provides food, diapers and other necessities to struggling families.
The three organizations receive a lot of support and donations from local churches and youth groups, but were there to ask the council’s support to pay their utilities. They noted that the food pantry has improved greatly and there is no waiting list to receive donations this year. “We thank you very much for what you do for us because we can continue to serve those who come to us and ask for help,” Sue Kuiper of Friday Pack told the Council.
The Eagle’s Nest item was already in the budget; trustees unanimously approved the request for another year. The trustees thanked the agencies for their service to the community. “Your lights won’t go out this year,” Gunnett said.
Could the threat of annexation by a neighboring city or village cause Schoolcraft Township to become a charter township? Its Board of Trustees considered the possibility, then placed the issue before voters on a March 10, 2020 ballot. The vote to do so was unanimous.
“Becoming a charter township would protect us from annexation,” Supervisor Don Ulsh explained. “The Portage city manager told me they don’t have enough property to build affordable housing on anymore.” Other governmental units too have eyeballed expanding their village boundaries into the township over the years, he has indicated on other occasions.
“What are the downsides of going in this direction?” Treasurer Teresa Scott asked.
Township Attorney Mike Homier didn’t offer downsides. “We would be able to provide more fire and police protection than a general law township. It would make annexation a lot more difficult for others if we were a charter township.”
Trustee Ken Hovenkamp asked if switching to a charter township government would make a difference in efforts to create a district to fund sewer expansion in the township?
It would not, Homier said.
General law townships, according to an article on the Michigan Townships Association website, receive at least one mill of the tax of up to 15 to 18 mills allocated among a county, its townships, school districts and an intermediate school district. A charter township does not share in that allocation, but voters may authorize a tax of up to five mills, or up to 10 mills with another vote. Currently the township receives .8 mills.
In other business, trustees heard a presentation from Joanna Johnson, director of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission, citing the services provided to the township residents along with the use of township road money on secondary roads. The road commission is responsible for 1,268 miles of roads in the county. Johnson stressed the need for citizens to be the county’s eyes on the condition of roads they travel. There is a portal on the road commission web site where people can report anything that needs to be fixed on any road in the county. It is possible on the web site to track this report through to its final outcome.
A civil complaint that has been simmering between neighbors for two years was again brought in front of the board, asking for their help in resolving the dispute. The disputants were allowed time at the end of the meeting to describe their problem but no decision was made.
A condemnation order for the Plainsman Motel on US 131 to demolish it has an upcoming hearing in January, the attorney informed the board.
Bill Hunt complained to the Vicksburg Village Council about his water bill after he was charged past-due interest when he had failed to pay the previous quarterly bill.
Hunt, who resides on Kathryn Street in the Hughey sub-division, was one of 404 residents who had not received an invoice for that quarter. Village Manager Jim Mallery explained that billing is outsourced to a company which stamps and mails the bills for the village. Mallery said he has authorized village staff to waive the charges if the resident has always been on time with payment in the past. About 100 homes out of the 400 have a good payment record, he said.
Drinking water testing in the village will continue by outsourcing it to a Plainwell company, following resignation of a village employee who had carried out the task. Nobody else in the Department of Public Works (DPW) has the certification. Mallery stressed that the testing must continue to insure safe water in the village. The cost is $28,000 per year.
In other monthly business, the Planning Commission will absorb the Downtown Development Authority through new ordinances to update bylaws and rules of procedure, Mallery told the Council. Current members of the DDA can apply to take a seat on the commission which will be enlarged from seven members to nine. John DeBault, long-time chair of the DDA, wondered what his role would be under the new system. Denny Olson asked if the projects the DDA sponsors such as Christmas in the Village and the façade grants will go forward. Mallery assured him that these projects would go forward, possibly under a sub-committee of the Planning Commission, and that DeBault would be invited to apply for one of the additional seats.
“We don’t have any intention of getting rid of any of the great strides the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has made in the last few years,” Trustee Tim Frisbie said. The shift will begin in January.
The Council also approved a contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to receive grant funds for the trail that is to be extended north from the current trail to the Portage city line.
Mallery’s assistant, Alex Lee, reported on plans to rebuild the village’s web site and incorporate live streaming of council meetings. The target date is January. Lee assured members that the improvements will be fully operational by then.
The Schoolcraft Village Council approved budget cuts totaling $57,474 for the rest of the fiscal year ending in March.
Village President Keith Gunnett said “The cuts were because our village has gotten a letter from the state of Michigan for the last four years requesting a corrective action plan due to the spending down of our general fund balance.”
He said the cuts are vital for keeping everything running smoothly. “That still doesn’t get us to a zero balanced budget,” he said. “It still looks like we’re going to be taking money out of fund balance to balance it in the end.”
Effective with the vote, the village will reduce police coverage from 24 hours a day, seven days a week to 20 hours a day for seven days a week until March. This will save $8,900.
Schoolcraft will also postpone codification of ordinances until March. This move saves $20,000. It will reduce equipment rental rates by 80 percent retroactively back to March 1 of this year to save another $12,300. This prompted a request for further explanation from Trustee Todd Carlin.
The village will also hold off on filling two positions until at least March. Postponing filling a vacant Department of Public Works position will save $15,000. The other, a municipal complex cleaning position, will save about $1,300. Gunnett said the staff agreed to take on the tasks of the municipal complex in-house for the time being.
Gunnett said they didn’t like taking these cuts, but it was something that had to be done. “We’re now to the point we’re going to be cutting into positions or pay or cutting services to the public, which you don’t want to do,” Gunnett said. “We can’t keep living by digging into our fund balance every year to balance our budget.”
Trustee Kathy Mastenbrook pointed out this wasn’t the only thing the village was doing about the budget. “This is not the only cuts we’ve made,” she said. “Staff has taken no increases. The council has taken a reduction of pay. There have been other avenues we’ve pursued besides this that were not enough. That’s why this is being done in addition.”
Tammi Youngs, village finance director, noted during the meeting that they have looked at the possibility of using a Headlee override. The Headlee Amendment of 1978 requires voter approval for a local tax increase. Youngs said an override would raise the millage from 14.7 to 17 mills, an additional $2.30 per $1,000 taxable valuation, and bring in an additional $87,000 a year.
Michael Rochholz noted that’s an option to consider, saying it would bring taxes in the village back to where they are supposed to be. “We’re just under where we were tax revenue-wise before the recession,” Rochholz said. He said they need to watch the money and make sure they don’t overspend. Rochholz also believes they will probably need to plan more revenues and cuts for the near future.
The Headlee Amendment requires local tax rates to be reduced below authorized levels if the taxing unit’s total valuation increases faster than the rate of inflation. Voters may override the reduction.
Through it all, Gunnett stressed that even though they’re making cuts, the village is not in a dire situation. “The village is not in any jeopardy of our fund balance being so low that we can’t function,” Gunnett added. “We’re far and above what the state requires for a minimal fund balance.”
After several months of discussion, the Schoolcraft Village Council took another step toward deciding if it will build a sewage disposal system.
In a 6-1 vote, it approved a resolution asking the Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner to establish a drainage board to oversee the project. It was noted in an earlier discussion that the resolution does not commit the village to go ahead with the project. It could opt out at several steps along the way.
The lone no vote was cast by Trustee Todd Carlin.
Council members want to keep their options open while they seek more precise cost estimates for the project.
So the vote to go forward was a necessity. Schoolcraft, Brady and Pavilion Townships are also included in the formation of the drain board. Then it’s up to each government to determine which properties and businesses would be included in the cost analysis. Once that’s settled, Trustee John Stodola pointed out, the village will be able to apply for loans and grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), giving residents more precise information about costs. Schoolcraft Township has already passed the resolution.
The resolution provides for a public hearing for citizens to voice their opinions on the project and the special assessment district that it would create. This could take place at a village council meeting as early as November or December. Another council vote would be required to decide if it wishes to move ahead after the public hearing, still without knowing the final costs to each individual or business.
Consultants Wightman & Associates, under a contract with the South County Sewer and Water Authority, would then apply to USDA-Rural Development for a loan and any grants that might be available. That information might be forthcoming within 90 days of the application being filed, Wightman’s spokesperson indicates. Council members understand that an opt-out it still possible at this point of the process.
Resident Max Hutchinson told the council he had researched a proposed sewer project in Bloomingdale, Mich. The village took a similar route toward the sewer system, then opted out. The village was sued by Wightman to recover costs. Hutchinson said he had documents that showed the village and the consulting firm settled on a payment of $100,000.
That statement seemed to be the basis of Carlin’s no vote as he worried that Schoolcraft would be subject to a similar suit if it decided to stop the process at a future time. It was agreed to ask legal counsel for the details on this action by Wightman before the drain board is created.
Village President Keith Gunnett explained to a questioner from the audience that he couldn’t come up with a good answer to what kind of support would be needed from the state and federal government to move forward. “We just want to find out if we are eligible. We have looked at the numbers and know they are changing. We are trying to strike a balance on how big the project would be. If we [the village] are less wealthy, then maybe we can apply for more grants. The most vulnerable people have the most tools to utilize,” he said.
Trustee John Stodola cited the need to know the scale of the project. “When I sat out in the audience [as a private citizen] I was only thinking about my house and the cost. Now that I’m up here, I have to think about the whole village, the churches, the school, the people it affects.
“It all depends on how many people participate. There is a system for doing this. We need to take a vote to see if we want to proceed down this road. I move to go ahead.”
What is the South County Sewer and Water Authority, an audience member asked the Schoolcraft Village Council members at its first meeting in October.
“It is the name of the organization that runs and monitors the sewer built around Indian Lake in Brady Township and Pickerel Lake in Pavilion Township,” Village President Keith Gunnett explained. “It was formed to build that sewer system over there. They get to set the rates for the users of the system. It has grown a bit since it was built. In 1998 they invited the village of Schoolcraft to participate in their meetings. In 2015 the Vicksburg joined the Authority. We don’t pay dues but we do have a vote on the board now.”
The Authority through Wightman & Associates has offered Schoolcraft three options if it wants to develop its own sewer system, Gunnett explained to the audience:
Option 1: Go through Portage to the Kalamazoo treatment plant. There are stumbling blocks along the way, Gunnett cautioned. Contracts would need to be negotiated with Portage and Kalamazoo. The sewer authority, which is only partially involved, has been in a lawsuit with the City of Kalamazoo for many years over the city’s rate structure. It still hasn’t been resolved.
Option 2: Go down US-131 with pipes laid down the highway and eventually connect to Kalamazoo’s waste treatment plant. This is probably the most expensive option because new pipe would need to be laid to run and tie into a main interceptor that goes into the plant.
Option 3: Own the treatment plant somewhere south of Schoolcraft that allows for setting our own destiny with costs and rates. It would be new and that is an advantage. The Kalamazoo waste water system is approaching 100 years old so will likely require more maintenance and upgrades in the future.
The subject of water bills came up again during the Vicksburg village council meeting in October. Three people used citizen’s time to trustees bring their concerns about higher-than-normal water bills.
Village officials, responding, noted that besides a rate increase needed to finance improvements, new water meters are more accurate than the older meters they replaced. The older meters often read less water than flowed through them as they aged.
Ken Jancarz, a Kathryn Street resident, spoke about a recent bill that took him by surprise. “It is the largest water and sewer bill I have ever received, and I’ve lived in the village for 33 years,” Jancarz said. He said he used 9,000 gallons more two years ago, but was billed over $100 less than he was in this most recent bill.
Barbara Wylie, another Kathryn Street resident, agreed with Jancarz. She said the sewer rate had gone up $4.65 per unit in fifteen months and water had gone up 19 cents. “Which is to me, ridiculous. And we have not been told the reason for it going up,” Wylie said.
“I have had problems with my bill from day one,” Wylie said. She said one of her bills was $3,500. Wylie also said she compared with another person in the village and found she had the same water usage, but her bill was $50 more.
Village records confirmed the $3,500 bill late in 2015.
Wylie also brought up an issue previously discussed by the council, which is a problem of the wrong size pipes being recorded. Wylie’s pipe is a three-quarter inch, but she said records show hers as one inch. “It just seems like no matter what you go in there and say, there’s always an excuse,” Wylie said. “And I think everyone is sick of it.”
Cheryl Hambright, also a Kathryn resident, said the bills don’t make sense and requested the council do a presentation at a meeting to explain exactly how the village is determining the water rates. “I’d like to hand them my water bill and ask them how they came up with this,” Hambright said.
Village Manager Jim Mallery then spoke at length on the issue. “We’re willing to meet with any citizen at any time and go specifically over an invoice,” Mallery said.
The rate increase for sewer and water has been explained at several other village council meetings, Mallery indicated. The rate increases are due to the system being old and needing to be repaired. To do this the village needed to authorize a $12 million loan from the USDA over a 40-year period. “We went through public noticing of that debt. We looked at the best option for this village, through the federal government, a USDA loan program which is under three percent interest rate this quarter. We hope it stays the same when we go to bid next quarter,” Mallery said. “But we presented and recommended to the council that a rate hike take place over a two-year period. In 2018 I authored a letter with every utility bill that explained this. I do regret and I will assume responsibility, that I should have done the same thing again this year.”
“Specific to the rate increase, there were two public notices in 2018 as it related to the assumption of debt for the infrastructure. It went through the legal and proper channels with presentations done by utility rate experts of the state for the critical needs with the infrastructure updates. Coupled with when you don’t raise rates, you’re not doing the proper maintenance and you have experts who give you a report that the Washington Street Lift Station is going to fail in 2022. Everyone who spoke would be shut off from being able to operate their sewer system if Washington Street fails, and that’s a million dollar fix. We need to account on state statue for enterprise funds, our water and sewer,” Mallery said.” You have to bring in enough revenue to pay for expenses to operate the system.”
The issue of incorrect water bills is not a new one. The council had previously discussed the issue back in February. “Historically our records go back to 2005. But to make heads and tails of what occurred from 2005 to 2012, it would drive anyone stir-crazy,” Mallery said.
In a previous meeting, Mallery noted that many problems from water bills resulted years ago from bills being changed to appease people who weren’t happy with the charges. But in most cases, the real problem resulting in the charges was never corrected.
“The reality of a community our size is we have about 1,300 consumers of the product,” Mallery continued. “Comparatively, Portage has almost 16,000.”
He noted also there are also debt obligations the village needs to meet and use fees that have not always been properly calculated. Mallery also noted that in 2017, they identified that most meters in the village were outdated and in need of replacement. He said this previously favored the consumer because the meters had a slower rate. “We’ve changed more meters in the last 28 months than this village has changed in the last 28 years,” Mallery said.
Along those same lines, Mallery said they also spent a great deal of time at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 looking at all the utility bills and correcting errors. He also noted that in March, the village began using new technologically advanced reading guns which are meant to bring the best accuracy possible. He said they’ve found most one-time expensive water bills are explained by the older meter equipment running slow.
“That reader on the outside has not kept up with the actual amount of water coming through,” Mallery said. He noted that in hindsight, much of this is the village catching up on long overdue bills.
“They should have been raising the utility rates in this village since 2000 by three percent a year and they failed to do it,” Mallery said. He noted there were some failures to charge proper hookup fees too. “I fully understand the impact this has on some individuals,” Mallery said. “It’s not enjoyable at all, but it’s needed.”
The council trustees all acknowledged they’ve dealt with the issue of high water bills themselves. Trustee Carl Keller said his bill has doubled even though he and his wife are now empty nesters.
“I feel your pain too,” Trustee Gail Reisterer said. “Unfortunately, it’s something that had to be done. We inherited some problems that had to be corrected. It’s painful for everybody.
Trustee Tim Frisbie agreed with these sentiments. “There isn’t one person here who hasn’t been to the village office in the last 20 years and had these conversations,” Frisbie said. “We’ve all gone through that. But we sit before you with the assurance that what is being done is being done above board and by the books for all our benefits.”
Mallery said they will look at doing a presentation for more disclosure in the future with more specifics on the high bills and handouts to explain what’s going on in depth.