Schoolcraft increases ordinance enforcement

By Rob Peterson

Schoolcraft village police will begin enforcing right of way regulations and some parts of the zoning ordinance on residential streets, taking over the role from village hall staff.

The changes mean that infractions will be enforceable immediately.

The right-of-way on residential streets extends 33 feet on either side of the centerline of the road and can include sidewalks and buried utilities requiring access. At times, accessing the utilities is an emergency situation.

Some property owners park their cars in the right-of-way, which can be a safety hazard, according to Village Manager Cheri Lutz. Some owners pave the land along the street, which can cause drainage issues for neighboring property, she said. And if a utility crew needs to dig where a car is parked, towing the vehicle is sometimes required if the owner isn’t available to move it.

Under prior council direction, staff was not as aggressive in enforcing these infractions, according to Lutz. “Schoolcraft is an attractive community, and having cars parked in front yards is negatively impacting the appearance.”

The current village council has asked staff to make the changes and increase enforcement. “We need to back the staff who are tasked with enforcing these ordinances,” said Council Member Michael Rochholz. “If we’re not going to enforce what we have, we should throw it all out.”

“Everyone is trying to be diplomatic,” said council President Keith Gunnett, “but it’s something we need to do.”

The Village will communicate the increased enforcement efforts through a newsletter and social media posts. Staff members will also work to be user-friendly and give residents time to make corrections.

Because the village includes many historic homes, some properties don’t have enough land for a driveway. For some, the location of a septic system makes a driveway impractical. Lutz indicated that the village will work with residents in situations like these to find alternatives or provide a waiver, if that’s appropriate.

“This will be fair and respectful,” said Lutz. “At the end of the day, it will make a positive difference.”

Residents can expect to see changes in the way these laws are enforced within the next few months. Those wishing to give their opinion on the matter may attend council meetings or write a letter to the Village.

Vicksburg village launches ‘social district’

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg’s Social District was expected to open May 1, kicking off a designation that was months in the making.

During the April 19 village council meeting, Alex Lee, the village’s director of community engagement, said the district’s downtown boundaries are showcased on the village’s website. He said the social district is an area downtown where patrons can leave with a drink in hand from one business and walk to another. Contents of the specially designated cup must be consumed before entering the next business.

While the social district will never amount to Fremont Street in Las Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, village officials said it does loosen some rules that they hope foster patronage at the five participating establishments.

Lee said the village’s website and a QR code at various points downtown show boundaries of the district and its five participating businesses: Main Street Tavern, Village Hide-A-Way, Jaspare’s Pizza, Distant Whistle and Vicker’s Lakeside Tavern.

“A visitor can scan a QR code from any of our district boundary signs and be linked to a page that includes a map, social district rules and direct links to the businesses,” he said. “If you click on any of the logos of the businesses, you’ll go directly to their websites.”

Each of the five businesses has cups that feature the social district logo. The cups are 16 ounces for beer and 9-ounce cups for wine. Lee explained a sticker will be applied to the cup when a patron leaves and wishes to finish the drink en route to another business.

Hours of the social district are 4 to 11 p.m. Village manager Jim Mallery said the last social district alcoholic beverage can be sold at 10 p.m. He also said research is being conducted that would likely lead to the ban of smoking within the district.

Council member Rick Holmes said he recently had occasion to check out the social district in Saugatuck. All indications appear that businesses and visitors are in favor of the concept there, he said.

“The one thing that’s really surprising is families. You tend to think of this as a frat party … the images go through your mind that people are out getting tanked,” he said. “It’s not. It’s really interesting to have watched it both in the middle of the day and into the evening hours. It’s not a party atmosphere, it’s very calm and you just see people congregating.”

Holmes referenced a conversation earlier in the meeting about Vicksburg being ahead of other communities and being forward thinking. Establishment of the social district, he said, aligns perfectly with those goals.

In other business, council member Denny Olsen said a controlled fire at the former Plainsman Motel on U.S. 131 north of Schoolcraft has been delayed due to the discovery of additional amounts of asbestos.

Several area departments were planning to spend May 1 and 2 conducting intentionally-set fires for the benefit of arson investigations and other training. A rescheduled date for the activity hasn’t been set.

Schoolcraft village council sets goals for 2021

By Rob Peterson

The Schoolcraft Village Council set 2021 goals at a March meeting, following a discussion at a special meeting in February where two overriding themes were creation of a sanitary sewer committee and strategizing for economic development and revitalization.

The council also indicated its intention to continue working on goals it had set in 2020, which include encouraging economic development and reviewing all possible revenue generating options. Revenue generation may include asking voters for a Headlee override.

The 1978 Headlee Amendment to the Michigan constitution requires a local government to reduce its millage rate to prevent total valuation of all property in the community from rising faster than the rate of inflation. A Headlee override asks voters to increase a millage to previous limits authorized by charter, state law or previously voter-approved limits.

The amendment did not limit how quickly tax revenues must be reduced when property values decrease, as they did during the recession. As property values rebounded, another constitutional amendment restricted Schoolcraft from increasing taxable value to keep up with market prices.

Schoolcraft may look at three choices: find a way to grow tax revenue through new development; grow tax revenue through a Headlee override; or cut services.

In recent years, the Village has been able to stave off all three options because of an unusually large fund balance, which today is nearly 100% of a typical year’s revenues. To balance its budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the council approved dipping into this balance by $106,000.

Related to this discussion, Finance Director Tammi Youngs noted that the Village does not have a fund balance policy. She presented a draft policy to the council that was based on her research of federal standards as well as policies in similar municipalities in Michigan.

A fund balance policy is not an exact science and must be based on a number of factors. “Because we are a smaller community, we are more susceptible to swings in revenue and expense,” Youngs said.

Based on her recommendation, the council approved a policy that will set its fund balance to 40% of expected annual revenues. With that policy, the council has roughly four years of excess cash before it will need to make major adjustments to revenue or expenses.

Council members discussed whether they could increase revenues by investing their fund balance rather than keeping it in cash. Youngs replied that there are restrictions on how a municipality can invest, adding that “The goal is to keep everything safe; to keep the money we have and not lose it.”

The current year budget, as well as budgets going back to 2016, are available on the Village’s website.

In other action, the council increased water rates by 3% for the third year. Council member Mike Rochholz asked if the Village has set aside enough for capital improvements in the water system. Village Manager Cheri Lutz responded that staff will review the needs for capital improvements and include them in any rate increase recommendations next year.

Village staff and the council had decided to step up enforcement of ordinances which create safety issues, and the pushback from residents has caused the council to create an ad-hoc committee to review regulatory ordinances.

The Fourth of July celebration has been officially postponed until 2022. After discussions with those who plan the event, it was determined that there is too much work and expense that must take place now with no guarantee that the event will happen.

The council also postponed the usual July 4 community-wide garage sales.

Vicksburg sidewalk removal required tree removal

By Jef Rietsma

Trees along downtown Vicksburg sidewalks were cut down because the sidewalks must be removed as part of the coming water and sewer infrastructure project, Vicksburg Village Manager Jim Mallery said at a March village council meeting.

New trees will be planted.

The manager responded to social media posts questioning removal of the downtown-area trees. He said the village gave public notice as far back as January that the trees would be coming down at the onset of the infrastructure work.

“Once this project gets downtown, all of the sidewalks eventually are going to be dug up and those trees appropriately had to come down before April 1,” he said. “On a positive note, there are going to be trees downtown, in a downtown that is going to be as progressive as any small village downtown is currently.”

“Every tree that came down was connected to the infrastructure project,” he said. “There are going to be additional trees that come down as sidewalks along the area of Spruce Street are getting replaced. Staff makes contact with the actual home’s residents and homeowners well in advance.”

He said Spruce Street sidewalks are more than 50 years old and are buckled in many sections.

On another subject, Vicksburg will once again fund a goose round-up in an effort to control the Canada geese population in the village.

Mallery said the round-up will take place in the vicinity of Sunset Lake. During the village council’s March 1 meeting, Mallery said he feels past round-ups have had a positive impact.

“In the summer of 2017, we unfortunately had to shut down Sunset Lake beach for a time period due to the testing results of the water,” he said. “We’ve looked at an all-encompassing plan – DPW continues to implement that plan by quite frequent clean-ups of the beach – but one of the key things we thought we were successful in was the annual goose round-up, which has moved to the addition of capturing eggs.”

Mallery said the company charged with the task repopulates the geese elsewhere in the state. He said the process is regulated by the state and that this is the second consecutive year the procedure includes gathering eggs.

“It is a live capture; the animals are just placed in new homes in another location in the state of Michigan,” Mallery said.

A resolution in support of the process is required and was approved unanimously.

In other business, Mallery outlined the process leading up to approval of the village’s 2021-22 fiscal-year budget beginning July 1. He said the procedure involves internal meetings with department heads for their input on needs, wants and wishes for the 12-month period.

Mallery said input will be sought from business owners and Vicksburg residents before the council approves the budget, probably on June 28.

Council member Denny Olsen said the former Plainsman Motel in Schoolcraft Township will be intentionally set on fire to provide training for the South County Fire Authority and other area fire departments.

Olsen said the burn will take place over the May 1-2 weekend. Coordination will involve Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department, the Michigan Department of Transportation, Schoolcraft Police and other agencies.

“(U.S.) 131 speed limit is probably going to have to be cut down to 30 to 35 miles an hour simply for the fact we’re going to have gawkers,” Olsen said. “In fact, we may have to detour off of 131 … that’s all a possibility.”

He said the procedure is scheduled on a weekend to allow fire personnel to manage the blaze a room at a time and allow for a follow-up investigation.

Vicksburg water, sewer work ready to start

By Jef Rietsma

A once-in-a-generation sewer and water project in Vicksburg will begin in March. Most of the $11 million undertaking will center on replacing a main sewer line from an area at the northeast end of town to a lift station on Washington Street. The project also involves work from Washington Street to an area at the south end of Vicksburg.

Village Manager Jim Mallery said the impetus for the project was a 2015 grant program which provided funding for analyses of stormwater, asset management and wastewater improvements in Michigan communities.

A team of village officials took nearly three years to study Vicksburg’s sewer infrastructure, Mallery said. The original conclusion found more than $30 million worth of critical needs. Mallery said an additional 10 months of meetings with engineers followed.

“What we arrived at was this $11 million package,” he said. Of that, $9 million of the cost will focus on sewer-related infrastructure replacement and upgrades in other areas. The balance will be split between storm-water management and drinking water infrastructure.

“In the downtown district, there are two old water mains – I think one’s a six-inch and one’s a four-inch – and we’re taking the four-inch completely out of service and putting in an eight-inch,” he added. “We will have the opportunity to have second-floor residential with sprinklers because it will have the appropriate water pressure then.”

Vicksburg’s downtown infrastructure, which dates to the 1940s, is 16 to 20 feet under the center of Prairie Street, which means downtown will be closed to vehicles during the construction period.

Though there are some telltale signs of pre-construction engineering and some downtown tree-removal already has taken place, Mallery said residents will start seeing heavy equipment the first week of March. He expects the project will last up to 13 months.

Mallery said an inordinate amount of time went into planning this project and, consequently, nobody could fairly say they were blindsided by the start of the work.

The new project will allow flows from high growth areas on the west side of town to go directly from the Washington Street lift station through the interceptor to the Spruce Street lift station instead of putting additional stress on an older system running through neighborhoods on the south and east sides of Vicksburg.

The general contractor for the job is Allegan County-based Milbocker & Sons Inc.

Mallery urged residents to be patient and plan to follow detours to get from one side of town to the other. He said updates will be provided through the village’s social media sources.

“It’s the most substantial project the village has probably ever undertaken,” Mallery said. He noted that the project will be funded through a 40-year, low-interest loan.

Vicksburg plans to construct new road salt building

The old salt barn will be replaced.

By Jef Rietsma

Final details regarding a long-overdue public works building are being worked out by Vicksburg officials.
Village council members heard an update Feb. 1 from Village Manager Jim Mallery about a new road salt building to replace one built in the 1950s on North Main Street, just north of the railroad tracks.

Mallery said funding for the project started about three years ago, when the village began tucking away funds with the intent of eventually replacing the structure. He said an initial $100,000 was set aside in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Another $100,000 was added a year later. The fund now has close to $350,000.

“Our goal is to never take on debt on these types of projects,” he said, noting the low bid was a not-to-exceed amount of $355,000. The high bid came in at just over $426,000.

Alex Lee, director of community engagement, said the salt building has served the village well. However, Lee added, its doors are inoperable, and the approach to the building is worn down and as a result collects water. Also, there are a number of structural issues. Because of the problems, equipment is kept in an adjacent 60-by-100-foot building also showing its age, Lee said.

The cramped conditions often require workers to shuffle equipment and temporarily set it outdoors to access equipment needed for a specific task, Lee said.

“The small area that serves as the heated maintenance area for our crew doubles as the storage area for our vital plow and salt trucks,” he said. “Even using every square inch available leaves some very expensive and critical equipment exposed to the elements.”

Benefits of the new 6,000-square-foot building include improved energy efficiency, additional inside storage, and more resources to keep the DPW staff and equipment operating as effectively as possible.

DPW director Randy Schippers pointed out rain leaks into the existing salt storage building, causing salt to clump.

“We’ve got probably $50,000 to $75,000 worth of equipment and vehicles sitting outside,” Schippers said, adding an additional building would put the department “in excellent shape” and everything that should be inside would be under roof. “The existing barn, the back of it, is just costing us a fortune to heat.”

Council members ultimately approved a bid from Larry Mallory Pole Buildings not to exceed $355,000.

Mallery, noting he is not related to Larry Mallory, said the existing salt barn should be razed by the end of March. Work on its replacement is slated to begin by the end of April, Mallery said.

Vicksburg manager proud of village’s finances

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg’s solid financial status and commitment to its taxpayers were brought up frequently during a presentation to the Village Council by Manager Jim Mallery Jan. 18.

During the 21-minute talk, Mallery described a range of people and projects that have put Vicksburg in a comfortable place to be envied by other municipalities.

“A consistent goal of the Village Council throughout my tenure being village manager has been to be a steward of fiscal obligations and to guard our village millage rate with utmost importance,” he said, adding that in July 2019, Vicksburg for the first time in its history lowered its millage rate. The reduction was nearly one-half of a mill.

Over the past four-plus years, Mallery said, the Council has adhered to a list of clear goals and objectives, centering on sound financial management and complete transparency.

“As a municipal manager, I understand it’s not my job, nor your expectation, that I am liked. Instead, I’m charged with the responsibility to make decisions that put our village first, and that I provide this council with information and data so that the majority can set the policy that we, as staff, are charged with executing,” he said.

Mallery said he has come to the conclusion that the Village Council, sub-units of government and the public are beginning to recognize what can be accomplished when a community the size of Vicksburg operates under a best-practice model of government.

He said he is proud that the village in the current and past four fiscal-year budgets has not presented any additional general-fund debt obligations.

Mallery touted the village’s transparency, its website and how the website features a financial-transparency section. Every dollar the village has committed to ongoing projects and their individual status is shown.

Looking ahead to major infrastructure needs, Mallery zeroed in on the village’s aging sewer system, a major undertaking which council members need to put on their radar. Some parts of the system date to the early 1940s.

“It is imperative that we have the municipality in the best financial shape possible to address the anticipated and predictable upgrades needed to serve our village in the 2020s,” he said.
Mallery singled out key people in the village who help make Vicksburg a strong municipality. An emotional Mallery thanked his wife, Stephanie, before he recognized individually the roster of village staff members.
“I have never been more confident that we will reach our expectations as well as the goal we have placed before us,” he said. “The future is definitely very bright for the village of Vicksburg.”
In other action, council members approved recipients of a Business Relief Grant. Sponsored largely by the Vicksburg Community Foundation, the $40,000 pool provides financial assistance to specific-category businesses that have suffered a financial loss due to COVIID-19.
Fourteen recipients were identified, though not mentioned by name during the meeting.
Mallery called it “a very unique and great opportunity” to support local businesses. He noted three qualifying businesses deferred accepting funds and instead asked their potential share go to neighboring businesses. Checks were to be delivered by Jan. 22.
Also, the council approved the social district application for Distant Whistle. It is the fifth of five village businesses to be a part of the designated area in which businesses can offer outdoor seating and patrons are allowed to carry a cup of alcohol from one business to another.
Paperwork for final approval was to be sent to the state by the end of January.
Council members also approved a 2021 meeting schedule. The seven-member panel will continue to meet at 7 p.m. the first and third Mondays of the month. Exceptions are June, July, August and September, when the council will meet once monthly.
Aug. 16 was identified as a potential date for a community celebration.

Major 131 reconstruction coming to Schoolcraft

Look for construction signs on and near US-131 next year.

By Rob Peterson

Major reconstruction of US-131 through Schoolcraft is planned during 2022, if state finances permit. Village staff described the project to council members at a December meeting.

The project will begin at M219/Marcellus Road and run through town and up to the U Avenue/Shaver Road intersection north of the village limits. The project is intended to improve traffic flow and safety. Key elements include left turn signals at Lyon Street and a redesign of the way traffic enters 131 from Shaver Road.

The signal at 131 and U Avenue has already been updated as part of the project.

Other planned safety improvements include an extension of sidewalks and a reconstruction of the railroad intersection near South Street; a narrowing of some driveways leading on to the highway; and elimination of the southbound merge lane near U Avenue.

Council members asked Village Manager Cheri Lutz about providing windbreaks to prevent snow drifting across the highway. Lutz indicated that she would discuss the matter at her next meeting with Michigan Department of Transportation officials.

Since the center of 131 will be torn up, council member Kirk Bergland suggested it would be good timing to install a sewer main, if that project is approved.

Another report to the council came from Mike Presta from the engineering firm of Prein & Newhoff. He presented information about funds from the State of Michigan under a new Drinking Water Asset Management Grant program.

The grant will provide money for the Village to assess its water supply lines to determine where lead pipes exist, and to put together a plan for replacing them. The maximum grant for a community the size of Schoolcraft is $1 million, and it does not require a local match. The council authorized the staff to apply for the grant.

In other action, the council approved a “bonus” to staff amounting to 1.5% of each staff member’s salary. It also set the village garage sale dates for May 21 and 22, 2021.

The council also set aside approximately $2,000 to support Eagles Nest, an organization that provides food for families in need. In 2020, the organization provided food for 70 children in the Schoolcraft area, according to a report from Jill Strake. Village support comes in the form of quarterly payments that cover utilities.

Staff reported on the matching gift card program. The council purchased gift cards to area businesses and sold them to the public for half price. The purpose was to drive sales at local businesses at the end of a difficult year.

The Village sold 47 of the 66 available gift cards on the first day, selling out their inventory of cards from seven local businesses. Staff was grateful to the support that residents provided to local merchants.

Lutz reported that there is an opening on the Planning Commission. This is a vital position to fill, as the Village is in the final phase of a rezoning process. She asked any resident interested to contact her.

Christmas Card Lane to return in 2021

Alex Lee, Vicksburg’s Director of Community Engagement, displays the 2020 Christmas Card Lane.

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg officials are declaring the inaugural Christmas Card Lane a success.

In the absence of a parade and other Christmas traditions the village had to put on hold this year, Christmas Card Lane proved to be a hit – and a solid backup option.

Alex Lee, Vicksburg’s Director of Community Engagement, said there’s no question in his mind that he witnessed the start of a new Vicksburg tradition.

“Now that people have seen Christmas Card Lane, they understand what it involves, how it’s presented and what it’s all about. We now have a long list of people and businesses who want to be a part of this in 2021,” Lee said.

Set up in the Vicksburg Historic Village, Christmas Card Lane featured 34 “cards” that, in most cases, are mounted on 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. Sponsors were able to share their name and a design on their card.

Christmas Card Lane started Dec. 5 and was to continue through the first weekend in January. The cards could be viewed at any time and were set up in a drive-thru format.

Lee was part of the village’s three-person Christmas Committee, whose members also featured John DeBault and Natasha Hanichen. Lee said the feedback he’s seen via the village’s Facebook page has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When we started, the plan was a piece of plywood, everybody paints it, and then we put it up,” Lee said. “Feedback we started getting was some people didn’t have the time or the talent to paint, and they were asking if there was a quicker way to do this.”

Lee found The Sign Company of Kalamazoo, which introduced him to an aluminum composite panel with a high-density corrugated core called Alumilite. Images can be applied to the surface, which retains color that does not run or fade.

The panels were secured by a pipe bracket to metal poles and illuminated by spotlights.

Lee said the project was a great partnership between the village and the Vicksburg Historical Society. He said Christmas Card Lane would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Historical Society.

“I liked how they would turn on the lights inside the old buildings … it was a nice touch that just added something to the experience,” Lee said.

He said the village will store the panels during the offseason, though a few companies have asked to have theirs back for year-round display.

Lee added that DPW officials placed a traffic counter at the entrance and the total number of cars that passed through will be tallied when the display is taken down.

With more card entries expected next year, Lee said there’s a chance the cards will have to be displayed on both sides of the drive rather than along the passenger’s side as they were this season.

“We couldn’t be happier … the reaction has been tremendous and we look forward to another strong lineup in next year’s display,” Lee said.

Business survivability grants available to businesses

By Jef Rietsma

The village of Vicksburg and the Vicksburg Community Foundation have partnered to distribute $40,000 to local businesses impacted by restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 virus.

Village Manager Jim Mallery at a Dec.21 meeting told council members about a business survivability grant, which creates financial assistance for businesses that meet eligibility criteria. Mallery said about two dozen potentially qualifying business have been made aware of the opportunity.

“We have made contact with businesses in the village that fit the (qualifying) categories and have held two Zoom calls educating them,” Mallery said. Grant-request forms were mailed to prospective recipients Dec. 22.

Village president Tim Frisbie called the program “an awesome opportunity” and said Vicksburg is fortunate to have such a strong and generous foundation. Mallery agreed and said the village also has strong owners who demonstrated great selflessness.

“I was pleasantly pleased at the character of our business community because I had three of the businesses that certainly met the criteria, all independent of one another, and spoke how their businesses had not been drastically impacted because of the amount of take-out food they’ve provided,” Mallery said. “And they wanted to see that money redistributed to those that would need it more.”

Prospective recipients have until Jan. 13 to return an application. Village council members will determine the beneficiaries during the council’s Jan. 18 meeting.

In other action, council members approved accepting an application from Jaspare’s Pizza to be a part of the village’s Social District. The concept allows participating businesses to offer outdoor seating and patrons are allowed to carry drinks in specially designated cups from one location to another.

The council expects to approve an application from Distant Whistle in January. If its application is approved by the village, five downtown businesses will comprise the Social District. Application approval by the village is a step forward in the process, as Mallery said the five businesses now must be approved by the state.

Mallery said the state has already approved the village resolution to have a social district.

“Most municipalities have found that submitting all (business) applications together are better,” he said. “I anticipate approval from the state by the end of January and we could start the formality of the Social District after that.”

In a separate matter, council members approved the third and fourth phases of the Allen Edwin residential development west of 22nd Street and south of U Avenue. Together, the phases will include development of 56 single-family homes.