Category Archives: Government

The Future is Bright in Vicksburg

By Sue Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Residents Ask Hard Questions on Proposed Sewer Project

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

By Travis Smola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hutchinson addressed that number.

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

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

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

That statement was met with thunderous applause.

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

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

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

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

Traffic Stops are Up in Schoolcraft

By Sue Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

The decision was tabled until more information could be obtained.

Village Welcome New Communications Manager

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Vicksburg Village President Bill Adams congratulates Alex Lee on becoming the village’s newest employee.

By Sue Moore

Wanted: someone to take complaints and compliments in the middle of the night for the village of Vicksburg. It probably isn’t quite that strong a job description for the new hire coming on. But the job will be to assist Manager Jim Mallery with communications and public relations, so it’s close enough.

And it’s been filled. Alex Lee was chosen to fill the role of public information and coordination with the streetscape project and many other village initiatives: the Mill renovations, the trail extension going north to Portage, sewer work beginning this fall and extending into 2020 – for starters.

Mallery is known for giving out his cell phone number and inviting residents to call him at all hours of the day and night. With so many projects on the horizon, he asked the Village Council some months ago to fund half of the proposed position and the Vicksburg Foundation to make up the other half for a three-year period. Lee’s acceptance was announced at a July 15 council meeting held in the Pavilion.

He comes from a long career with Kalamazoo Public Schools as executive director of communications for Superintendent Michael Rice. He has served the schools for 22 years and had planned his retirement for August 1. He will have eight days of soaking up the sun at his home on Indian Lake before he begins his next chapter with the village Aug. 9.

Lee began his career when he had long hair in college. He played guitar in a cover band at Grand Valley State University. His real calling was as a DJ for several radio stations spinning records. “I had a funny show and dropped out of college to bounce up and down the dial, then got fired by an obnoxious program director who didn’t appreciate my humor. I joined the Navy where my experience as a radio announcer got me to Tokyo to do a morning show for the military. I finished my B.A. and M.A. while serving in the Navy.

“I wanted to be a city manager, so I came back to Kalamazoo as a single dad with two older kids. That’s when Superintendent Kay Royster asked me if I could salvage the [school’s outreach with the public] in 1997. One good thing that we did was create the Excelsior, the school newspaper, which I think will outlive me.”

“I’ve always loved the water and lived on various lakes in the area. My wife Kim and I were looking for a retirement home for our family of four and our rescue dog, Freckle. The Indian Lake location last summer looked ideal for my two youngest, MacNeal, who loves to fish, and daughter Hana, who is a bit of a water rat. My two oldest children are Jason, who works as controller for the Instrument Division of Stryker Corp., and daughter Ashley who works for a legal firm in Washington D.C. that specializes in trademark law,” Lee said.

“I don’t really have a title as Jim and I have gone back and forth on that. I just want to be involved with everything going on in the village. I’m coming in to tell the story and perform duties as assigned,” Lee explained.

Village Council Gives New Details on Schoolcraft Sewer

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State Representative Brandt Iden attended a meeting of Schoolcraft residents and elected officials when the possibility of sewers for the village was one of the topics considered. Sitting next to him is Jennifer Gottschalk, president of the Schoolcraft school board.

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft village residents got some of the first details of the long-discussed sanitary sewer project at a special meeting of the Village Council in June.

On hand were members of the Planning Commission, Kalamazoo County Health Department and a representative of the consulting firm Wightman & Associates to give information to a crowd of roughly 100 at the high school performing arts center.

Alan Smaka of Wightman was the main speaker of the night and was finally able to shed some light on the size, scope and potential costs of the project for residents. Under the proposal Smaka presented, construction would not begin until 2022 at the earliest on a $15-40 million project that would bring sewer service to residents within the village as well as residents of Barton Lake and Sugar Loaf Lake.

The proposal suggests a possible lagoon or treatment plant somewhere south of the village along the US-131 corridor. Operating a treatment facility independently would allow the village to control system legacy costs.

A key part of the service area would be the US-131 corridor. The proposal includes areas north and south of the village where businesses are present. “One thing I want to point out here is this is the biggest project scope that we anticipate,” Smaka said. He said the project size could shrink depending on input from the community. But he noted the village needs to ask for the largest possible project when approaching funding agencies about possible grants.

“You don’t ask for a small project and then ask for more money,” Smaka said. “You go with the largest project scope and if you need to, you can always pare it back.”

The plan for funding is much the same as it was in 2015. Smaka said the plan is to pursue USDA funding for the project. It is the lowest interest rate they could find at 3.375% for a bond term of 40 years. Smaka said this program was a perfect fit for Schoolcraft.

“It was set up to provide water and wastewater funding assistance for rural communities with populations under 10,000,” Smaka said. “The federal government understood that a lot of communities couldn’t, under their own terms, fund these projects at an affordable market rate. If you go to market on a project like this, you’re going to be at five percent in 20 years. What that does is drive the cost of the project up significantly.”

In estimating the costs to village residents, Smaka said they took a conservative approach that estimates no federal grant funding. Once the sewer is in place, the cost to residents for use would be approximately $50 a month for a single-family home or about $600 a year. The costs for businesses would be different and would be assessed by what they call residential equivalent units or REUs. A home is one REU. Businesses that use a lot of water would be charged multiple REUs and thus would have larger sewer bills. This monthly bill would help cover funding, operation, maintenance and replacement costs.

But there are also two one-time assessment costs to help cover the capital costs of the project and they would be significantly more for landowners in the community. A front footage assessment is for vacant and improved properties with homes that would connect to the system right away. This assessment would charge approximately $5 per front footage, meaning a property with 200 feet of front footage would have to pay approximately $1,000.

The larger of the two fees would be the benefit fee assessment which is assessed to everyone who is benefiting from the sewer line. The cost for this would be approximately $10,000 per REU. There would also be a $2,000 charge for connecting to the system. In all, the cost would be approximately $13,000 if paid entirely up front.

“When you do a bonded project like this the homeowner has options. The property owner has options,” Smaka said. “You can pay for that assessment all up front, or you can pay for it over the life of the bond.”

Paying for the assessment over an extended period would mean a lower upfront cost of $2,000 for the homeowner. But it will also cost more in the long run, approximately $250 in principal interest a year on the unpaid balance over 40 years. Smaka said residents can pay for the assessment costs monthly or in full at any time over the course of the bond. “That’s a personal decision that people can make based on their situation,” Smaka said.

Homeowners also could save some money upfront by delaying the actual connection to the system for up to five years until 2028. Smaka said this was also done so homeowners could retain value in their septic systems longer. But he also noted many septic systems in the village are approaching 40 years old and will need to be dealt with soon anyway. He estimated homeowners will also have to pay costs of $2-5,000 for filling in and abandoning their old septic tanks.

Those who build a home on a vacant property long after the sewer has been completed would be subject to a fee of $8,500 or more plus connection costs.

All these costs are under the assumption of no USDA grant money. If the village got a full 45 percent grant, these costs to the homeowner would go down 45 percent. Smaka said financial assistance will likely be available through the state or USDA’s loan and grant programs for disabled people or low-income families.

Smaka also clarified a burning question in the village on roadways. He said the sewer would likely cross roadways which would be repaved, but not all roads in the village will be repaved under the project. He also said construction work would try to avoid the roads wherever possible.

As for a further timeline of events, they announced there will be more public engagement meetings, including a question and answer meeting.

An adoption for a resolution on the project would likely happen in the third quarter of 2019 with USDA funding applications happening another 60-90 days after that. Design and permitting would happen 18-24 months later with construction starting in 2022 at the earliest, with two years of construction estimated for the project.

Village council members did not allow any questions at the meeting and instead directed members of the community to put their questions on note cards to be answered at a later meeting.

Fourth of July Committee Needs More Volunteers

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft will have fireworks again this year despite shrinking budgets. But the organizing committee also wants to see some new people involved in the yearly event.

Organizers Jon Krum and Randy Palmer were present at the village council’s first meeting in June to thank council members for a donation that makes the show possible.

Village President Keith Gunnett noted that while the village’s budget was tight, they were able to find room to help. Krum acknowledged that the show is getting more expensive to produce with the increasing cost of fireworks and shrinking budgets. He said they are in need of more financial donations. “It’s going to get to a point here pretty soon where I don’t know where the funds will come from,” Krum said.

Palmer said they tried looking at other avenues for buying the fireworks this year, but the primary supplier is gouging everyone right now. “The actual price on display firework went up probably 20 percent,” Palmer said. “It’s all because of one man in China that’s putting a stranglehold on it.”

Trustee John Stodola said he read a story about how new tariffs would also drive the price of fireworks higher. Palmer said that would probably have a bigger effect next year than this year.

Krum also noted another challenge is finding more volunteers. He doesn’t plan to stay involved with the planning for much longer. “We’ve got to come up with some people, younger people, I don’t know where to start,” Krum said. “We’ve got to come up with some solutions.”

There have been other challenges recently. Palmer said he couldn’t find anywhere to store one of the trailers they use for the displays. He ended up having to store it outside because there were no other options. The council thanked Krum and Palmer for their devotion to the cause before they approved $2,500 for the display.

In other business, Stodola presented two memorandums from the sidewalk committee. The first, which was approved by the board so the DPW could start work, summarized a list of potential sidewalk projects in the village. He said they’ve bounced back and forth between repairing damages and total replacements of sidewalk sections. “We can only do a few every year because the budget is tight,” Stodola said.

The second memorandum dealt with enforcing sidewalk ordinances where sections of sidewalk are being damaged by homeowners. “We think we would be well-served to go back and review those because it’s uncertain who pays for the damages,” Stodola said.

As one example, Stodola wondered who pays for the damages in spots where cars are constantly crossing sidewalks to the road. “It’s all kind of ambiguous the way we have it right now,” Stodola said.

Village of Vicksburg to Celebrate Tax Reduction On July 15

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The Vicksburg Village Council invites residents to attend any board meetings but will have a special meeting on July 15 at the Community Pavilion. They are seated from left: Carl Keller, Bill Adams, Tim Frisbie. Standing from left: Julie Merrill, Rick Holmes, Colin Bailey, Gail Reisterer.

By Sue Moore

It isn’t often that local government authorizes a lowering of its millage rate. Experience suggests that most times taxes go up, not down. The village of Vicksburg in the 2019-2020 projected budget that begins July 1, did in fact, decrease the rate to 15.163 mills, a half-mill reduction from the current levy.

To mark the occasion, the first celebration of Community Night in the village of Vicksburg is set for Monday, July 15 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Community Pavilion on N. Richardson Street. It is sponsored by the village and will include a short council meeting at 6 p.m. Various businesses, nonprofits, churches, food purveyors and scouting groups have been extended an invitation to participate. TrustShield Insurance and St Martin of Tours Catholic Church are sponsoring inflatables. The Mill is sponsoring music for the night.

Elected officials from this area are planning to attend because of the uniqueness of the tax decrease. They want to be supportive, according to Village Manager Jim Mallery. The theme of the gathering is “Our Future’s So Bright” with participants being encouraged to decorate in neon, sun and sunglasses, said Jenny Holmes who is helping to organize the evening event.

For a municipality Vicksburg’s size, decreasing a millage is a first from memory for those who follow local government. The reduction of .5 mill is roughly $50 for every $100,000 of state equalized valuation (SEV). Overall, the 15.163 mills, $15.163 per $1,000 taxable valuation, will raise $1,625,700 for the general fund. Of that, $1,587,564 is budgeted for expenditures in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Mallory was congratulated by members of the village council for his work on the budget, especially his propensity to overestimate expenses and underestimate revenues. “We can estimate village revenue down to the very dollar but there is revenue from the state that we don’t control – nearly 35 percent is for major streets. I treat these dollars as I would my own,” Mallery went on to say.

“When I started I was shocked to learn how this government operated. People wouldn’t use their own money the way they were spending the people’s money, so caution is built into the factors that we don’t control. I’ve never blown a budget in all my years of being in government and I don’t want to do it now.”

What has increased in the budget is the water and sewer consumption rate for 2019-2020 in order to improve infrastructure of the village. The underground water and sewer system has been largely ignored since being rebuilt and expanded in the 1940s, 50s, and 80s. A major investment is being planned for the downtown streets along with some changes to the pumping stations on Washington and 22nd streets.

Other budget details include $199,500 for the parks and recreation department and $329,685 to improve roadways, with $144,200 of that for local streets. Capital improvements in the village shows $110,000 set aside. The Department of Public Works expects to spend $363,600 and the Downtown Development Authority has budgeted $290,925.

The enterprise arms of the village includes Angels Crossing golf course which expects to have $1,117,000 in revenues and $1,098,209 in expenditures. The water fund is budgeted for $711,150 in revenue and $689,600 in expenses. The sewer fund anticipates $969,500 revenue and $966,400 in expenses.