Category Archives: Government

Schoolcraft Votes to Move the Sewer Process Along

sch vc 6By Sue Moore

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 Constitutes an Authority?

SCH VC 2By Sue Moore

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.

Vicksburg Village Council Hears Complaints on Water Bills

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Jim Mallery, Vicksburg’s village manager, answers questions from the audience at the Village Council’s October meeting. Clerk Tracy Locey is on the left and Trustee Julie Merrill on the right. Photo by Travis Smola.

By Travis Smola

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.

Village Council Combines DDA with Planning Commission

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The Vicksburg Village Council along with all the other sub-committees of the village are now meeting in one place at 13318 N. Boulevard, in the former South County EMS building.

By Sue Moore

The Vicksburg Village Council at its September meeting approved an ordinance rolling functions of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) into the village’s Planning Commission.

It will be phased in over the next three months with the agenda of the commission changed to include the business of the DDA in January 2020.

The collection of funds through tax increment financing, now performed through the authority, will be administered by the Planning Commission. The ordinance changes approved by the council will expand the commission from seven to nine members. Applications for the two new seats will be accepted at that time.

Façade grants and loans for downtown businesses have been a large part of recent DDA agendas. Its members have been the originators and organizers of the Christmas in the Village event since its inception five years ago. They also administer the tax-increment-financing money of approximately $75,000 each year that is used to further improve the area within the district, which includes the downtown area on Main and Prairie streets.

“We believe this [combining of the DDA and the Planning Commission] is the best-practice model for a municipality with our population,” Village Manager Jim Mallery told the council. “This will be a more efficient manner for our sub-units of government to function with appropriate village council oversight. It will also positively impact the long-term master planning and zoning improvements.”

Many changes are scheduled to take place in the downtown area during the summer of 2020 when new sewer and water lines will be installed on Main and Prairie streets. Some TIF money has been earmarked to build a parking lot next to the Vicksburg post office on N. Kalamazoo Avenue in 2020.

In other business, the council contracted with J.L Schippers and Associates for demolition of a fire-damaged house at 421 Spruce Street. It has been deemed a dangerous structure since the fire in 2018, but owners have not been willing to pay for the demolition. The cost of $7,400 will be charged to the owner’s next year’s tax bill. If the owner fails to pay taxes on the property, it goes to the county to collect. If not paid in three years after proper notice, the property would be sold at auction. If the full amount of the sale does not include all of the back taxes and demolition, the difference reverts to the village coffers to be paid, according to village Treasurer Michelle Morgan.

The construction of a third water well in the village has been approved by the Michigan Department of Environment Quality. The village has received a Wellhouse Protection grant from the state for $11,240 which will help to offset the cost of locating the well to serve the village residents and businesses. This third well has become necessary as the current wells are at 70 percent capacity, Mallery said. A preferred site will be researched by Prin & Neuhof and recommended to the council at its October meeting.

Yard Signs Draw Schoolcraft Village Council Members Ire

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These yard signs dot residents’ homes in Schoolcraft.

By Sue Moore

Words flew between Schoolcraft village council President Keith Gunnett and Trustee Mike Rochholz on how to interpret the village’s sign ordinance at its first September board meeting.

The words involved whether signs that have been appearing in people’s yards including Gunnett’s were legal. The wording, “Sewer? Let the homeowner decide,” was questioned by Rochholz because he felt it expressed an opinion and therefore was outside the boundaries of the village’s sign ordinance. Gunnett said he didn’t think the signs violated the ordinance since they are similar to signs the school is putting out on the proposed bond issue.

Rochholz replied that “The members of the council should hold to the ethics and impartiality of the ordinances because we are asking residents to abide by the ordinances which some council members are not abiding by themselves.”

Village Manager Cheri Lutz asked the council if they would like to have her seek a legal opinion on the matter and bring it back to the next meeting. They all agreed that would be the best approach to take. At its following meeting in September, the village attorney indicated the signs were in violation of the ordinance and should be taken down.

In other business, the sidewalk/right of way committee recommended dividing the village into quadrants for inspecting violations of the ordinances governing the village’s rights of way. Of particular concern is the placement of gravel in the right of way to increase residential parking. Other concerns include landscaping items, plantings and rocks in the right of way, parking and placement of mailboxes in the right of way. It was agreed that Gunnett, Lutz and Rob Coffman, DPW chief would undertake this task.

The audit was reviewed and given an unqualified stamp of approval by Doug Wohlberg, the village’s auditor. He complimented Tammy Young, the village’s financial assistant, and the Schoolcraft Library, which he said have good controls in place.

Schoolcraft Village Council Meets Over Newsletter Fracas

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Members of the Schoolcraft Village Council from left to right: Sy Spears, Russell Barnes, Larry Gunnett, Mike Rochholz, John Stodola. Missing from the picture but in attendance: Kathy Mastenbrook and Todd Carlin.

By Sue Moore

In a 4-3 vote, Schoolcraft’s village Council voted to remove comments by village President Keith Gunnett in the village’s upcoming newsletter calling on homeowners to sign a petition if they want a sewer system and the expenses of building it.

Trustees opposed to inclusion of Gunnett’s comments said his personal opinions should be left out of the village publication.

Gunnett defended his effort. “Three members of the council choose to have a petition.” Gunnett included himself, Trustees Russell Barnes and Todd Carlin saying they represent the wants and needs of the citizens of the village, as they would be the ones paying for it.

He said his calculation of costs per home came to $50,000 or more. Council members opposed to including his comments “must have something personal to gain because nothing else is logical.”

“President Gunnett is entitled to his opinion and has the right to express it but not in the Village’s newsletter,” said Trustee Kathy Mastenbrook. “neither he or his opinion reflect that of the entire council or community,” she said. “To maintain the integrity of the Village, its staff and the council itself, information presented in the newsletter should be based on fact versus assumptions,” she added.

Trustee Mike Rochholz agreed. Gunnett’s comments are ‘being used to mischaracterize or misrepresent staff or other council members.”

Gunnett characterized the two sides of the issue in the village. One side, he said, believes the village council should make the choice for residents; the other believes homeowners should make the sewer decision which he said he believes is the correct one.

He asked for a show of hands for those who support his beliefs. Before anyone could raise a hand, Trustee Sy Spears interrupted: “I will not vote on anything that is so irresponsible to make a decision without all the information at hand. We are not to the point where we can decide, as we are still gathering information.”

Trustee John Stodola said the “Newsletter is the instrument of the village. It should be factual, timely and forward leading as we all incur the costs of publication.” He quoted state law that says no one should give his personal opinion in an instrument paid for by the people. “We have lost sight of how to move our business in a professional and thought-provoking manner. We want to have a clear, calm, and deliberate discussion.”

“The financial information Gunnett wrote about in his message to the public is not factual,” Mastenbrook said. “Do you want to start a petition process now based on your numbers that are not accurate? “There is no project that has even been decided. None of the entities have voted on costs but we expect to have the beginning of the numbers when Wightman & Associates comes to the October 7 village council meeting.”

Gunnett answered with “It’s all been done over and over again and you know that. True you won’t know the final numbers until its paid for and all the contractors are on the dotted line. I’m not asking anybody to go out and petition now. The petition doesn’t even need the exact numbers. It’s about how do people feel about what Wightman has told us?

A Wightman engineer provided some numbers at a public meeting in June. Alan Smaka estimated it would cost a residential homeowner about $13,000, including an estimated $10,000 “benefit” fee, an estimated $2,000 connection fee and an estimated $5-per-front-foot charge. The benefit fee could be paid over the period of a bond issue, as long as 40 years, and those costs could be offset by the proportion of grant money received for the sewer system project, as much as 45 percent.

Longtime Fourth of July Parade Chair Resigns

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Deb Reynolds, long-time parade chair; Virginia Mongreig, committee chair for the July 4 event; Jon Krum, fireworks money solicitor asked the Schoolcraft Village Council to come up with their replacements.

By Sue Moore

Deb Reynolds won’t organize another 4th of July parade, she told the Schoolcraft Village Council at its August meeting. “I’m tired, it’s not fun anymore, it’s a headache and I’m backing down.”

“If nobody comes forward [to volunteer] there won’t be a parade next year,” Reynolds said. “This is really hard and it’s emotional for me. I don’t just need help with the parade, I want to have someone who will take it over,” as she waved the long list of duties and contacts that she keeps each year in front of the council members.

When Reynolds started chairing the parade in 1981, there were 11 members on the committee, she said. Now there are three: Reynolds, Virginia Mongreig and Jon Krum, who said he would stay on one more year to collect money for the fireworks display. Mongreig has also officially resigned from the organizing committee.

“You can’t feel guilty,” council President Keith Gunnett told Reynolds. “You are due a big thank you. We will try to publicize the need and hope someone will step up.” Trustee John Stodola said it is time for the next generation to step up in Schoolcraft.

“It’s what you do because you live in Schoolcraft,” Mongreig said. “We’ve all grown up here but we are tired [after working on the 4th of July event] for so many years.”

Spring Clean-up to See Big Change

To save money, the Council voted to use a central drop-off place instead of the curbside clean up that cost $7,577 for the village in 2019. The drop-off is estimated to cost $1,830. It will be held on June 6 in 2020 from 9 a.m.-noon. The location is still to be determined.

The Sidewalk/Right of Way Committee Recommendations Tabled

Sidewalks have been a priority for a long time for former village council trustees. The most recent committee appointed to look at the issue turned into a combination sidewalk and right of way committee, according to Village Manager Cheri Lutz. “I saw sidewalk concerns morphing into right of way issues so renamed the committee to address it as a whole,” Lutz said in response to Trustee Mike Rochholz’s concerns. “It’s the procedural part of this recommendation that I object to,” he said.

The recommendations were to divide the village into four quadrants and have them inspected for violations of the ordinances that govern right of way from street pavement to sidewalk. Safety issues in the right of way, the report said, involve driveway approaches, mail box placement, signs, parked cars and piles of gravel.

All of these matters lead to damage to the edge of the road, DPW’s ability to access the right of way for emergency issues, snowplowing and general detraction of appearance to the community. The inspections would be carried out by Gunnett, Stodola, Russell Barnes, Todd Carlin, Rob Coffman and Cheri Lutz, according to the memo.

Rochholz felt the village council committee members are not qualified to make these decisions but are on the council to set policy and ask the administration to carry it out. “We want to be a great functioning village council.” The recommendations were tabled with the understanding that the whole Council would be involved in discussion and setting of a policy at the next board meeting.

The Council also approved two requests for street closures for block parties, one on West Street and the other on Tulip, with some restrictions.