Category Archives: Vicksburg

Village Council Approves Changes to the Historic Village

By Sue Moore

The Vicksburg Village Council took several steps to eliminate taxpayer support of the Historic Village at its December meeting. It raised rental rates for the Community Pavilion and approved a tentative lease agreement which would require the nonprofit Vicksburg Historical Society to shoulder all utility and maintenance costs.

Although no firm figure was discussed, one estimate is that annual operating costs to Vicksburg for the Historic Village are about $12,000.

The steps were recommended by Village Manager Jim Mallery who had been meeting with representatives of the Historical Society since October.

Mallery cited a memo from Village Attorney Andrew Horne saying it’s “unlawful for the village to give money to a nonprofit,” but acknowledging that the village has done so for many years.

The practice has to stop, Mallery said.

Don Wiertella, president of the Historical Society, acknowledged the need for a legal agreement but asked for further research on the question of allocating village funds to the nonprofit organization.

Mallery also called for an end to the use of a community garden in the Historic Village to raise vegetables.

“The use of the community gardens must cease immediately. Growing edible plants on public land that predictably would require phase 1 and phase 2 environmental assessments would cost an estimated $20,000. It would probably prove the land was not suitable to grow edible plants, due to the previous use as a landfill.”

Growing flowers in the park “will need to be on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Mallery’s report said. Members of the Victorian Garden Club have been volunteering time to plant and weed the foundation plantings around the buildings in the Historic Village. The group and individuals would be required to sign a form stating they’re not selling the flowers grown on the site.

All recommendations dealing with the gardens, rentals of the pavilion and oversight of volunteers who take care of the Historic Village were approved by the Council with an extension of time on the lease agreement until June 30, 2020. Mallery originally had asked that the Society agree to the lease by Dec. 16, 2019.

The village manager, in calling for an end to taxpayer support of the village, said providing payments from public funds for buildings when the public has no access to them raises concerns about best practice and use of public funds. “We cannot justify providing these services without compensation. The village needs to be able to concretely justify the public benefit that the residents are receiving from the expenditures.”

Mallery questioned the actual value citizens of Vicksburg are getting for their money when they are paying for utilities and maintenance in the Historic Village. The previous agreement meant that the Village was responsible for major maintenance problems such as a failed furnace.

An agreement which outlined the use of the entire site was drafted several years ago but lacked fundamental elements of a legal agreement, he said. Mallery presented the new lease agreement for the Historical Society to sign, recommending the village Council approve the ongoing functions of the entire park including the buildings and the grounds.

Also, in his recommendations to the council were new rental rates for the pavilion. These will increase from $25 to $100 for private events. Activities and events open to the public such as the Farmers’ Market, the Lions Club B&B and a proposed antique show from May to September would be charged $25 per day.

The Thursday Guys who have helped to maintain the buildings in the park, the so-called “Rembrandt Painters” who have kept the buildings fresh with paint and all other volunteers will face new requirements, including signing a volunteer release and waiver of liability form prior to conducting any work within the park. They must also receive permission from village staff to perform work on the site.

The operating agreement between the Historical Society and the village provided the bulk of the staff recommendations presented to the council. It requires the society to sign a lease for the use of the buildings and to pay the utilities and any maintenance needed for the duration of the agreement.

Wiertella noted in his prepared statement that the Historical Society has obtained all of the funding to relocate and erect five historic structures and six replica structures, using no village funding to do so.

The existing agreement, he noted, recognized that the society did not have the funds to maintain the structures on the grounds. Therefore, the earlier agreement called for the village to take ownership of the buildings once they were completed and furnished with historic artifacts.

Wiertella added, “We request the following: that the Michigan Compiled Laws be reviewed to determine if the village can, or would, continue to provide funding for utilities and building maintenance.” He also asked for and received an extension of the existing lease to the end of Vicksburg’s fiscal year, June 30, “to review our budgeting and operational requirements.”

“We stand before you in good faith and in support of developing a mutually beneficial agreement. We understand that times change and we must adapt as well. Our objective is to continue to deliver our mission in a sustainable and effective manner. We are certain that with the support of village residents, management and council, we can achieve these goals. We look forward to finalizing an agreement within the coming months.”

Village Trustee Julie Merrill asked Wiertella how much the buildings were worth to the village and the capital that was raised to pay for them.

Wiertella didn’t have a ready answer: “I am fighting for the life of the Historical Society. Thanks to Jim, we need to get our ducks in a row. Our major request is more time to work on this to find multiple solutions.”

Citizens Police Academy Open to County Residents

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Lt. Jeff Baker gives a slide show presentation at the Schoolcraft Library.

By Sue Moore

Who knew that Kalamazoo County citizens could ride along with deputies while in their cars patrolling? Or that, while taking a course at the Citizens Police Academy, a student could work in the jail, be trained in forensics and crime lab work?

They’re possible if a person is enrolled in an 11-week course at the Sheriff’s Department under the tutelage of Lt. Jeff Baker, who heads the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division. He started the course three years ago and was recently recognized as Coordinator of the Year for the National Citizen’s Police Academy in 2019 for his work in Kalamazoo County.

Vicksburg resident Krista Manley just finished the course and highly recommends that others should take it. “I was reintroduced to Jeff Baker recently when I saw an ad on Facebook regarding the 2019 Citizens Police Academy. I had reached out to show my interest in applying to the academy and was put on a waiting list until this year when my time finally came up in September. I have been attending the Citizens Police Academy since then and graduated on 11/13/19. I knew of Jeff when I went to school in Vicksburg as I’m a long time resident,” she said in an email.

“I am beyond proud of all the time and effort that Jeff has put into developing this program for the citizens of Kalamazoo County,” she wrote. “I know that his work has been recognized across the U.S. This program has taught me so much about behind the scenes of the Academy. I have been exposed to so much that this has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of what our officers do, go through, etc. I feel that everyone should go through this, especially those who may have negative views of police officers.”

“It would mean so much to me if Jeff could be recognized for all of his efforts with this program and allowing the citizens of Kalamazoo County to benefit from this outstanding program. During my time at the Academy I have been given so many opportunities – to observe dispatch, work the Jail, complete a drive-along, participate in a simulation and many various lectures on topics of interest. I would have never been exposed to this if it hadn’t been for him having this idea and vision and putting it into place,” she said.

Baker graduated from Vicksburg High School in 1986. He graduated from Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s criminal justice program and got his first job in public safety as a police officer in Vicksburg in 1989. He joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1995 as a patrol deputy. Since then he was promoted to the rank of detective sergeant where he received specialized training in work involving computer and cell phone forensics, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 2016. He supervises the agency’s eight detectives.

The next Citizen’s Police Academy begins January 15. Lt Baker has announced that it is full but there is a waiting list in case of an opening, or for the next class which will begin in September. The class consistently fills up quickly and the early applications are encouraged. If interested, Lt Baker can be contacted at jmbake@kalcounty.com. Applications are available at the Sheriff’s Office website at https://www.kalcounty.com/sheriff/specialprogram.php?tag=Citizens+Academy.

Local Frauds and Scams Highlighted by Sheriff’s Dept.

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Lt. Baker handed out a document called frauds and scams in a presentation sponsored by Schoolcraft Presbyterian Church.

By Sue Moore

More than $20 million has been stolen from local people who were duped by fraud and scams in Kalamazoo County since June 2017, according to Lt. Jeff Baker of the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department Detective Bureau.

And perhaps quite a bit more. The number is just the total of thefts reported to police.

“The scammers and fraudsters concentrate on the elderly because they are vulnerable, have more money stashed away in retirement savings accounts and are usually more trusting,” said Lt. Baker. He was at the Schoolcraft library recently at the request of the Presbyterian Church, speaking to a group of about 20 seniors.

Lt. Baker believes that education is the best way to combat fraud and scams, which is why he goes out on speaking tours as part of his work. He began the speaking engagements when he was promoted to lieutenant in November, 2016 and examined the many complaints his department deals with each year.

“Scammers want your money or information that will get to your money,” Baker told the group in Schoolcraft. “If they get one person to bite out of hundreds of letters or emails sent out, it’s a good payday. The general tipoff is when the offer is too good to be true. The person calling you might use phrases such as hurry, the offer is good today only, then they want you to pay something for shipping, handling, to receive the product.”

He cited a Publishers Clearing House scam that tells a person they won the big prize. The caller will say taxes need to be prepaid. The “winner” goes to the bank to send money straight to the scammer.

The grandson-in-jail plea for bail money seems like a call for help that a caring grandparent surely will act upon. Not so fast, Baker warns. Checking with the parents first seems obvious. But people right here in Kalamazoo County fell for that one to the tune of $63,264 since June 2017. The average age of the victim is 83 years old.

An audience member described a scam he was subjected to recently when someone stole his PayPal account and charged a $360 pair of Air Jordans, having them delivered to an address in Detroit. Baker said it could have been an abandoned house with someone waiting within sight for the delivery to be thrown up on the porch.

Spoofing of phone numbers when the call looks like it’s coming from someone you know is hard to combat, Baker said. You can block the caller but that doesn’t solve the problem. You can get on the national do-not-call list but spoofers are getting really good at disguising where the call is coming from. The only correct action: Don’t answer the call and have the person leave a message.

Much of the time, the caller will want you to run to Walmart or Meijer and buy a series of gift cards, scratch it off to get to the hidden numbers and read them to the caller. It’s always with the admonition to “hurry and don’t tell anybody” while you are doing this trip to the store.

Employment scams are prevalent and have bilked county residents out of a reported $40,000 plus in the last two and a half years, he said.

IRS threats have reaped a reported total of $39,000. He cautions that the IRS will never demand immediate payment, call about taxes owed without first sending you a bill, require you to use a specific payment method, ask for credit card numbers over the phone or threaten to bring local police to have you arrested.

Computer repair is another tactic and a common scheme right now. This has garnered a reported $138,000 in payment for supposed fixit plans for computers in Kalamazoo County. Lt. Baker showed a document from the “National Virus Research Center” that made the audience chuckle because it had so many grammatical errors in it. Scammers will ask for your password so they can access your computer to fix it for you. That’s all they need to cause real damage.

Dating sites are the saddest cases he deals with. “Everyone needs someone. People get hooked, send money and then discover it’s a scam. It’s the most under-reported scam we deal with,” Baker says.

Then there are frauds perpetrated by itinerant people who come to your door, saying they are in the neighborhood and have some extra asphalt or whatever repair work they are doing. “There is a large clan out of Iowa who come around and stay in local hotels while they are going door to door.”

He cautions his audience not to react to high pressure tactics on anything. It has cost a whopping total of $21.5 million he estimates, since he started to keep track of fraud and scams in Kalamazoo County in June of 2017.

A group, organization, or business interested in hosting Lt. Baker’s presentation, can reach him at 269-383-8725 or jmbake@kalcounty.com.

Vicksburg School Board Sets Bond Issue Request

vix new teachersBy Sue Moore

The Vicksburg school district will ask residents to approve a 3.3-mill tax in the May 5 election to finance building improvements estimated at $40-42 million.
If approved, the proposal would cost taxpayers $3.30 per $1,000 taxable valuation for six years.

It will be called an increase on the ballot because an earlier 3.53-mill levy for a bond issue will end this year, before the new levy would begin.

But Asst. Superintendent Steve Goss pointed out that taxpayers will see a slight drop in the tax rate if voters approve the new levy – the difference between the expiring 3.53 mills and the new 3.3-mill levy.

“We want to ensure that every kid gets the most educational benefit they can while in the Vicksburg school system,” said Superintendent Keevin O’Neill. “It should be the best we have to offer and that depends on how we maintain our buildings, keeping them 100 percent up to date with a safe and comfortable learning environment.”

“If we let the facilities deteriorate over time, then the cost to update and repair escalates,” Goss told the school board at its December meeting.

The proposed bond issue was planned in 2014 when a technology bond issue was passed, knowing that the facilities would need a hard look in 2020.

This new issue would be in the neighborhood of $40-42 million, Goss said. The earlier bond issue will be paid off in May.

“We are at 6.85 mills now. If the next request is authorized the total school millage would be a reduction to 6.6 mills. Technically it is an increase because of the way the wording on the ballot needs to be phrased. Our hope is to slightly reduce the millage rate with each future request,” Goss said.

Goss said the plan is to borrow the funds through a state bond loan fund for the first time. That uses the state’s better credit rating and reduces interest payments on a six-year issue. New legislation now allows the construction to be done without paying prevailing wage rates, also reducing the cost of repairs, Goss explained.

“The earlier facilities studies conducted by Tower Pinkster and Frederick Construction looked at what we currently have in place and then what we want the buildings to look like five to 20 years out. We can plan for that and every six years retire the bonds and ask for replacement money to keep up our buildings so students can learn in a good environment.”

Should the millage fail, the rate would fall back to 3.3 mills. And if it passes, the use of the proceeds is limited. “We can’t use bond proceeds to buy school buses or other items as there are very tight restrictions on how this money can be spent. We are very careful about this. If we let the facilities go and don’t have bond proceeds to fix them, then the money will have to be paid out of the general fund, especially for technology upgrades,” Goss said.

“We compare costs to build new or renovate, which we believe is much more cost effective. We have identified priorities with an index of what we want to improve, nice to have but not urgent,” Goss said in a later interview. “We are never done with repairs so we will need to ask for support about every six years with this kind of plan in mind. We keep our projections pretty conservative and plan for flexibility so we can change as we go forward. We want to keep our vibrant schools in vibrant Vicksburg.”

WMU Innovation Expo Winners Named from Vicksburg

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Left to right: Kyler Dean, Bryce Chapman and Tyler DeVries.

By Sue Moore

Western Michigan University hosted 54 Vicksburg High students from Greg Mills’ mechatronic classes at an Innovation Expo. Three of the projects proposed by these students won first, second and third place at the event.

Mills teaches 98 mechatronics students in a classroom setting throughout the school year. The knowledge they gain helps students learn to design, build, program and troubleshoot electro-mechanical systems. The goal is to prepare students to be able to step into the workforce out of high school or send them on to a two-year college degree offering. Some of mechatronics jobs in the business world include engineering or technician positions in control system, data logging, instrumentation and software.

WMU also invited students from Sturgis, Schoolcraft and Gull Lake to the Innovation Expo, with Donya Dobbin’s team from Schoolcraft taking the popularity pick from the judges.

The students had to create a product or service that is unique and innovative, with a real need in the marketplace. They had to provide an operational prototype model to demonstrate its utility.

The students could use a current product or service but they were required to create new modifications to that product or service, Mills explained. “It’s a bit like Shark Tank, when the judges have play money to spend as they come through the exhibits. The students have to sell their idea to people passing by. This involves soft skills where they need to interact with people who will give them the play money for the quality of their innovation. The exhibits with the most money at the end of the day are declared the winners.”

The exhibit required a tri-fold table-top display board describing the problem, solution and how to get to that solution. A complete description of the product or service also had to be explained. Then the students had to present their innovation to the judges.

Taking first place from Vicksburg were Kyler Dean, Bryce Chapman and Tyler DeVries. They invented the Athletic Cleat Cover which is designed to be used with all types of cleats and spikes. The purpose is to protect the sharpness of the cleats and spikes, all the while preserving the shoe’s aesthetics. The team was collaborating about sports and came up with the idea for the product. They modeled it in CAD so the cover would slide over the top of cleats to give better traction and prevent damage to flooring.

Another team from Vicksburg, Linkoln Kowalski, Brayden Martin, Jacob Weeks, Landyn Buiskool and Adrian Knauer, took second place for their idea to make a heated wheelchair pad. Third place went to Keagan Ellsworth, Kaeden Shubnell and Skylar Johns. Their invention was a platter and glove attached to it underneath to keep from tipping.

Electronics and mechanical components work together to make up complex systems from a car to a robot to automation lines. Students in Mills’ classes learn about electronics, robotics, equipment controls and sensors, programming, hydraulics/pneumatics, CAD/CAM, basic machining and CNC.

Technology at the State Capitol

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State Senator Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), Oliver Hammond, Breena Mejeur, Paityn Koeman (in back), Ryan Gruber.

By Sue Moore

Fifth grade students from Sunset Lake Elementary School were among the few in the state selected to bring cutting edge and innovative technology demonstrations from their classroom to show lawmakers in Lansing.

They did this as part of the 19th annual Student Technology Showcase in the state Capitol in December. Students from 35 classrooms across the state showcased the brightest and best technology projects that they are using, according to Mark Smith, executive director of the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) which organized the showcase. Underwritten by AT&T, it featured demonstrations from students representing more than 35 different schools around the state.

Fifth grade teacher Dawn Phelps is the tech integration leader at Sunset Lake school. This is the second appearance her students have made to exhibit their classroom technology. She applied to the technology Showcase so her students’ project could be considered.

Using Flipgrid software, the students created a video tape using a camera on a Chromebook computer that other students in the class could view and give feedback, Phelps said. This allows a shy student to sit at a desk and take notes on other people’s speeches.

“They learn how to use technology and the internet safely without leaving a digital footprint that the public might see on social media forever. It’s set up a bit like snapchat. They love the technology as their work does not get on any public sites. It stays private so only the ones who see it are those who set it up. They showed state Senator Sean McCann how it all worked, even on their cell phones. He was fabulous with the kids and engaged them in great conversation,” Phelps said.

Only four of her students could attend the Showcase along with Terri Negri, the lead technology person at Sunset school. Although the whole class uses this technology, Phelps had to choose those who wanted to learn more about Flipgrid and be willing to present it to others.

“It allows my students to use their speaking and listening skills in a real-world setting. It was no cost to the kids. They got to tour the Capitol and take turns walking around to see other students’ projects,” Phelps said. “I also think that having a small group work together to plan, create and present technology outside of the classroom enhances their understanding of the technology we are using. Once this ‘expert’ group gets it down, they are incredible at helping other students, even in other grades, learn more about specific technology tools too.”

Students from all over the state displayed a wide variety of technology projects that blended science, mathematics, social studies and language arts with the latest digital tools. Their work featured app development, artificial intelligence demonstrations, coding, robotics, web design, and many other technology demonstrations.

MACUL is an organization dedicated to bringing educators from all levels together to share their knowledge and concerns regarding educational uses of computers and technology.

Bulldog Wrestling Looking Promising in Early Season

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Carter Mann posts a win in the 171 weight class in a Vicksburg wrestling contest.

By Travis Smola

Vicksburg’s wrestling program has seen its share of struggles the last few years. It may finally be on the path to turning the corner as it fields one of the most experienced teams in a while. “What I’m looking for is just to build,” Head Coach Jeff Mohney said.

“A lot of these freshman that are coming up have been wrestling in the My Way program at the middle school, so they’re not coming into it green,” Mohney said.

He said he’s had to spend less time working on the basics with both the wrestlers and the parents this year because the youth wrestling program has already taught the basics. There are still a few holes in different weight classes. But the Bulldogs saw the arms of Kenny Stermer, Gunnar Neimandomski, Carter Mann, Ty Barnes, JP Culver being raised a few times at their first home quad meet.

In fact, Mohney said he only has two wrestlers this year who are new to the sport. Some of the freshman now have six or more years of experience. He also said they did a few off-season training sessions, but he’s also been encouraging the boys to take up a fall sport to keep in shape and help keep that team mentality.

In the early part of the season, he said they aren’t worried about scores. Their focus is just getting the boys experience before conference meets start. The influx of new experience means they should be able to start building the team properly through JV level experience this year. In the past, they’ve had to use inexperienced, younger wrestlers at the varsity level simply due to lack of depth.

“Our upper classmen are going to go to the varsity events and these freshmen are going to actually get some JV experience instead of just throwing them right to the wolves to get beat up by the varsity,” Mohney said.

He’s excited by the prospects for this season and the future because the My Way wrestling program is now about 50 kids strong. It should go a long way to helping fill some of the holes the high school program has had recently.

“We weren’t able to compete, and our motto was to have fun, which it still is. But now we’re going to work a little harder and see if we can’t start competing while we’re having fun,” Mohney said.