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City council bucks administration on rate increases and new salt storage facility

By Ralph Echtinaw

City council members were in a penurious mood Tuesday, declining to approve three items that City Manager Kurt Giles put on the agenda.

The most significant shoot down was the proposal to continue with a plan the council adopted in 2018 to raise the water/wastewater charge to residents by about 10 percent a year for six or seven years.

Past councils approved 10 percent increases in water/wastewater charges in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. This year’s proposed increase would have increased the charge to a homeowner who uses 4,000 gallons/month by $8.68 or 9.32 percent.

The original plan was to make the water/wastewater charge high enough that the city could pay off bonds that would be sold to fund sewer and water line replacement.

Councilman Roger Collison made a motion to approve the increase, but neither Bill Leonard or Liz Upton would support the motion. (George Kubin was absent.) So the proposal died for lack of support.

Where the city goes from here on water/wastewater charges is anyone’s guess. None of the council members responded to emails asking for comment.

City Manager Kurt Giles said this via email: “At this point, we will need to improvise our capital improvement plans. We’ve already committed to this year’s construction of the M46 water main replacement but the Pine Street reconstruction, water main replacement in the northwest quadrant of the city and other water and wastewater projects may have to wait until later than we expected.”

Electric rates

Council members likewise declined to approve an increase in electric rates, even though it would cost just 78 cents more per month for a customer using 600 kilowatt hours/month. “I’m opposed to the electric increase,” Collison said. “The council voted this down last year. It was a revenue-neutral proposal. I didn’t think the residents need it or want it.”

No one would make a motion to approve the rate increase, so it joined the water/wastewater rate increase in the dust bin.

Salt barn

Teed up next was a proposal to spend $275,000 on a geodesic dome to store road salt the city needs in winter to keep the roads from becoming skating rinks. 

“It is a lot of money, but it’s a structure designed specifically for this purpose and should serve the city for 30-40 years,” Giles said hopefully.

The dome would replace the existing salt barn that was damaged last fall and is now structurally unsound. 

The city is getting a $66,000 insurance payout for the damaged salt barn, which would defray the cost of a dome substantially, but council members weren’t having it. 

“I know it’s not conducive to put salt in a metal building,”

Leonard said. “I know it’s tough to find anyone to put up any kind of pole barn structure. But I also understand that if you took the $66,000 and added $40,000 you could put a hell of a building up of some type.”

Public Services Director Keith Risdon is pessimistic about being able to find a contractor who will erect anything other than a salt dome. “We did not talk to anybody that built these types of structures as far as a salt barn (is concerned) because we couldn’t find anybody that built a salt barn. Everybody basically that we’ve been dealing with… the new ones are salt domes.”

Collison had this to say: “I’d be willing to support repairing the one we have or tearing it down and building a new one at a much lesser cost. But to spend $275,000 on a salt barn I won’t support that.”

City Manager Giles said Wednesday that “we’ve begun looking into several short-term and long-term possibilities, including shared storage at another location and other building replacement options.”

Meanwhile, the city expects a salt delivery in August and has no place to put it.

Solid waste rate increase

Having spared property owners the expense of two rate increases and the cost of a salt dome, council members approved a 5 percent increase in solid waste charges to homeowners. (You can find these on your monthly city bill on the Refuse line.)

The new charges are $16.09 for solid waste, 47 cents for hazardous waste and $14.60 for yard waste. (Up from $15.51, 45 cents and $13.71.)

The vote on solid waste was 3-1 with Leonard voting no.

Painting the electric plant

Council approved spending $65,800 with Signature Painting of Breckenridge (owned by Brian McCrory) to paint the Electric Department building on North Mill Street in addition to two two fuel tanks. Giles said the city hasn’t used Signature Painting before, but “His reputation is the basis for the recommendation.”

The color is expected to match that of the upper parts of city hall and the pool building.

Plasti Paint expansion

Council approved a 12-year, 50 percent property tax abatement for a 5,700-square-foot, $564,000 expansion of the Plasti-Paint plant in the city’s industrial park.

Kasey Zehner of Greater Gratiot Development said Plasti Paint is the city’s fourth largest private employer with 109 full time jobs. The expansion began in April and is expected to be completed in September. Three new jobs will be created.

Plasti Paint will pay property taxes on just half of the 

$564,000 expansion for 12 years.

The deal won’t be official until the state tax commission gives final approval.

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