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Council hears proposed 2020 budget

City Manager Mitch Foster said that Ludington’s proposed 2020 budget would basically maintain the “status quo,” but there are some costly projects scheduled for the new year, which will dip a bit into the general fund.

“Overall, we don’t do a whole lot of changes back and forth (year to year),” Foster told the city council during its meeting Monday, in which he presented the budget and three-year capital improvement plan. “Without a strategic plan — which (council) will be working on in a couple of weeks here — it’s difficult for staff to try to make big changes and big adjustments. So once we have that strategic plan in place, that will give staff direction as to: Where are we going? What do you want to see? And how to make big adjustments?”

The council’s strategic planning meeting is scheduled for from 2 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 5, at Red’s Room in Jamesport Brewing Co., 410 S. James St., Ludington. Foster said the public is invited to listen in, but most of the information presented to the council will be ideas from residents who spoke during the ward meetings held earlier in the year.

Foster also plans to host what he calls “Burgers and Budgets” meetings to talk about the city’s finances with the public over a bite to eat at local restaurants. The dates and locations of Burgers and Budgets are not yet set.

The council will hold a public hearing and consider approving the proposed budget during its meeting at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 9, at city hall.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Foster said he believes the city will finish the year with a surplus balance in its general fund totaling more than $600,000 due to several projects that were budgeted for 2019 not occurring and having to be rescheduled for 2020.

“Those are things that we need to do for ... hazard mitigation work or repairs to existing infrastructure,” he said.

The projects include installing a seawall to stop erosion at Maritime Heritage Park, the repairs to the sunken pier at the Loomis Street Boat Launch and fixing the street at the flooded Rath Avenue and Melendy Street intersection. Each project is estimated to cost around $200,000, Foster said, and the proposed 2020 budget includes the projects as a $611,100 expenditure from the general fund.

“These are the ticking time bombs,” Foster said about the looming expenses of repairing streets, water lines and sewers.

A project is scheduled to begin in spring 2020 to reconstruct the Loomis Street roadway and underground utilities from Rath Avenue to Delia Street. The Loomis Street project is budgeted to cost a total of more than $900,000, including some $375,000 from the major street fund, $323,000 from the water fund and $232,000 from the sewer fund.

The paving alone will cost $589,000, Foster noted, and the life expectancy of the roadway is 20 to 25 years.

There’s no way the taxes from the 21 properties along the Loomis Street improvement area could ever pay for the reconstruction during the effective lifespan of the new roadway, according to Foster.

The total taxable value of the 21 properties is $1.26 million, Foster said, but the city’s portion of the property tax millage only results in $18,000 per year of revenue from those properties — which is also divided to pay for not only roads, but also police other expenses.

Considering the large number of other Ludington roads that will need to be reconstructed in the coming years, the city is going to need to figure out how to make funding for the repairs sustainable, according to Foster.

“There has to be a conversation with the public, with our state legislators, with (the council and city staff) to say, ‘This is a reality that all communities are facing. How do we deal with it?’” Foster said.

The largest source of funding for the city’s street repair comes from the state through Act 51. Ludington is anticipating an increase in 2020 of $150,000 for its major street fund and about $55,000 for the local street fund.

“Our major road funding has done quite well,” Foster said. “Going into 2020, we’re assuming about $778,000 worth of revenue. That will help us pay for (major) roads. That’s huge — that amount of revenue. The issue is this: the local road funding. ... 90 percent of our streets are local roads, with only $299,000 to pay for it.”

He said there isn’t enough money in the local road fund to pay for all of the repairs that are needed.

“This year alone, we have to transfer over $200,000 from (the) major streets (fund) to local streets for maintenance,” he said. “That’s not sustainable over the longterm because we’re now subsidizing (local street repairs), but we’re also having to do it at the expense of major street reconstruction.”

Foster said the solution to that problem may not be one the city can provide on its own, but it is an issue that needs to be acknowledged locally and heard by the state.

The local street fund would also provide some $140,000 for engineering and construction to replace the storm sewer at South Lakeshore Drive to fix the drainage problem at the Port of Ludington Maritime Heritage Museum, according to the capital improvement plan. Another $90,000 is budgeted for additional high water issues.

At Harbor View Marina, which the city is expected to lease and operate this summer, some $60,000 is budgeted to do concrete work along the west seawall.

The municipal marina fund is expected to receive $217,000 in grants from the Michigan Waterways Commission for the project to incrementally replace the municipal marina’s docks, which is budgeted for $452,500 in expenses. Other projects include other dock maintenance in the amount of $9,000 and $6,000 for a tool shed.

The city’s water fund would receive an estimated $250,000 in additional revenue from customer sales if the council approves the proposed, overall water rate increase of 7.5 percent for 2020. The water fund is expected to have an increase in expenditures of just under $500,000, which includes the contribution to the Loomis Street project as well as $67,000 of other asset management projects.

The sewer fund’s revenue would also receive a boost if the proposed sewer rate increase, which is around 2 percent, is approved by council. The sewer fund’s largest revenue increase will be the $10 million from federal loans earmarked for the Ludington Wastewater Treatment Plant’s ongoing upgrade project. Other increased expenditures from the fund in 2020 include $58,000 for repairs to lift stations and $68,700 for other asset management as well as the portion for the Loomis Street project.

OTHER PROJECTS

After the wastewater treatment plant upgrade, the next single most expensive project in 2020 is the Downtown Development Authority’s planned construction of a pavilion and other improvements to the James Street Plaza. The downtown fund would provide a local match of $235,910 for the project, and the rest is hoped to come from approximately $2.1 million in grant funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Another $250,000 project is to construct a new salt barn and storage warehouse for the Department of Public Works (DPW) at 975 First St. The construction is tied to the private Lofts on Rowe apartment renovation project because the developer wants to acquire the property where the existing DPW warehouse is on North Rowe Street. The developer is currently still applying for financing approval from the Mason County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority Board. If the developer gets the brownfield approval, the city can be reimbursed, sell the property and build the new warehouse, according to Foster.

The motor pool fund is budgeted for $411,800 in expenditures for 2020, which includes the acquisition of several vehicles. The motor pool seeks to buy a loader, two police Tahoes, three pickup trucks, a used semi-tractor and a blower for the cemetery. LED lighting would also be installed in the motor pool building for $21,000.

Other projects include $37,000 for a new phone system for city hall, since the existing system is “older than the building” and replacement parts are difficult to find, Foster said. The capital improvement plan also includes the budgeted item of $30,000 from the general fund to replace the air conditioning units and furnaces in city hall. It also includes some $37,200 to replace 20 office computers, the city server and the electronic white board for council chambers, which would all be paid from the technology fund.

The city’s SEIU union and the non-unionized administrative employees are budgeted to receive 3 percent wage increases, and the police officers in the police union will receive 4 percent raises. Employee health insurance premiums are scheduled to reduce by 3.15 percent, but all other benefit costs will remain the same as 2019.

GENERAL FUND

The city has 10 funds that are all maintained independently for different roles the city provides, such as the general fund, motor pool fund, sewer fund and others.

The general fund is typically the biggest, and it pays for the operational expenses of most of the city’s departments.

It’s also used as a rainy day fund for one-time payments. For that reason, Ludington tries to maintain a general fund balance of at least 25 percent set aside in case the city has to pay for any unexpected, urgent projects or if the municipal government ever has “lean years” due to another economic recession. The 2020 budget will continue this practice of keeping a 25-percent fund balance, Foster said.

He said that just less than $200,000 is projected to be added to the fund balance at the end of 2019, but after the $611,000 is spent for the rescheduled projects, the fund balance would drop down to about $2 million.

“Which would still keep us between that 25- and 30-percent range of the general fund,” Foster said, adding later, “In general, between 25 and 30 percent is a safe place to be. If you get down below 20, I’d be nervous.”

The proposed 2020 budget includes an estimated 9.1-percent or $566,700 increase in revenue for the city’s general fund, compared to 2019. Property tax revenue is projected to increase by 1 percent — about $33,800 — and local stabilization revenue from the state is anticipated to increase by $362,100, in addition to other intergovernmental revenue sources.

Foster said for many years, the city’s annual expenditures were within a consistent range, but more recently that’s changed.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen a pretty progressive increase on expenditures. To me, that’s explained in one big thing — that’s investments back into infrastructure and equipment,” he said. “The city has made pretty significant transfers from the general fund to major streets and local streets, motor pool, a number of different funds to try to pay for infrastructure and start making investments (in the city’s future).”


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Students demonstrate coding skills at MCC

SCOTTVILLE — Seventh-graders had a chance to demonstrate their coding skills during a computing project showcase Wednesday at Mason County Central Middle School.

Students in Chandra Tacktor’s class spent the morning demonstrating and explaining their projects to younger students as part of a larger coding project that’s linked up with MCC’s coding curriculum.

“The seventh-grade class is showing the sixth-graders,” Tacktor said. “They had coding in sixth grade and they had coding in seventh grade, and now they’re combining everything from the Code.org (Computer Skills Discovery) curriculum to make their final projects.”

Those final projects included a host of different styles and themes, as the groups of students were encouraged to be creative and infuse their projects with their own flourishes, according to Tacktor.

One of the seventh-grade groups — which included Callee Bourgette, Keeli Johnson, Ellie Bendele and Easton Edmonson — created a digital instrument set-up.

“They have a three-piece band with three different sets of code and three different programs running at the same time,” Tacktor said of the group. “They wanted to push themselves, and I said, ‘If you can do it, go for it.’”

The instruments consisted of a drum set, a keyboard and a flute.

“We have a piano that, when you click it, it makes noises, and a flute that, when you blow into it, hears the sound of the air in your mouth and it will play a noise,” Bendele said.

Bourgette said the hand-made instruments worked through the use of sound sensors. The flute, for instance, featured a cup fixed to its side. People could blow into the cup, which was fitted with sensors that picked up on the air flow. The instrument was coded to create sound as a response.

The drums were connected to alligator clips to help pick up on the sound being made when drum sticks touched aluminum-covered sensors arranged like a drum set.

“We all just thought about instruments that would make different beeps when you (play) them,” Bourgette said.

Another group — which included Riley Moritz, Rylen Mihalek and Brayden Jeffries — created a game using a circuit board and motion sensors attached to a joystick shaped like a motorcycle handle.

To play the game, sixth-graders could select colored images on a screen that was connected to the joystick to score points.

“It senses movement from side to side and up and down, and the circuit board displays a certain color,” Moritz said.

Jeffries explained how the game could be won.

“We had the code set up so that it will set a color on the screen and it will show up on white LEDs (on the joystick),” Jeffries said. “It will set it to a color, and you have to get that color (on the display), and you need 11 points to win.”

The application of coding to a physical process is an important part of the project, according to Tacktor.

“It’s a hardware piece and a software piece together,” she said, adding that the projects were not easy to put together successfully, and skills from previous years of curriculum were utilized to see the work completed.

“They’ve been learning the skills over the past two school years,” she said.

Tacktor added that the projects showcased on Wednesday took about three weeks of class time to finish.

For the assignment, students worked on a code, then built prototypes for the demonstration.

“It was quite a process,” Tacktor added. “They worked out some kinks, but they made it work.”


Notable
FiveCAP offering free Christmas trees on Dec. 7

FiveCAP offering free Christmas trees on Dec. 7

Most holiday memories center around the iconic presence of a Christmas tree. Many families facing hard times this year won’t have to forego this tradition, thanks to Chris Frederick, owner of Blue Earth Tree Farm in Ludington, who is again donating Christmas trees to FiveCAP.

“We are so grateful to Blue Earth Tree Farm for their continued support to help area families have a merrier Christmas,” stated FiveCAP Executive Director Mary Trucks in a press release. “For over a decade, they have provided us with trees to give to families who cannot afford to buy one. It’s really wonderful that we have trees available for these families so parents can build traditions with their children, and have that centerpiece for their holiday celebrations.”

Frederick gathers a band of volunteers each year on distribution day and together with FiveCAP staff and volunteers, they cut anywhere between 125 and 150 trees, which are then taken back to each of the four counties in FiveCAP’s service area.

Just as the tradition of decorating the tree is the official kickoff of the holiday season for many families, cutting trees and distributing them to appreciative families has become the traditional beginning of the season for both Frederick and FiveCAP.

The freshly cut trees will be given free of charge on a first come, first served basis. Trees will be available at FiveCAP’s Johnson Road warehouse from 12 to 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 7, in Scottville.

For more information, call the Mason County FiveCAP office at (231) 757-3785.


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Chamber’s ReThink West Michigan event ‘a success’

The Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce held an event to boost interest in living and working in Mason County among young professionals and people from outside the area on Wednesday night.

The occasion was the ReThink West Michigan event — a campaign held simultaneously at various locations throughout the region, geared toward bolstering economic vitality in West Michigan communities — and the goal was to get people to consider moving back to their hometowns.

Similar events were held in Fremont, Grand Rapids, Rothbury, Muskegon and Hastings.

It was Ludington’s third year of participation, and dozens of people visiting the area for the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as several employers, gathered in one room to network and explore the possibility of relocating to the Ludington Area during a happy hour at Stearns Hotel on Ludington Avenue.

“It’s for maybe people who are home for the holiday, and getting them to think about Mason County that might peak their interest, and maybe get them thinking about Mason County again,” said Brandy Miller, president and CEO of the Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The event has been successful in bringing prospective employees to the area talk to representatives from local businesses like Change Parts and OxyChem about job opportunities in engineering, manufacturing, information technologies, finance, sales and human resources fields, among others.

Miller said that participation has grown since last year, and said she expects a few people to find the right job — or the right employee.

“The employers have had success in hiring people either right away or within the next couple months after the event, and it’s been people they’ve connected with here,” she said. “Anyone they can get is a success.”

Several area businesses, organizations and nonprofits came to the event, including House of Flavors, Michigan Works, Meijer and FloraCraft, among others.

Tim Nieboer, vice president of human resources for House of Flavors, said his business has hired through the ReThink West Michigan event before.

“We had a couple folks that we hired out of the first one we participated in,” he said. “They were moving up from another part of the country, and decided to come here.”

Nieboer said the area has plenty of strengths, including close access to outdoor activities, and several different lifestyles.

“Whatever you want, as long as it’s not the big city, we have,” he said.

The ReThink West Michigan event drew close to 20 people, with higher attendance than in the two previous years.