By David Gordon May 12, 2020

  • Township to lose about $350,000 in state revenue sharing funds. No specific plan to deal with shortfall offered by Manager Steven Aynes. Without budget cuts, the township’s $1.3M Rainy Day Fund will be empty in less than four years, says Treasurer Lenore Zelenock.
  • Board’s plan for $5M sewer tank hits snag. Green Oak homeowners claim Northfield is ignoring legal “deed restriction” and the public notice for bonding may need a redo. Despite dire economic forecast, Board plunges ahead – sewer bills to jump 40%.
  • Board counters $100k offer from developer for 75 Barker Road firehouse with $112k counteroffer, adding “conditions” that Township attorney says are likely unenforceable.
  • Planning Commission asks for direction on four additional marijuana business options such: a “bar-like” operation that permits smoking pot but no sales; larger plant inventories for growers, and a “temporary event license” for both the sale and consumption of pot at a public or private event.
  • Under deadline pressure, Board picks two road projects for limestone application; allocates $97,700 overall including dust control. $15k will not get Road Commission matching funds. Road Subcommittee, headed by Aynes, provides no recommendations leaves Public Safety Director Bill Wagner out of the loop.
  • Board and Manager continue “failing to communicate or coordinate” pattern. Budget and road maintenance decisions are again “last minute” despite having months to prepare. Trustee Otto blames Covid-19.

Budget Cuts

The township is expected to lose half of its State Revenue Sharing funds this year (about $350,000) because of economic impact of Covid-19, it was revealed at last night’s Board of Trustees meeting.

Manager Steven Aynes, asked for budget advice on the shortfall three weeks ago, provided no plan or specific recommendations. “Be as conservative as possible,” he said. The Board directed him formulate options for the May 26 meeting.

Supervisor Marlene Chockley proposed meeting the shortfall by drawing down the Rainy Day Fund and cutting “to the bone” the Community Center budget, reorganizing the Building Department and selling off township property.

Treasurer Lenore Zelenock, after the meeting, said if no cuts were made and revenue sharing doesn’t drop further, the existing Rainy Day Fund of $1.3M would cover the shortfall for about four years.

“Fortunately, the Board has done a good job building up the Rainy Day Fund during the last three years,” she added.

Trustee Tawn Beliger wanted to eliminate all funding for “People’s Express”, the extremely popular and long-running service that provides transportation to the elderly and sick at reduced rates.

Beliger also suggested raising Building Department fees and, as is her habit, advocated dropping all memberships to service and educational organizations (such as the Huron River Watershed Council).

The Board heard input on the budget crisis at the Call to the Public from resident David Gordon (the author of this story) who suggested the entire shortfall could be offset by eliminating the position of Township Manager (more than $100,000 a year) and drastically reducing the cost of planning.

“Taxpayers have spent about $800,000 for the Manager since the position was created in 2013. I don’t think we’ve gotten our money’s worth,” he said.

“In the last few years, the planners have helped update the Master Plan and create both a Downtown Strategic Plan and a North Village plan for the waterfront park property by the U.S. Post Office. We’re all set with planning for a while,” he added.

The budget shortfall will be on the May 26th agenda for more discussion; a public hearing is scheduled for June 9 and final adoption for the June 23rd Board meeting.

The Board and the public were invited to send budget ideas to Aynes (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and/or his assistant, Jennifer Carlisle (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Sewer Expansion “Backup”

A new problem for the proposed sewer tank surfaced when Green Oak Resident Jessica Meissner claimed a “deed restriction” exists on the property that would force relocating the current site of the controversial $5M retention basin. (attached – It’s Pg. 164 of the Board packet.)

“You ought to respect and honor your own stated intentions and obligations,” said Meissner. “You plan to build this 40’-tall tank on property designed as a buffer between the Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) and our homes.” She added, “I don’t hear any concern from the Board about taking on a public debt in the middle of a giant crisis.”

Although Meissner’s claim is expected to receive scrutiny, her comments were not well received by the Board.

Beliger was dismissive. “I’m confident there are no issues,” she said. Trustee Jacki Otto was curt: “It’s up to Green Oak to alert us”. Trustee Janet Chick apologized to Meissner, saying the Board “can’t help. It’s a legal thing.”

The Board continues to struggle with how to pay for the expensive sewer expansion projects.

Bending to public pressure, the Board agreed to consider floating Revenue Bonds rather than General Obligation Bonds for the $5M sewer holding tank project (and presumably for the related sewer line expansion expected to cost $3M).

Every resident, even those not on the sewer system, would be “on the hook” with General Obligation Bonds. A Revenue Bond would only obligate sewer customers, but Revenue Bonds would cost more.

Chockley argued that the plant expansion benefits the entire community and therefore rural residents on private septic systems should not object to “co-signing “ for the debt. In response, rural residents have asked if WWTP customers would be willing to finance private septic tanks and fields throughout the township.

As required by law, the Board advertised last month its “intent to borrow” for the tank which starts at 45-day countdown for any public referendum to challenge the project. Changing the type of bonding would require a new announcement and reset the 45-day clock.

There was confusion as to whether Revenue Bonds carry the same referendum option for residents as General Obligation Bonds. Beliger, who favors spending for infrastructure (and the Manager), pushed for a vote to restart the clock immediately, but Otto said she wanted a written opinion from the bond attorney before proceeding.

“The Board should think about what they want,” Chockley advised.

75 Barker Road Firehouse “Fire Sale”

During its 3 1/2–hour Zoom meeting, the Board voted to sell the historic, shuttered firehouse at 75 Barker for $112,500 to a Grand Rapids developer who has refused to budge from his original $100,000 offer.

The firehouse recently was appraised at $215,000, but the Board decided to keep some of the parking on the site and a new value was set at $125,000.

The Board placed conditions on its $112,500 counteroffer. They insisted the developer guarantee that construction begins within a month of signing a contract; that it be completed with a year, and that the property would not be sold for 10 years. If sold sooner, the township would receive half of the profit.

Township Attorney Mike Fink said he didn’t believe the conditions could be enforced, saying, “I could get a client out of that”, but his advice went unheeded.

The conditions are designed to address concerns that the developer might simply hold the property in an unimproved state and flip it at a huge profit because earlier this year, a marijuana entrepreneur offered nearly $500,000 for the property, but wanted assurances he would be granted a pot license. The Board refused.

If the next Board changes the restriction on distances between pot stores, flipping the property could potentially create a $400,000 profit.

It was uncertain if the Grand Rapids developer will accept the Board’s counteroffer.

After the unanimous 6/0 vote to sell the property with conditions (Trustee Wayne Dockett, who opposes the sale, was absent with notice) Board members expressed their views.

Chockley exclaimed, “Wow, we’re making progress!” Her enthusiasm aligned with her earlier cheerleading for the developer and her defense of his low offer.

Chick said she hopes the developer understands “he’s getting a great price”.

Beliger said she felt “blessed” to have the developer in the community.

The Board is expected to give the local Kiwanis Chapter, which has been using the firehouse for years, time to remove all the donated items now stored there.

Road Maintenance

The Board agreed to include $97,700 in next year’s budget for road maintenance; thousands less than last year. The county Road Commission will contribute about $82,000 in matching funds.

In addition to the usual dust suppression treatments, two roads will receive upgrades of added limestone - Six Mile Road (from Auburn Dr. and Earhart Road) and Nollar Road (from Six to Seven Mile Roads.)

Failure to Communicate

Zelenock and the public (me) both criticized the Board and Manager’s continuing failure to communicate, co-ordinate and follow through on assignments and projects.

“We need to be more prepared,” said Zelenock, adding that she fully expected to get budget recommendations from Aynes sooner, and expressed disappointment that Chief Wagner was left out of the road maintenance discussion.

At 10:30 p.m., after a long 3 1/2 hours, Chockley congratulated the Board for doing such a good job and moved to adjourn.