Bippus Lauds Resourcefulness, Efficiency in Year of Pandemic

Three Rivers City Commissioners, city staff, and others attend the 2020 Organizational Meeting (Zoom Screenshot)

At an annual organizational meeting Monday evening, members of the Three Rivers City Commission heard about a year’s worth of work and progress from the city’s various department heads, ranging from the fire and police chiefs to the mapmaker and the grant writer. Commissioners also passed a series of measures to set various procedures for the coming year.

City Manager Joe Bippus said the city has gotten “a lot of things accomplished” in the past year, and has been “very resourceful,” delivering “quality services” to the public through diligent frugality and with “very little waste” of money or other resources.

Staff Department Head Reports

  • Police Chief Tom Bringman said the Three Rivers Police Deparment’s workforce includes 16 full-time and 13 part-time employees, plus a volunteer Police Chaplain. That staff, he said, wears “different hats throughout the workday.” The primary “hat,” Bringman said, is that of peacekeeper, calming situations by learning “what’s going on” and helping “find suggestions for a peaceful solution.” Officers “wear a law enforcement hat when needed,” Bringman said, but the desire is “always for a peaceful solution.”
  • Wastewater Treatment Plant Director Doug Humbert said two of the city’s main wastewater facilities are roughly 40 years in age and in need of replacement soon, including its Constantine Street Station and a second facility near the Metal Technologies plant. Humbert plans to pursue a loan to cover that work, plus upgrades to other facilities, which he will bring before commissioners within the next year.
  • Three Rivers Public Library Acting Director Bobbi Schoon detailed the unusual circumstances under which the library has been functioning this year, including staff and hours reductions, curtailment of in-person service, and other measures due to the ongoing pandemic. The library has 13 employees, and Schoon is the only one who is full time at the moment. However, the library successfully completed the move into its newly renovated building on North Main Street, has had great success with curbside lending services and take home and virtual programs, and was recently able to open up to the public on a limited basis.
  • Finance Director Cathy Lawson said her staff of four full time and one part time employees are responsible for all fiscal activities in the city, including billing, tax collection, budgeting, and related reporting for all city operations and departments. They also serve as primary service contacts with the public.
  • Fire Chief Jeff Bloomfield said the Fire Department has 14 full time and 12 part time employees providing coverage in Three Rivers and Lockport Township. The truck and ambulance fleet, Bloomfield said, are in great shape, with the exception of a 23-year-old ladder truck which has cost around $30,000 in maintenance for the past two years and will need replacement soon. The department’s paramedic staff has become harder to recruit for in recent years, and Bloomfield said he is exploring solutions to that challenge.
  • Bloomfield also oversees City Hall maintenance. Following an air system replacement last year, Bloomfield said he anticipates no large expenses for the building except the upcoming purchase of a new boiler.
  • Department of Public Services (DPS) Director Amy Roth said her staff of 18 full time and one part time staff oversee a comprehensive range of services and operations. DPS operates the city’s drinking water system, sanitary and storm sewers, mapping and geographic data, tree removal and planting, sidewalk engineering, and repair and maintenance of many streets. Streets activities include citywide snow removal, leaf pickup, patching, and sweeping. DPS also oversees the cemetery, the airport, and all city parks.
  • City Clerk Melissa Bliss said she and the Deputy Clerk are responsible for the city’s elections and voter registrations, board agendas, compliance with the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act, records management, some licensing and permitting, cemetery burial deeds, and maintaining the city’s Farmer’s Market. Bliss is also the city’s official notary.
  • Grant Writer James Hissong said he has been back in his position almost a year after a brief period of work in the Grand Rapids area. His position is shared with St. Joseph County and the City of Sturgis. This past year, he has helped secure over $660,000 in grants toward downtown revitalization, housing repair, and other work and is potentially in line for $2 million in funds for an expansion at the American Axle plant. He has been busy this year working to secure coronavirus relief funding.
  • Three Rivers Downtown Development Authority and Main Street Program (TRDDA) Executive Director Tricia Meyer said downtown Three Rivers is in its seventh year under the Michigan Main Street program. This year, TRDDA staff and volunteers have worked hard to recruit five new businesses to downtown and provide $60,000 in state pandemic support to 17 existing ones. TRDDA also cooperated in a partner shopping program with the Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation. Despite the pandemic, TRDDA has 819 volunteer hours in this year, and its events schedule is resuming for the holiday season after several cancellations over the summer.
  • City Assessor Lydia Paille said she oversees tax assessment for the city’s 3,464 industrial, commercial, and residential parcels, which bear a total assessed value of $168,685,045. The majority of her duties revolve around analyzing current real estate markets to ensure accurate values for each parcel of land, which must then be approved by the St. Joseph County Equalization Department and the State Tax Commission and are used to calculate property tax bills.
  • Geographic Information Systems Coordinator John Beebe oversees mapmaking in the city but is also the city staff liaison to the City Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Beebe also addresses city ordinance administration and flood plain administration. This year, he has been winding up leadership in the city’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) process, a state-led initiative to improve the city’s development procedures. Concurrent with that, Beebe has also helped lead the development of the city’s new Master Plan, which is up for approval shortly.

Bippus said the RRC process includes a requirement that a joint meeting take place between the City Commission, the Planning Commission, and TRDDA. He hopes to schedule that meeting before or after next week’s regular City Commission meeting, which takes place on Tuesday. The meeting, Bippus said, provides each board an opportunity to talk to one another about what they are doing.

Procedure Updates

Also at Monday’s meeting, City Commissioners approved several procedural measures for the upcoming year. They include the following:

  • Selection of a Mayor Pro-Tem, who fills in for Mayor Tom Lowry when he is unavailable. Commissioner Alison Haigh is the current Mayor Pro-Tem, and was selected Monday to continue in the position.
  • Administration Guidelines, which set appropriate boundaries between city commissioners, staff, the city attorney, and other leaders and employees. The guidelines have been in place since 2002, and are reapproved each year.
  • Establishment of a regular City Commission meeting schedule. The commission typically meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m., and commissioners approved continuing that schedule Monday.
  • The city’s Parliamentary Procedures, which govern how the City Commissioners and other boards conduct meetings.
  • The commission’s Meeting Guidelines, which sets such things as allotted meeting times and time for adjournment, as well as timing and other limitations on public comments.
  • The city’s annual holiday schedule, in which most city buildings are closed and most staff have time off.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.