See how the City of Three Rivers plans to use its budget in 2024

(Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

The Three Rivers city commission met Tuesday evening for a presentation of the city’s 2024 fiscal year budget. 

Priorities set forth in 2024 for the City of Three Rivers were announced at the start of the presentation, beginning with continued efforts to offer competitive compensation and benefits for employees. Other priorities included plans to continue developing strategies to support affordable, workforce, and market-rate housing, to continue to fund and support infrastructure capital improvements, and to continue to evaluate organizational staffing needs, encourage succession planning, and professional development. 

City staffing changes for FY 2024 will include the addition of a new shared grant writer, the addition of a new assistant water superintendent, and to fill the position of deputy police chief. “Our last grant writer was shared, and then he stepped away to try to be a contractor and start his own business, and we just paid him on an hourly rate. Now he’s moving on to become an employee of a school district,” City Manager Joe Bippus said. 

According to Mayor Tom Lowry, for many years a grant writer was shared between the City of Sturgis, the City of Three Rivers, and the county itself. “One of us made that person the employee, and then the other two bodies then gave money to that body to pay for their share. This year we’re proposing it’s our turn to make the person a Three Rivers city employee, and the other two units would pay us for their usage.”

The effort to fill the position of deputy police chief was approved by the city commission last year, and Bippus said the city wanted to promote someone to the job but didn’t have anyone to backfill work needing to be done. “We’re sending people to the academy this year, hopefully in the next month or so, and hopefully backfilling so that we can fill that position,” he said. Bippus went on to say when the recruits return from the academy and fill open positions, an officer will be moved off of line-duty into administration, and the line-duty job will be filled by a new officer.

At-Large Commissioner Lucas Allen asked, “Qualifications mean a lot, are we trying to hire within our own organization?” Bippus answered, “For the deputy police chief position we’re looking to promote from within. The superintendent for water we don’t have anybody in mind but we will advertise and seek qualified candidates.” Lowry said once all three aforementioned positions are filled, city staffing will be at 72 full-time employees, with 18 regular part-time positions, and various police and fire on-call staff.

The Public Safety Functions fund for 2024 will total $3,147,015 and includes police, fire, inspections, hazardous structures, and planning. Budgetary highlights for Public Safety Functions will be repairs to the sheds and police range, a remodeling of the police garage, new bulletproof vests, and fire PPE sets. The fund also includes trade inspections, rental inspections, and housing code enforcement contracted to SafeBuilt, Inc. 

Commissioner Chris Abel asked for clarification regarding the remodel to the police garage, and whether there would still be room to process suspects. “What we’re looking at is actually establishing a wall to put a door in there,” Boling said. “Our goal is to move all the processing out of the common areas, so if we have victims of crimes we are not introducing suspects in the same area. We are looking at putting in a wall, and avoiding pulling (patrol cars) in there.”

Major streets fund, mill and fill, lead line replacements

The 2024 fund balance for major streets is $281,000 and includes South and North Main Street, East and West Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Hoffman, and 4th Street. Upcoming projects will include work on Peeler Street Bridge, and work on Broadway from South Constantine to the west city limits. Local street mill and fill maintenance projects will include repaving of Union Street, Hill Street, Pleasant, and North Andrews. 

The fund balance this year for municipal streets is $3,000,000. “Municipal streets are those streets that are directly paid for by the three mills that we have enacted upon ourselves and the county-wide one mill that we get part of that, too,” Lowry said. “The fund balance this year is $3,000,000, which is 14 times what we budget for appropriations for the streets. The reason it’s so large, and that’s not normal, is we are setting money aside for the next big projects. We are trying not to go into debt as much as possible, and prepay things as much as we can.”

Abel asked whether there would be any major street rebuilds in 2024, as the current plan had been to do one rebuild a year. Three Rivers Public Services Director Amy Roth said, “We are proposing pavement work, but not a reconstruction project including utilities because we’re trying to pull that utility money and some of the street money to actually get us to the lead line replacement project.” Bippus added when the city receives lead line and water line replacements it will also want storm, sewer, and sanitary lines. “We want to have the other money available, too, so that we are not just going through and just doing one thing,” he said. “We’re trying to save money. We’ve identified where the lead lines are and it’s not exact, but it’s pretty close. We’re avoiding those areas right now, and focusing on areas we know are less likely to have lead lines under them just to do the mill and fills. It feels like a holding pattern and it kind of is.” 

IDA, DDA budgets

Component Units include the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and together have a revenue of $852,187, expenditures of $1,121,747, and a deficit of $269,087. “This is because the IDA and the DDA by law have their own budget and they approve it, we just rubber stamp it,” Lowry said. Lowry went on to say the IDA has wanted to be ready to get a new resident at their industrial park, and every year they have a budget to get a lot ready for the next tenant. “So this year, once again, they’re doing the same type of budget. They haven’t spent it each of the last years because they haven’t had a new tenant,” Lowry said, “but this deficit is because the IDA wants to be what they call ‘shovel-ready’ to hit the ground ready and get it ready as fast as possible for the next tenant. That’s why it shows a negative.”

The DDA is set to be paying off debts from the East parking lot project in June of 2024 for a total of $42,705. The Mural Mall debt ends in June of 2023, and the DDA will be paying off the total amount of $21,477. Additionally, the DDA wants to employ a part-time general maintenance position at nine hours a week on a permanent basis. This position would include responsibilities such as cleanup, watering flowers, and shoveling in the winter. 

Commissioner Allen asked why the DDA did not budget for an administrative assistant for DDA Director Cameron Mains, referencing a commission meeting from April 20 where Mains mentioned he could do more door-to-door work if he was given a part-time assistant. “He does have a volunteer and he said he was going to ask her to make some contact on West Michigan and South Main for the folks outside of the district,” Bippus said. “They chose to spend their money on maintenance. Personally, I agree with that. I think that makes sense. In the next budget year when they get their funds they can decide if they want to hire a part-time person.” 

Allen said he wanted someone from the DDA board to come to a commission meeting and speak to him personally. “I’m not approving anything with this until they come here and sit in this thing, and tell me why aren’t you spending any of your money on facilitating someone to bring you hours so they can free you up to talk to every person in business in your area?” he said. Lowry concluded the discussions regarding the DDA budget by saying, “They’ve already approved this budget so I think it’s inappropriate for us to suggest they change it because they’re the ones who should know the most about the downtown. It would be great to have somebody that’s a marketing expert or somebody knocking on doors somewhere else, but they set their own priorities for this year.”

Sewer & water

$4.6 million will be spent in the FY 2024 sewer fund, with bi-monthly service fee increases of 4%, which amounts to $2.35 every two months. The commodity rates will stay the same at $3.51, and total capital improvements will be $416,000. These improvements will include the Meadowbrook Farms Phase 3 sewer, ATAD building structural stabilization, and a diesel utility vehicle. 

$1.6 million is being expended for the FY 2024 water fund, with a 4% increase on the bi-monthly service fee which amounts to $1.56 every two months. The commodity rates have stayed the same at $2.60, with total capital improvements (including repairs to the Department of Public Services parking lot, water valves, and meter-reading equipment replacements) amounting to $133,000. Lowry said he wanted to point out the fund balance for the water department is a little over $1.5 million, and that the city would not be spending all of the balance. “We’re doing just the critical capital expenditures so we can save money so we have it if we get the grant.”

Commissioner Abel spoke out against the increases saying, “I just have a big problem with the water rates, as well as the sewer rates. We raised the rates through the roof because we had to set aside money to replace the water lines that are contaminated with lead — which we aren’t doing. We’ve done them when we did a capital project on the street, but other than that we’re not doing it. So where’s that money going and we’re asking everybody to pay more?” Lowry said, “Well, the sewer is going up $2.35 every two months, and the water is going up $1.56 every two months, so, it’s $3.91. I think that’s affordable.”

Lowry went on to say, “We did our big increase and 10% was being started to be set aside for the lead lines. It’s not the majority of the increase. It’s only 10%.” He said for the past two or three years those monies have been set aside as part of the fund surplus. “We are not lying to the customers. What we really said was that we were going to be proactive because we care about the health of our citizens, we are going to be proactive and start the project before we get all the free money from the state.” Lowry went on to say he was determined to lower rates for the citizens of Three Rivers, but he didn’t want to lower them right now because there is no way of knowing when federal and state funding will come, and how much money will be awarded to the city from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. 

Next steps

Closing the budget presentation Lowry read aloud, “The city is in solid financial health. The proposed budget continues to invest in improving the city infrastructure, maintain equipment for emergency services and improving our park system. It also reflects some modifications in our staffing levels as we meet the needs of the citizens. City administration continues to prepare a plan for larger capital purchases, such as fire trucks, renovation of city hall and backhoes that are included in the multi-year capital improvement plan.”

A decision was made not to hold a second previously scheduled budget meeting on May 30. There will be a public hearing for the fee schedule during the next regular commission meeting on June 6. The budget must be adopted by June 20. 

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.