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Escanaba City Council eyes budget cuts

ESCANABA — Thursday’s Escanaba City Council meeting promises to be well attended as residents voice their concerns over proposed cuts to library funding and the future of the old Delta County Jail. The meeting agenda includes:

BUDGET CUTS – The agenda includes the fourth of five planned public hearings on the city’s proposed 2022-2023 fiscal year budget — a touchy subject as the city faces what could be years of budget deficits. Some of the city’s budget concerns are already a reality. While the budget remains somewhat in flux until final amendments can be made near the end of the fiscal year and actual numbers won’t be available until an audit can be completed in the fall, the city is looking at a possible $316,415 deficit in the general fund for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1. The potential for a deficit continues in the 2022-23 budget, which currently has a projected general fund deficit of roughly $1.02 million. If no changes were made to the proposed 2022-23 budget moving into 2023-24, with some adjustments due to inflation projections, the next year’s deficit would be roughly $1.4 million.

To address the concerns, Council Member Ronald Beauchamp requested a list of potential cuts, which was presented to council members on April 21. None of the cuts have been voted on or approved, but the list will be discussed Thursday. The list includes cutting $10,000 worth of wage increase for staff from the controller’s office, $44,000 from the public safety department for body cameras and new fire station doors, the elimination of a full-time position in community preservation, $15,000 for property line identification in the engineering department, $60,000 for a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s zoning, $22,000 for a new mower and resurfacing of the Veteran’s Park tennis court, $15,000 for a new trail-grooming four-wheeler, and $15,000 that was intended as a match for new flooring and a generator at the Catherine Bonifas Civic Center.

In total, the cuts would eliminate $224,342 of the general fund deficit. However, eliminating two transfers out of the general fund — $174,342 for the Escanaba Public Library and $50,000 in matching funds for the new splash pad at the site of the former Webster Wadding Pool — would drop the deficit by $405,342 to $616,889.

The cut to the library, which would represent a roughly 40% drop in library funding, drew ire soon after the list was distributed to the council. A series of widely-shared social media posts are encouraging residents to attend the meeting to voice their opposition to the cuts or to contact council members directly.

Other potential money-saving cuts mentioned by City Manager Patrick Jordan during the April 21 meeting were to cut city personnel or to consider the sale of some of the city’s park land to developers. Because of the way the city’s charter is written, park land can only be sold if residents approve doing so through a city-wide vote.

JAIL SITE – The council will also discuss the future of the former Delta County Jail and Chamber of Commerce building sites. The city’s attorney Lisa Vogler of L.J. Vogler Law, PLC — whose contract was approved during the April 21 city council meeting — is expected to be in attendance to discuss the issue. Volger’s practice is based in Beulah, in the Lower Peninsula. Initially, Jordan had recommended the city enter into an agreement with the Red Deer Lodge Development Team, a development group from the Lower Peninsula which aims to put a upper-midscale, extended-stay hotel on the jail site and a mixed-use development composed of condos and retail spaces on the Chamber of Commerce site.

Three local developers also threw their hats in the ring to redevelop the sites: Terrace Bay Hotel, LLC; North Shore Marine Terminal and Logistics; and Swanee, Inc., which is behind the Lofts on Ludington. The three developers later decided to join forces, splitting up the properties into separate areas to allow each of the developers to focus on specific aspects of their projects.

“The North Shore Marine Terminal, the North Shore Flats and the Terrace Bay Hotel have come to an agreement which allows each of us to accomplish the most important parts of our individual proposals and keep this downtown development project local,” said Jarred Drown, of the Terrace Bay Hotel, who spoke during public comment with representatives from the other development groups standing with him during the March 17 council meeting.

The Terrace Bay Hotel scrapped plans for a second hotel on the Chamber site, but maintained plans for a dinner cruise ship and a Hampton Inn on the site of the former jail. The Chamber property was claimed by Swanee, Inc., for the creation of a mixed-use and condominium development. North Shore Marine claimed the shoreline, consistent with its original plan to expand its ship repair operation, and has guaranteed a public access path that would cross part of its existing property. Whether or not the city could legally allow the joint development, which does not meet the requirements of the original request for proposals, has delayed awarding the sites to any developer. Vogler’s hire may bring clarity to the issue and allow the council to move forward.

UTV ORDINANCE – Thursday will also be the second public hearing and possible adoption of an ordinance allowing UTVs to be operated on city streets. Concerns raised at the April 21 meeting sent the ordinance back for revisions, but the version up for discussion Thursday would allow individuals with a valid driver’s license to operate UTVs on the majority of Escanaba’s streets, with some areas off-limits, such as the majority of Ludington Park and all of US-2, US-41 and M-35.

OTHER OPEN BUSINESS – The council will also hold a second public hearing and potentially adopt the city’s newly-revamped zoning ordinance, set public hearings for two special assessments for asphalt alley paving, and consider donating old public safety radios to the Escanaba School District.

CLOSED SESSIONS – Two closed sessions are scheduled for Thursday: one to consider an opinion memo from the city’s tax tribunal attorney and one to discuss an ongoing fraud case with the city’s new attorney and Escanaba Public Safety.

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