Yankee Springs residents sound off at special public hearing
About 50 residents attend the special meeting Saturday at Yankee Springs Township Hall regarding the proposed renovation and expansion of the hall.
The threat of freezing rain didn't deter about 50 Yankee Springs Township residents from attending a special meeting Saturday to speak their minds on the proposed $898,500 renovation and expansion of the township hall on North Briggs Road.
Most of those in attendance continued to express their displeasure over the project cost, the lack of detail of how the work will be funded, and the lack of public input before board members voted 3-2 in October 2019 to move ahead with the project. The board hired the architectural firm Fleis & VandenBrink, at a cost of $95,500, to provide design development services, construction documents and bid documents for the project.
Additional criticism Saturday was directed at the makeup of the renovation committee that recommended the project.
Only one of the three board members who voted to approve the contract – Trustee Larry Knowles – was present for Saturday's special public hearing. Clerk Jan Lippert and Treasurer Alice Jansma, who also voted yes, were absent. Their absence did not go unnoticed by some residents who attended the hearing.
“[Of] the three people who voted this $900,000-some odd expenditure on this board, one's here. Two others aren't,” resident Bob Genther said. “We'll call it 'inclement weather.' I call it something else. The whole problem is, Larry, they decided – Jan, Alice and you, and the committee, hand-picked – decided you know you have three votes, come to this meeting, shove it through. That's why we're all here.”
Conceptual plans for the project call for renovating the nearly 4,000-square-foot township hall, which was built in 1971, and adding 1,727 square feet to the north of the building. The renovation would include restoration of the exterior masonry, addition of a new exit door to the south side of the building, creation of a conference room, a wide ramp that would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a new heating and cooling system, a new closet to house the township's information technology server and ceiling-mounted monitors that would allow both the public and board members to see information presented from the podium at board meetings.
The office addition would include a separate entrance from the meeting room entrance, service windows for the clerk and treasurer, along with private offices for the supervisor, clerk, assessor and future zoning administrator. The project details came out of concerns expressed by members of the renovation committee, Knowles said.
“The assessor's office needed to be enlarged. They thought the assessor couldn't even discuss anything with anybody because they would be stuck in the doorway … they thought the treasurer's office was too small,” he said. “Then it was brought in that they wanted to secure the building to keep people out in case there was a problem. Then they added in the fact that they wanted both the treasurer and clerk to be able to service that area in case one of them wasn't there.”
Among the members of that committee were Knowles, Jansma, Lippert, township assessor Dan Scheuerman, deputy clerk Marge VanderMeyden, deputy treasurer Deb Mousseau and voter registration clerk Nancy Near, according to meeting minutes. Knowles defended the work of the group, saying the meetings were open to the public.
“Everything was in the open, in public meetings. Nobody came to those meetings. That's why you didn't know there was a renovation going on,” he said.
Township resident Ron Heilman took the board to task for moving ahead with contracting with Fleis & VandenBrink for developing detailed plans and specs for the project without having an idea of how to pay for it. He said the price tag for the project is going to be “considerably more” than the amount that's been quoted if the township has to sell bonds to finance the work.
“If anybody thinks we're going to build a million-dollar addition and it's only going to cost a million dollars, they've been sleeping under a rock,” said Heilman, who serves on the township zoning board of appeals.
“If bonds are an iffy situation and probably the best way we could go, why didn't they sit down and figure out what we're going to do as a board for financing this thing before they even presented it and passed it?” he added.
Resident Mike Cunningham disagreed, saying the township is in a good position to finance the project. Cunningham had attended a special meeting in late November 2019 where township officials met with Baker Tilly, a firm that works with municipalities to evaluate their finances in preparation for projects such as the one proposed in Yankee Springs.
“When you go out to look for a new car or a new house, do you know exactly how you're going to finance it before you even know the cost?” Cunningham asked. “The cart before the horse [argument] is not applicable here. I think the people who did this knew in their head that yes, we can afford it, so they started moving in that direction.”
At that Nov. 20 meeting, Baker Tilly representatives suggested the idea of the township paying $300,000 out of its reserves and financing the rest of the project cost, most likely over 10 years. The township has more than $1 million in general fund reserves, Jansma said at that meeting.
Township Supervisor Mark Englerth said that while the hall renovation and expansion might not lead to a tax increase, he said financing the project may keep the township from addressing other needs, such as a firetruck or road improvements.
“$600,000 is $600,000. If you remove it from the general fund, it will limit what we're doing for the next 10 years,” he said.
Knowles had offered in the fall to re-form the renovation committee to get more residents involved, but Englerth didn't see the point of doing that.
“The citizens of this township [are] a committee,” Englerth said. “They pushed for this meeting. Thank you all for coming. I wish there would have another 100 people but on a day like today, this is a good thing.”
Some in the audience agreed renovation of the hall is needed, but suggested the work could be done at a lesser cost. Rob Heethuis, former president of the Gun Lake Protective Association, said “renovation is fiscally responsible.”
“If $900,000 is too much, I don't disagree with that,” Heethuis said. “But I heard everybody say there are certain things that this building needs, so let's figure out what they are and what it should cost.”
Englerth called for additional special meetings to give residents a chance to provide input into the project.
“I think what we're doing now is backing up and saying, 'What are the options?' I don't have any certain agenda, but if you don't think outside the box, we're probably not going to come up with the best solution,” he said. “There are dozens of things you can do … rent a space, knock the whole building down, remodel this – it don't matter. Be creative. I want you to challenge the board with some ideas.”