Lansing City Council hears from Fire Department about need for a new pumper, sets date of public hearing on proposed Urban Revitalization Plan/Tax Abatement Ordinance

by Julie Berg-Raymond

During its regular meeting Monday, November 6, the Lansing City Council heard from Nick Hammell, a member of the Lansing Volunteer Fire Department, about the department’s need for a new city pumper - the vehicle used to attack a structure fire.

The city pumper is not in service right now, Hammell said, due to an issue with the battery or with the battery charging system. “I know it’s a lot to bite off,” Hammell told the council. “But it has to happen.” Currently, the city is relying on the rural fire district’s pumper to handle structure fires.

In a conversation following the meeting, Hammell said the pumper is more than 30 years old, and “its condition has been in decline for a while.” He said the fire department approached the city council six years ago, and then again three years ago, to report that the pumper “needed some work.” This recent issue, he added, “was kind of the catalyst that made us say, ‘We have to get this replaced.’” Hammell said the fire department will be presenting a quote for a new pumper at the next regular council meeting November 20. “We want a new truck,” he said. “It’s the smartest, most responsible decision to make.”

The council set the date of the first public hearing on the proposed Urban Revitalization Plan/Tax Abatement Ordinance for Monday, December 18 at 7 p.m., in Lansing City Hall. A tax abatement - referred to in the Iowa State Code as an Urban Revitalization Plan - is a reduction in the taxes due on a property for a specified amount of time.

According to information offered in a presentation to the Lansing City Council September 11 of this year, tax abatement is a tool that is used regularly by municipalities across the country to help achieve their objectives related to housing. This tool, the presentation noted, can be used to help grow housing stock and population and, in the end, to increase tax revenue.

During a town hall meeting held Monday, October 2, for public discussion of the proposed Tax Abatement Ordinance and other issues, council member Ian Zahren emphasized that a tax abatement does not reduce the City’s tax revenue; that it stays with the property if it sells; and that it may incentivize a property owner to start work on developing or improving their property. Additionally, Zahren noted, a tax abatement does not apply to the school tax levy, and it shows a City investment required for certain grants, workforce tax credits, and other state funding.

The council unanimously approved switching the vision insurance plan for City employees from Delta Dental Vision (Avesis) with North Risk Partners/KBIA to Beam (Plan No. 2) with Affordacare. The new plan, contingent on union approval, “has the same coverage and will cost the City $109.17 to cover all employees and their families per month,” council member Steve Murray said in an email following the meeting. “The City covers all vision premiums,” he added. “The City chose to go with Beam because it offers the same benefits at a lower cost to the taxpayers.”

The council approved Resolution No. 995 - “Support and Financial Commitment for Main Street Program.” According to the resolution, “the City Council of Lansing endorses the goal of economic revitalization of the designated Main Street District within the context of preservation and rehabilitation of its historic buildings and supports the continuation of the Main Street Approach® as developed by Main Street America and espoused by Main Street Iowa.”

The resolution comes up for approval every four years. Part of the requirement to be in compliance with the State as a Main Street Iowa community, the resolution also states that the Lansing City Council “commits to appoint a city official to represent the city on the local Main Street Board.” Currently, council member Curtis Snitker is that representative city official; when Snitker leaves office in January, another council member will be appointed to the board.

The council approved a proposal offered by Brennan Construction for the replacement of a guard rail on Bench Street. The proposal indicates a cost of $2,100 for “removal of a steel beam guardrail.” From among the item replacement options offered in the proposal, the council chose a “steel beam guardrail - cut W-beam posts/salvaged rail,” with a unit cost of $38 and a total cost of $9,975. The price, as indicated in the proposal, “includes 8’ non-galvanized steel posts cut from a W6x9 beam to emulate the function of new DOT-quality posts. Salvaged guardrail from Brennan stockpile.”

Christopher Troendle, housing planner for Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) and board president of Main Street Lansing, asked the council to consider acting as fiscal agent for a community catalyst grant through the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) for Jeff and Maryann Gramlich to redevelop a building they own on Main Street. Gramlich, who has purchased his grandparents’ Main Street home, told the council that “I really want to make it one of the most beautiful places on Main Street.” He said he would be bringing “one or maybe two businesses” into the space. Troendle told the council the redevelopment of the building “would have to come close… but doesn’t have to be ‘historic.’”

Troendle said he would do all the work to apply for the grant - which would be in the amount of $100,000. The grant requires a match, and Troendle said the Gramlichs would be responsible for securing that funding. The City, he said, needs to be the grant applicant. Troendle said that while the City “has to have some skin in the game” to submit an application, it does not have to contribute actual dollars.

By way of example, he said, other municipalities have offered to help with sidewalk work or by providing a dumpster as the evidence of City investment needed for a Catalyst grant application. Council members Steve Murray and Curtis Snitker objected to having City workers fix a sidewalk or do work on a building that is someone’s personal dwelling.

A tax abatement would, Troendle said, also qualify as evidence of City investment in the project. “This would be a huge opportunity for the city of Lansing,” Troendle said. The council will vote on the request to act as fiscal agent at its next regular meeting.

Lansing resident LaVern Timmerman addressed the council with his concerns about responsibility for the boulevard in front of a homeowner’s property - particularly as regards tree maintenance. In his written statement of concern, Timmerman said, “I believe that the city should be responsible for taking care of the trees … that are on the boulevard, and not the homeowner.” Council member Steve Murray advised Timmerman that, according to Lansing’s City Code, trees are the homeowner’s responsibility.

Timmerman asked the council whether he had the right as the homeowner to remove a tree (from the boulevard). Mayor Melissa Hammell said, “If it’s not diseased, that might be an issue for the council.” Timmerman responded by noting that, two years ago, “someone at City Hall” threatened renters of his property with being sued for taking down a tree that, he said, he has proof was “rotted through.”

Mayor Hammell said the council would investigate the accusation of a threat; but she said it would be difficult because two years had passed since the alleged threat was made. Timmerman asked the council to reconsider the City Code regarding responsibility for trees on boulevards. “I think you guys need to re-look at that,” he said. Mayor Hammell said the council will research other city’s ordinances regarding the issue.

In other business, the council approved the Annual Financial Report and the Annual Urban Renewal Report. The next regular meeting of the Lansing City Council is scheduled for Monday, November 20, at 7 p.m., in Lansing City Hall.