Lansing City Council swears in new council person, Benjamin Ghelf, and approves purchase of new pumper for Fire Department

Community input session on speed cameras scheduled for December 4

by Julie Berg-Raymond

Immediately prior to the regular meeting of the Lansing City Council Monday, November 20, Benjamin Ghelf was sworn in as a new council member, having won one of two seats on the ballot in the November 7 election. Councilman Ghelf was sworn in at the first regular meeting after the election due to being elected to the seat which had previously been an appointed position following the resignation of councilman Bruce ReVoir just over one year ago. Corey Richards, the other new councilman elected November 7, will be sworn in at the end the current term (the start of the new year) of councilman Curtis Snitker, who did not seek re-election this year.

At the start of regular business, the council approved the purchase of a new city pumper - the vehicle used to attack a structure fire - for the Lansing Fire Department, pending finding the best interest rate from a financing institution. The current pumper is more than 30 years old, and its condition has been in decline for several years.

Following the unanimous vote, Mayor Melissa Hammell signed a purchase agreement with Toyne, Inc., of Breda, IA. According to that agreement, the “apparatus and equipment” will be ready for delivery from the office in Breda “within about 825 days.”

Lansing Fire Chief Stephen Darling told the council that the fire department has made sufficient repairs to the current city pumper that it can be used for the (approximately) two years it will take to get the new one. “The current pumper is back in service although the lights are still having issues,” Darling said in an email following the meeting.

The total cost of the new pumper is $460,111. Darling told the council the Fire Department will be adding workable features from its current truck to the new one. Currently, the council is looking at a lease purchase financing option with Community Leasing Partners (CLP) - offered through Toyne, Inc. - which offers a 5.09% interest rate. City Clerk Katie Becker is going to compare interest rates at other financial institutions before the council commits to the lease purchase option with CLP.

The lowest down payment for the pumper would be $40,000; but a $50,000 down payment is also being considered. Becker said the City has $35,000 in an account set aside for the Fire Department, which can be used towards purchase of the pumper. Becker and Council member Ian Zahren have been working on getting a grant through the USDA that would pay for a portion or all of the truck.

“I know they are working hard to get that done,” Darling said. “I would just like to thank all of the individuals involved in this process and want them to know that I am extremely grateful for their help.”

Two residents spoke during the citizen concerns portion of the meeting. Don Peters said he was disappointed that concerns he had expressed at the November 6 regular council meeting about speed cameras were not included in the newspaper article written about that meeting; nor, he added, were they included in the meeting minutes submitted to The Standard by the city clerk.

Becker, who was absent from the November 6 meeting, said she would speak with Deputy City Clerk Tara Drape - who took Becker’s place at that meeting - about Peters’ concern. The reporter for The Standard said she did not include Peters’ comments in her article about that meeting only because they were not offered during the citizen concerns portion of that meeting. Instead, she added, Peters’ comments were offered in relation to the agenda item, “Police Report: Discuss Speed Study.”

Because Chief of Police Conrad Rosendahl indicated he had nothing further to present on the matter at that time and indicated only that the council would be voting on the matter at its November 20 regular meeting, discussion on the matter was not opened. Had Peters offered his comments during the citizens’ concern portion of the meeting, the reporter said she would have written about them in her newspaper article.

The speed camera issue was raised again at the November 20 regular meeting. The council and Chief Rosendahl indicated they wanted to have community feedback on the issue before a vote was held - and thought an in-person conversation would serve the community better than exchanges on social media. Therefore, the council scheduled a “community input session” for Monday, December 4, at 6 p.m., on the question of installing speed cameras in Lansing. The input session will be held at Lansing City Hall, immediately prior to the regular meeting of the Lansing City Council at 7 p.m.

The other resident who spoke during the citizen concern portion of the meeting was Diana Wilson-Thompson. She told the council that, having recently purchased a new house, she was interested in looking into whether she might qualify for a tax abatement under the City’s proposed Tax Abatement Ordinance/Urban Revitalization Plan - for which the first public hearing is scheduled Monday, December 18. While talking about tax abatements with another city resident, she said, “I was told that I didn’t want to do that because it would raise all my neighbors’ taxes - and I would never want to do something that would do harm to any of my neighbors.”

She said she had done some research, though, and knew this was inaccurate information. “I’m concerned about misinformation being spread.” (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.)

“I appreciate you bringing this to our attention,” Mayor Melissa Hammell told Wilson-Thompson. “The first public hearing on the proposed Tax Abatement Ordinance (Urban Revitalization Plan) is on December 18,” she said, adding that community members are encouraged to attend. The public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m., in Lansing City Hall; representatives of the bond counsel on the proposed ordinance, Whitney and Dorsey law firm of Des Moines, will be present at the public hearing.

Following up on a presentation he offered during the November 6 regular council meeting, Christopher Troendle repeated his request that the council consider acting as fiscal agent for a community catalyst grant through the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) for Jeff and Maryann Gramlich and answered council members’ questions and concerns about the request.

The $100,000 grant would be used to redevelop a building the Gramlichs own on Main Street - which Jeff Gramlich said would include putting one, perhaps two, businesses on the main floor. Troendle has said he would write the grant proposal, and that no money was required from the City; but, he said, the City does have to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the grant.

The grant requires a match, and Troendle said the Gramlichs would be responsible for those matching funds. Troendle also indicated a grant such as this one requires the City to show it has some “skin in the game” - a tax abatement ordinance/urban revitalization plan would be one way to do that, he said.

“My involvement is strictly as a local citizen who cares about Lansing and its future,” Troendle said in an email interview following the meeting. “I have extensive knowledge and experience working with cities, obtaining funding sources for development. There are many successful small cities that have created very vibrant communities through public-private partnerships. In creating these partnerships, communities create economic development, city income and in every case remedy buildings that are in poor condition.”

Troendle told the council the pre-application deadline for the catalyst grant is January 1, 2024. He said he needs to be able to indicate on the pre-application that the City is willing to act as fiscal agent and demonstrate that it has “skin in the game” - an example of which, he said, would be having a tax abatement ordinance/urban revitalization plan in place. The council has not yet voted to adopt a tax abatement ordinance; the first public hearing on a proposed tax abatement ordinance for Lansing is scheduled for Monday, December 18, at 7 p.m., in City Hall. But, as Mayor Hammell noted in a telephone interview following the council meeting, signing the pre-application “doesn’t mean that we are committed; we can always change our minds.”

Council members Curtis Snitker and Mike Manning expressed concerns about the City helping one business secure a grant when there are other residents who run businesses out of their homes and don’t get help from the City. Snitker said they need to “make sure everybody knows about it.”

“I have helped a handful of businesses and individuals look into different opportunities,” Troendle continued in the email interview following the council meeting. “This specific property owner asked more questions and decided that they would like to move forward as (their situation) fit the criteria of the catalyst grant. As for any of the possibilities for others, it is really the City who should be marketing these opportunities, which have been around for decades.”

Troendle said funding opportunities like this have been used in many cities in northeast Iowa. “The steakhouse in Waukon was one of the recipients and towns like Marquette, Decorah, Elkader, West Union and others depend on getting these for economic development of their towns,” he said. “If anyone is interested in looking into opportunities, they can reach out to me directly. I am always willing to help.”

Due to council members’ continuing concerns and because two council members - Steve Murray and Lisa Welsh - were absent from the November 20 meeting, and, further, because another council member - Ben Ghelf - is new and was sworn in that evening, the council decided to postpone a decision on this matter until the December 4 meeting.

The council approved a request for the same street closures it approved last year for the 2024 Driftless Half-Marathon event, which will be held on the second Saturday in October. Roads will be closed from the intersection of Valley and South Front Street to the intersection of South Front and Main Street; and John Street between Front and Second Street. The 24-hour parking lot will be blocked off for the marathon’s use, and a traffic sign will be put up to prevent people from turning east onto Main at Second Street.

At the request of the Street Department, the council approved purchase of a back-up snowblower hydraulic motor for $1,745 from Reiser Implement, Inc. in Waukon. Becker said the budget would have to be amended to allow for the unexpected payment.

October 9 and 10, the department completed its fall hydrant flushing. October 11,  they started winterizing the facilities. “This includes checking and turning on heaters, checking air lines and draining a hydrant that doesn’t drain by itself,” PeopleService Representative Duane Estebo noted in his report. From October 19-24, Estebo noted, they “worked with Tschiggfrie crew on locating lines and unhooking water and sewer lines at the houses that were torn down under the bridge.”

October 3, Estebo reported, “We met with FEMA about the flood damage we sustained this spring. This included giving them a copy of our maintenance work orders we have completed at Wall Street lift station for the last two years.” From October 16-19, the department did prep work for the jet/vac crew coming. This includes marking, opening and inspecting the manholes that are included in the zone to be cleaned. The department also had a notice put online so the public knew what was happening and what to expect. In addition to that, Estebo noted, “I also did door hangers on the homes and businesses that would be affected.” From October 23-24,  the jet/vac crew came and cleaned Zone 1. This includes Bench Street, Main Street, and Diagonal, North 3rd, Platt and North 4th Streets.

The council denied a request from Patti Kobriger to put “on hold” her water/sewer/garbage bills until further notice. In a letter submitted to the council, Kobriger wrote, “I moved from Lansing due to Iowa D.O.T. plans to build a retaining wall for the bridge. That will take away the parking and handicap accessibility from my home. Due to physical (dis)ability, I chose to move and sell my home and B&B. Two weeks after listing with a realtor, I found out the foundation of my home was questionable for withstanding bridge construction vibrations (and) therefore not safe to sell or even rent.” Therefore, she continued, “there is no one in either my house or B&B. I’m asking the council to help out with my water bill... until I hear from the D.O.T. what their plan is for my properties.”

In a telephone interview following the council meeting, Mayor Hammell said the council denied Kobriger’s request because standard practice is that people are responsible for their own utilities until the property has been fully vacated/sold. Mayor Hammell said she would reach out to the D.O.T. to see if she can help Kobriger. “I’m going to see if they’d be willing to help her with the utilities, since it is the bridge construction compromising her home,” Mayor Hammell said.

In other business, the council approved the annual updating of procurement policies. The next regular meeting of the Lansing City Council is scheduled for Monday, December 4, at 7 p.m., in City Hall. A “community input session” on installing speed cameras in Lansing is scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening, immediately prior to the regular council meeting.