City planning for bridge replacement

Marie Havenga • Feb 2, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Ferrysburg leaders want to plan for the city’s financial future, and that includes a $10 million Smith's Bayou Bridge project.

That's a tough number to stare down, especially when it's uncertain if grants will be available to help lessen the city's financial burden to build a new bridge.

“The big item everyone keeps talking about is the replacement of Smith's bridge,” City Manager Craig Bessinger said of the West Spring Lake Road bridge that crosses Spring Lake's Smith's Bayou. “We have a $10 million estimate from our engineer.”

The present 427-foot-long bridge was constructed in 1972.

“The engineer has indicated for the cost difference to repair the bridge or replace it, it is more cost effective to replace it,” Bessinger said.

State officials have told the city to not even bother applying for a grant, because such funds are not currently available. They suggested not applying until fiscal year 2018-19.

Bessinger said he has no idea if a grant will be available at that time — or, if it is, how much of a local match would be required.

“I wouldn't even hazard to guess on that,” he said. “We won't know until 2019. We won't replace the bridge until then and we'll have to figure out the financing.”

Bessinger said when the city did receive grants for two other bridge projects, the match was never more than 20 percent. So, even if a state grant does become available, that will still mean a $2 million match from the city.

“If the money isn't there, if a grant is successful, City Council could look at other options for financing, whether that be bonding or some other mechanism,” Bessinger explained.

Bessinger would not put revenuefrom a potential sale of the Ferrysburg Nature Preserve in South Holiday Hills into the equation.  “That's a City Council decision,” he said.

On Monday, Feb. 6, council will decide whether or not to put the question of selling the nature preserve on the May 2 ballot.

Many neighbors have been extremely vocal at recent meetings, encouraging the city to not sell the property that they say they use for hiking, walking dogs and other recreational activities.

At last month's meeting, Councilman Mike Dewitt asked that the question be put to a vote of the people, even though the City Charter does not require that. Council is allowed to make the decision without a public vote because the property is not listed as public park land on Ferryburg’s Master Plan.

Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg, who requested that council consider putting all park sales to a vote of residents, opposed Dewitt's request.

“His plan to submit this issue to a May special election vote is short-sighted and does not protect all parks involved,” she said. “Moreover, it might set a legal precedent of which he has no understanding. Additionally, a special election would cost citizens between $3,000 and $3,500.”

Dewitt said because of the looming bridge expense — along with City Hall roof and boiler ($230,000), lift station repairs ($1 million), North Shore Drive reconstruction in 2019 ($700,000) and an unknown cost for an upcoming new sewer pipeline across the Grand River (to be shared with the Village of Spring Lake and Spring Lake Township) — council has been exploring ways to generate more revenue, and that includes selling excess property.

Bessinger and Dewitt said the Headlee Amendment, which rolls back millages, has caused issues.

“The bottom line is this — the (city’s) tax base does not support the General Fund,” Dewitt said.

In the past five years, General Fund expenses have eclipsed revenues, according to Bessinger.

“We said we want to look at all avenues for enhancing city income, whether that be a tax increase or whatever,” Dewitt said. “The Headlee rollback kind of caught us by surprise, which threw our whole budget process into turmoil. Our millage is less than it was in the early 2000s.”

Dewitt said council could look at cutting services or generating more revenue, or even putting a Headlee question on a ballot. Until any or all of that happens, Dewitt said council needs to plan ahead.

Ed Royce, a Ferrysburg resident who has been especially vocal in trying to convince the city to not sell the Nature Preserve, said the city is blowing its financial issues out of proportion. He said the city has had a surplus for the past 10 years.

Bessinger said it's imperative to keep a fund balance in case of emergency. For example, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the city had $3.087 in expenditures and $2.7 million in revenue, with a fund balance of $1.897 million. Of that $1.897 million, $838,000 is specified for the General Fund as the city's reserve.

“We've got reserves of six months,” Bessinger said. “In case something happens, you want to have some back-up dollars for emergencies.”

Royce said he doesn't understand why council is attempting to convince citizens more revenue is needed.

“Our reserves are intact, a roof and a boiler are typical expenses and well within our budget,” he said. “Lift stations are paid for out of our water/sewer fund, which has approximately a million dollars in reserve and which can issue bonds if it needs more than that. To sell off our assets is not prudent planning.”

Royce said some council members are using the upcoming expenses as an excuse to sell the Nature Preserve, which is across the street from Royce's home.

“Our manager has stated the city is in good financial shape,” he said. “He's not going to go head-to-head with council members because they're his boss. They'll fire him.”

Royce said he expects the state will provide a grant for the Smith's Bayou Bridge project. But if it doesn't?

“So we close it and make it a bike path,” he said. “We can simply take the VanWagoner exit and drive around the bayou. It only adds a mile to the trip. U.S. 31 didn't exist when that bridge was put in.”

Dewitt said: “That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard.”

The councilman added: “Somehow or another, the city will pay for a bridge and get it done.”

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