A night to forget in Lansing: Local reps react to Courser resignation, Gamrat expulsion

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

LANSING — The expulsion votes Thursday and Friday for state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat left state representatives exhausted and in a reflective mood.

The majority of Democrats refused to vote on the resolution to expel Courser from office, leaving the House at an impasse for about 15 hours. Many legislators assumed the two tea party Republicans, caught up in a sex scandal, would not have to wait long to learn their fates.

“It was a miserable, long night,” said state Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Oronoko Township. “I don’t need too many more nights like that.”

At one point, all non-voting Democrats were told that if they chose not to vote, they would be found in violation of House rules. The motion for reconsideration was met with just as much reluctance, which left many state representatives frustrated. In the end, Courser tendered his resignation and the House proceeded to vote in favor of Gamrat’s expulsion.

State Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, who was stuck in his seat along with other House members due to the stalemate, released a few comments in regard to the impasse.

“The Legislature exists not for its own edification, but for the betterment of all residents. When the Legislature ceases to do that, it ceases to be valuable and it certainly ceases to be respected,” Pscholka said in his statement. “The course of events tonight and this morning were not about vindication, or punishment, or malice, or moral righteousness.”

Toward the end of the first vote on the resolution, Pscholka sent out a few tweets criticizing the opposing party’s strategy.

Partway through the 15-hour session, a few Democrats released a joint statement, calling for a thorough investigation on the Courser-Gamrat issues.

“I was pretty disappointed by the partisan games the Democrats were playing by holding off the board,” said state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton. “The Democrats asked for some changes to the resolution that would instruct the state Attorney General and the Michigan State Police to conduct an investigation and we agreed. That’s when the Democrats decided they were going to vote.”

Nesbitt was in the thick of things as the House’s majority floor leader. He is tasked with bringing resolutions, bills and amendments to the House floor for a vote.

After attending a 9/11 ceremony at noon Thursday, Nesbitt said representatives went back into session at 1:15 p.m. and adjourned just before midnight. At 12:01 a.m., the House picked back up where they left off and went on to adjourn a little before 4:30 a.m.

Nesbitt was there to accept Courser’s letter of resignation around 3 a.m., shortly before changes were made to the resolution.

“(Courser) knew the Democrats were going to vote for the resolution and he decided to resign,” Nesbitt said. “It was a two-sentence resignation letter. I accepted it from him and brought it up the House to read.”

Aftermath

After the resolution to expel Gamrat passed, Nesbitt said he sat in his office to collect his thoughts before heading home.

“It’s not easy when deciding on expelling members,” Nesbitt said. “There were only three others who have been expelled in the state prior to (Thursday night). I’d rather be talking about the issues that really matter to the state, like transportation and energy. But it was justified.”

State Rep. Pagel left the capitol at about 4:30 a.m., but got home at 7 a.m. after a few short stops on the road due to exhaustion.

He said he was not expecting the hearing to be dragged out.

“I was surprised. I didn’t think we needed to spend that much time on it,” he said. “It wasn’t a joyful mood.”

Pagel said it was hard on everyone as the hearing continued, but that the final decision was warranted.

“I came to the conclusion that it was best for the state. The situation had gotten too far out of hand,” he said. “I didn’t think it would serve their districts well (if they were censured). They would have still been able to collect salaries and benefits. On a personal level, I wish the best for those two individuals to recover from this stumble in their lives.”

A censure would have carried the loss of committee assignments, staff and office expense allotments.

Courser, R-Lapeer, and Gamrat, R-Plainwell, had previously admitted to misconduct in office. They’ve also apologized for their actions and had asked the House Committee to censure, rather than expel them.

Word first broke of their affair when audio recordings surfaced and revealed Courser had asked his staff to send an anonymous, e-mail that he had written, saying he was addicted to drugs and pornography, and paid for sex with men outside a Lansing bar.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 12, 2015)

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Road commission considers paving Defay Road

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — The Berrien County Road Commission plans to pave Defay Road in Lincoln Township.

As one of the few gravel roads left in the township, BCRC Managing Director Louis Csokasy said the road has been a headache for them for decades. After a heavy rain, the water washes gravel downhill, which forces the road commission to fill it back up and regrade it.

Rather than repeatedly regrade Defay, the road commission can pave it and close it to through traffic at the railroad tracks.

Csokasy said the county has a design for a proposed change to the road, but the project is not yet funded.

“I want to be clear, we have no specific plans to go forward in the construction until we get funding,” he said. “We have no time line in mind until the money is secured. In this line of work we have to do the engineering and design phases before rustling up the funds.”

Lincoln Township Supervisor Dick Stauffer said offficials from the road commission and township will discuss the project and answer questions at an informational meeting Sept. 23. The meeting will be 5-7 p.m. in Lincoln Township Hall at 2055 W. John Beers Road.

The road commission sent notices to residents along Defay Road and the adjoining subdivisions who might be affected by the construction. Csokasy said the meeting is a way to solicit residential opinions on closing Defay at the CSX Transportation grade crossing and creating turnaround areas on both sides of the railroad tracks.

“We haven’t received any reaction from those on the east side of the tracks,” Csokasy said. “The ones of the west side want to see this thing paved. The road would be paved from the cul-de-sac going west, up to Red Arrow Highway.”

The main problem for Defay Road is water management. Because the gravel road has such a steep grade, erosion makes it difficult to drive down.

“It’s come to a point where we need a permanent fix on it,” Csokasy said. “The best course is to pave the road to get the water to the county drain down at the railroad tracks.”

The road commission has looked at several options, but chose to pave the road because the project would cost less.

Csokasy said the road commission is considering closing the road on either side of the railroad crossing because it would provide an opportunity to apply for grant funding and be safer for oncoming traffic.

“That railroad track does not have a gate on it to warn drivers of an approaching train. Paving it will only increase traffic,” he said. “Increasing traffic volume across an unguarded track is not a good thing to do. Plus, when you close a railroad crossing there is potential grant money.”

Csokasy said money from the state and the railroad company would help offset the cost of paving. Defay’s current traffic count is about 130 vehicles a day.

Because the county plows Defay in the winter, Csokasy said the designs include a cul-de-sac built in on the west side of the tracks because that side of the road is already paved. On the east side, the road commission would put in a hammer head stop that has a “T” end. This would allow drivers to back up and turn around for plowing purposes.

Csokasy said road officials might make changes based on residents’ comments at the Sept. 23 meeting.

“The road commission is good, but we are not all knowing,” he said. “That will force us to make changes to the design. Afterward, we will apply for the state grant for the railroad closure.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 12, 2015)

Carbon monoxide detected at Adkins Village

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Firefighters spent four hours Wednesday clearing Adkins Village Housing in Benton Township after carbon monoxide was detected.

Firefighter Phil Grogan said the department was called at 2:43 p.m. and cleared the scene for re-entry at 6:10 p.m.

Upon arrival, firefighters evacuated the structure and used a handheld carbon monixide detector to determine a high level of CO.

Out of the 45 apartments that were evacuated, Grogan said one woman had a carbon monixide detector.

“I would say she was credited with saving everyone s life,” he said. “Nobody would have woken up. There were high levels found there. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer – it has no odor and no taste. It’s generated from gas appliances.”

Initial readings showed large concentrations of CO as high as 176 PPMs. After bringing in the gas company, firefighters conducted a primary and secondary search throughout the building.

Grogan said the gas company was getting readings as high as 200 PPMs.

“The heating and cooling company helped isolate the carbon monoxide,” he said. “They shut down the hot water and each individual furnace until the leak was found.”

Four people were transported to a hospital and two received treatment at the scene.

Benton Harbor Public Safety was called in for additional ventilation fans.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 11, 2015)

County building codes library costs are reduced

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN COUNTY — At least 30 townships, cities and villages in Berrien County will save big on a state-mandated library.

Municipalities within the county, specifically those that enforce building codes, were mandated by the State of the Bureau of Construction Codes last year to station a building codes library.

The 30 municipalities formed a coalition in order to share the costs and ownership of one library, which would house documents stating the standards that represent building, electrical and plumbing codes for each community.

The building codes library was initially slated to cost participating governmental units a collaborative amount of $30,000. After extensive discussions with the state and county, it will now cost $7,500 – each municipality’s share of the cost is reduced from $1,000 to $250.

Benton Township Director of Inspections Tom Baldwin said they took some of the standards that were not applicable to smaller municipalities and narrowed it down to what they needed locally.

“We got every jurisdiction that does code enforcement to sign onto it,” he said. “It worked out well for us and we are excited.”

Another reason for the amount of savings came when the county agreed to provide space for the library in the county administration building in St. Joseph.

Berrien County Administrator Bill Wolf said it was an easy decision to help several municipalities form a central depository.

“We were going to put it in a separate room in the basement, but decided to leave it in a room with a copier and someone to administer to it,” Wolf said. “When we got an idea for how much space was required, I took it to the board of commissioners for approval. On behalf of the board, we welcome these opportunities to work with the local units to save everybody money.”

Baldwin said the coalition of governmental units made this possible by meeting every month. In the next month or so, he said the townships, cities and villages will have all the books in place.

“We broke it down to what it would take to make all this operational,” Baldwin said. “I’ve been in local government for 35 years and this was probably the most cooperation between governments I have seen. It’s an exciting moment for all the communities in Berrien County.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 10, 2015)

Growing pains: Farmers look back on crops affected by early spring rain, long hot summer

Raspberries that are ripe and still growing sit on a stem Wednesday at Ellis Family Farms in Benton Township. One of the farm’s biggest crops this summer has been raspberries. Marc Gelder, son of the owner, is in the background. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Raspberries that are ripe and still growing sit on a stem Wednesday at Ellis Family Farms in Benton Township. One of the farm’s biggest crops this summer has been raspberries. Marc Gelder, son of the owner, is in the background. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN COUNTY — As summer winds down, many farmers look to the skies for answers and some friendly weather.

Ellis Family Farms owner Rene Gelder looks for better weather as she grows a mixture of vegetables and fruit, which includes apples and peaches. The summer did not throw too much drama at the Benton Township resident, but Gelder said there were some instances where the weather did not cooperate.

“We have physically lost some trees, but we did not have frost this spring,” Gelder said. “In the spring we had lots of water and then a drought. We just received rain at the end of August when we were without water for at least half of July. It’s been taxing.”

Through the lack of water in the hottest part of the year, Gelder had to rely on drip irrigation.

Overall, the crop affected the most by weather was her peaches.

“I was not as satisfied, knowing what we raised in the past,” Gelder said in reference to her peaches. “The plums seem fine. The fall raspberries were outstanding. We don’t like to complain, but there always seems to be something that isn’t quite right each year.”

Gelder said Ellis Family Farms yielded less this summer, with the quality of the produce not being where she wanted it. With 16 varieties of peaches, Gelder said people can taste the difference whether they are more earthy or sweet.

Local farmers have had to keep an eye on their berries, as Gelder said too much rain washes out the flavor. If it is a heavy rain for farmers who are in the process of harvesting, those berries lose a lot of their flavor after two days. If that is the case, Gelder said farmers end up throwing out a lot of their berries.

Despite the influx of spring rain, Gelder said their raspberries were the best this summer because they were able to micromanage them throughout growing season.

“Those didn’t seem to be affected by rain or the adverse winter,” Gelder said. “We were able to manage the water on those a lot better. You always hope for more. Orchards last for a certain amount of years, but I have a feeling we are going to have more tree loss. We are not out of the woods.”

Beth Weaver, owner of Black Dog Flower Farm in Baroda, has had to use her greenhouse more than what was expected this year.

Her harvested crops are florist-grade flowers, ranging from lilies to lisianthus, that grow in greenhouses and in the field.

“We had too much rain this spring,” Weaver said. “I did lose probably 95 percent of my snap dragon crops due to the fact that they drowned. Heat and humidity is good for some vegetable plants, but some flower plants don’t do too well in those conditions. Things growing in the greenhouses were wonderful because I could control their climate.”

Some of the reasons for her loss in crops cannot be attributed to weather. Weaver said she has had to deal with field pests, but notes a lot of them are leaving in anticipation for colder weather. Chief among them are grasshoppers, which are known to eat a lot of the flowers’ pedals.

Mirrored summers

For Weaver, this year’s summer was nearly “a carbon copy” to last year’s summer.

“We had too much rain early in the spring,” she said. “The heat we had in the middle and end of summer wasn’t so good. Weeds love the heat so they are a big problem.”

Nathan Marsili, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, said Berrien County saw less rain from the beginning of April through the end of August this year compared to 2014 – but the weather patterns were similar.

According to information collected from NWS’ Benton Harbor station, Berrien County got 13.4 inches of rain from April 1 to Aug. 31. In 2014, the county saw 17.7 inches of rain in that period.

A monthly breakdown shows May was the wettest month this year with 4.05 inches, a leading factor as to why spring was so different for farmers this year, Marsili said. In 2014, June had a high of 5.98 inches of rain, which raised the monthly average for 2014 after July posted only 1.19 inches.

“The distribution was uneven in 2014,” Marsili said. “We had a pretty abrupt transition last year in June by going into a really dry July. It’s been more uniform this year from month to month.”

To put June 2014 in perspective, Marsili said the typical June would get an average of 3.5 inches for Berrien County.

But still, it’s not all bad news for local farmers.

Cindy Grewett of Kitty Hill Organics in Dowagiac said they have benefited from the rain.

“Rain has had the biggest impact. We actually did well with it in the beginning because we don’t have irrigation,” Grewett said. “However, with it being cold early on with the moisture sitting around, it didn’t help because that creates a lot of disease problems. That can be a headache for organic farming.”

The crops that have flourished under such conditions for Grewett has been broccoli and cauliflower. But the amount of rain has hurt her strawberries.

“Next summer I would hope we can continue to have good weather with a little less rain to start with,” Grewett said. “It would be nice if Mother Nature were a little more normal.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 10, 2015)

Lincoln Township board approves 3 percent increase in sewer rates

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — The Lincoln Township Board of Trustees voted Tuesday night to increase the township’s sewer rates by 3 percent for 2016.

The rate increase will go into effect Jan. 1 and came as a recommendation by Utility Financial Services – a Grand Haven-based financial planning company.

Supervisor Dick Stauffer said the increase is nothing new to expect from the township because they have raised sewer rates the last few years.

“A 3 percent increase is about an extra $10 per year for the average user – which is minor,” Stauffer said. “You see increases of 20 to 30 percent in other townships. We’ve never had increases of that magnitude. We approve a small increase each year to keep us up with inflation and any fees we might see from the water treatment plant.”

Accounting for the going sewer rate and the ready-to-serve charge, Stauffer said the average household is paying $44.70 a year.

Because residents are billed on a quarterly basis, the increased sewer rate is about an extra $2.50 per bill for the average household in the township. Stauffer said the number tends to fluctuate as people use more water in the summer than in winter.

More sewer money

During Tuesday’s meeting, the board learned that the township will receive a SAW grant worth $190,000.

Township engineer Dave Austin told the board the township first applied for money from the Stormwater, Asset Management, Wastewater program two years ago when it first started – along with every other municipality in the state. The Department of Environmental Quality offered $415 million to the state with about $97 million a year being doled out to different cities and townships.

“The township applied two years ago when there was a call for projects,” Austin said. “There were many, many projects throughout the state that were applied for. The purpose is to develop asset management plans for stormwater and wastewater systems.”

The township will use the grant primarily for cleaning and televising sanitary sewer lines. Austin said the township will complete a detailed analysis of all its lift stations and develop an asset management plan on what needs to be done and what the cost will be.

“We’re planning to do this over the next year, but we have the next three years to spend the money,” Austin said. “This is a relatively small project among the other projects that are involved in the SAW grant, but this is big news for the township.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 9, 2015)

Return of NFL, college football means business for local sports bars

Sports bars and restaurants like Wings Etc. in Benton Harbor have seen an influx of customers the past few days as football has returned. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Sports bars and restaurants like Wings Etc. in Benton Harbor have seen an influx of customers the past few days as football has returned. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — When countless sports bars ushered in a familiar crowd last week, one thing was certain.

Football was back.

Last Thursday, St. Joseph’s Buffalo Wild Wings general manager Scott Ravenscroft saw the effect sports fans had on his St. Joseph establishment.

“Comcast went out and it was one of our busiest nights last (Thursday),” Ravenscroft said. “I was expecting us to be an NFL pro store, but I think we will get a lot of college fans. There was a huge Michigan turnout with Harbaugh’s debut. It was frustrating to turn away people because we were so busy.”

With its 65 televisions hanging from the ceiling at its Niles Avenue location, Buffalo Wild Wings prepares itself for football’s return as well as the end of the college basketball season.

Ravenscroft said since opening up this year, the restaurant’s other big nights occurred during March Madness when Michigan State made its long run toward the Final Four.

With the impending football season, Ravenscroft said they staff up to account for the twice than normal amount of customers. They also offer specials on wings and beer on select nights that coincide with games.

Since they were offering specials during the opening night of the 2015 college football season, Ravenscroft said their sales would have tripled on a different night.

Tina Hankins, general manager of Wings Etc. at 1948 Mall Place in Benton Harbor, said they too had a busy night.

“We definitely had Michigan fans and Bears fans for preseason,” she said. “On Sundays, we get crazy busy. We get phone calls asking if they have this game on. It’s a first come first serve basis. We try to get every game on, but they fill up quick.”

Depending on whose playing, Hankins said Wings Etc. gets a boost of about 30 to 40 percent in sales during football season.

“Football season is our season,” Hankins said. “We take a fall back in the summer, but football season is where we shine. Guys like that big beer and those boneless wings in front of them.”

Coach’s Bar and Grill in Stevensville has its fair share of sports fans as its own website has a constant roll of memorable quotes from coaches George Halas to Bo Schembechler.

General manager Sarah Poziwilko said they had a crowd that was larger than expected last Thursday because they received a few stay at homes that were without Comcast for the night.

“We were cranking,” she said. “Normally we are bigger on other nights because we have the NFL ticket for Sundays and Thursdays. When there is a lot of football, we have specials for wings and mixed drinks.”

While there are still a few more days until NFL games begin, Coach’s and Buffalo Wild Wings have already seen customers that host Fantasy Football draft parties.

These draft parties allow residents to come in and draft a team of NFL players for the incoming season, while enjoying the food and atmosphere of a sports bar.

Poziwilko said Coach’s accepts reservations for such draft parties and allows people to use a private dining room.

At Buffalo Wild Wings, Ravenscroft said they have booked about 30 parties this year, ranging in size from six to 20 people.

“This is definitely our season,” he said. “The draft parties are nice because it gives fans a preview of the season to come.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 8, 2015)