Running low on ballots

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Lincoln Township Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter has ordered a lot of ballots for the August primary and the general election in November.

The reason for such precautions stemmed from the presidential primary in March. Because municipalities order ballots based on previous election turnouts, Loar-Porter requested enough ballots to cover a 15-25 percent turnout in March.

In March, Lincoln Township had nearly a 48 percent turnout.

“It caught a few of us by surprise,” Loar-Porter said. “It was a much bigger turnout than we expected. It’s a wonderful problem to have because it’s always a disappointment when there’s a low turnout. We were as prepared as we could because there was no indication that this would happen.”

When the township ran out of ballots, workers did the next thing they could. Loar-Porter and her staff made copies of the ballots and then had people fill out a paper ballot.

Afterward, the township had a Republican and Democrat hand tally those ballots for fairness. They were then double-checked before the numbers were sent to Berrien County.

Denise Cook, clerk and interim manager at St. Joseph Township, said they too had an influx of voters in March.

“We ran out of Democratic ballots,” Cook said. “Compared to the previous presidential primary, we ordered 20 percent more than that, and it still wasn’t enough. That’s the rule of thumb.”

When Cook called the county, she was instructed to use the “test ballots” used to test the tabulator that counts and processes votes.

Election officials were able to black out the numbers on the test ballots and write the correct number on them.

“If we had 100 ballots and ran out, the next ballot would be numbered 101, so that’s what we marked,” Cook said. “Those ballots were able to run through the tabulator. If you run out of the test ballots, you make a copy of a ballot. However, the copies won’t run through the tabulator.”

Copies of ballots that were filled out by voters were then sealed and placed in an auxiliary bin until the end of the night. Election workers hand-counted those votes and added them to the tabulation total.

“There’s all different kinds of things that can happen,” Cook said. “You can have machinery break down or run out of ballots. Everybody gets to vote, nobody gets turned away. It just takes a little extra work.”

Cook said the township ran out of ballots one other time. That was in 2010, when St. Joseph Public Schools had a bond on the ballot that brought with it a big turnout.

Since Loar-Porter has been Lincoln Township clerk, she’s only seen one other ballot shortage. That came several years ago when Lakeshore Public Schools had a bond issue.

Loar-Porter said Lincoln Township’s six precincts tend to show a steady turnout in August and November. She said there isn’t a clear answer as to why March was the outlier for a big turnout.

“I just think more people were aware and more invested,” Loar-Porter said. “We had the biggest number of first-time voters that we’ve ever had. But our residents were all very understanding and very cooperative.

“I’m hoping to get at least a 50 percent turnout for the primaries. November will be quite a bit higher with the U.S. presidency on the line.”

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 July 30, 2016)

Mixed ballot for Benton Township trustee race

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — It’s a crowded race for Benton Township’s Board of Trustees this year.

Among the field are six Democrats – Carolyn Fowler, Augustine Hill, Rosie McCoy-Hudson, Bette Pierman, Linda Scarbrough and Cathy Yates – and four Republicans: Eric Culby, Emily Curry, Christian Nearpass and Patience VanLandingham. The diverse field of candidates could shake things up on a board that is predominantly Democratic.

Fowler, McCoy-Hudson and Yates have served on the board for more than one term. There will be at least one new face on the board in 2017 as the newest trustee, Calli Berg, is running for the Berrien County Board of Commissioners.

All four Republican candidates will move onto the general election, while four of the six Democrats will run for their party in November. Each trustee seat is a four-year term that ends in 2020.

Here’s a closer look at the candidates in alphabetical order:

Eric Culby, 36, is a Republican who works for a family business in landscaping.

With a degree in business administration from Western Michigan University, this is the first time Culby is running for office.

“I’m doing this to try to make a change,” Culby said. “I was asked to run by several people. I thought I would be able to do a good job, so I want to see if I can make a difference over there.”

Emily Curry, 26, is a stay-at-home mother who has one child and one on the way with her husband, Timothy.

The Republican candidate has a degree in business administration from Siena Heights University.

Carolyn Fowler, 79, is retired and has a late husband, a son who died and a grown daughter.

The incumbent Democrat was a tax preparer for 40 years, where she owned an H&R Block office. Fowler has been a trustee for 16 years and serves on Benton Township’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

“I think we have a good board that is doing a good job up here now,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of good things. (Comptroller) Kelli (Nelson) and (Superintendent) Elden (Piontek) are good at what they do, so I hope the whole board is re-elected and we can continue our progress.”

Augustine Hill, 67, is an employee at the Best Western Hotel and has two grown sons with her late husband.

The Democrat is a notary who attended Lake Michigan College.

Hill said she decided to run in an effort to change what goes on at board meetings.

“From what I’ve heard from other citizens in Benton Township, they don’t feel like they have a voice,” Hill said. “I’ve been told they tried to voice their complaints and they weren’t listened to, they weren’t heard. Maybe that’s because the people serving on the board have become too comfortable. I intend to change that.”

Rosie McCoy-Hudson, 80, is retired and has five grown children with her husband, Edward.

The Democrat has been a trustee for 35 years and attended Lake Michigan College.

McCoy-Hudson is on the township’s Housing Commission, the Senior Citizen Board of Directors, the Senior Nutrition Board for the township, is a member of the Dial A Ride Committee and was on the township’s Planning Commission.

“I think I can finish what we’ve started,” she said. “We’re doing a good job in the township so far. We got the water department there, we’re getting new stores and new recreations. I’ve lived in this community my whole life.”

Christian Nearpass, 77, is a flight instructor who has three grown children with his wife, Diane.

The Republican candidate serves as the building inspector for Eau Claire and was the president of the Taildraggers Flying Club. Nearpass said he has the experience to represent the township.

“I want to make sure everybody is treated the same,” Nearpass said. “I wanted to do something to help the community. There’s probably not anything they’re gonna go through that I haven’t seen.”

Bette Pierman, 66, is a retired school teacher who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Western Michigan University, and has done graduate course work in communications information systems at Ferris State University.

The Democrat is an acting chair of Michigan Safe Energy Future, vice president of the Two Rivers Coalition, board member of the League of Women Voters in Berrien and Cass County, was appointed to the Solid Waste Committee by the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, served as secretary for the Michigan Democratic Party 6th District and was secretary for the Berrien County Democratic Party.

If elected, Pierman said she wants to work with small businesses and would consult with them on township matters.

“I’ve worked with a lot of organizations in the community, including the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission on various projects around Berrien County and Benton Township,” Pierman said. “I think I bring a lot of experience working with the community and I have knowledge of different sources of grants where we will be able to promote the township better than what it is.”

Linda Scarbrough, 71, owns a grocery store in Millburg and has a grown son with her late husband.

The Democrat was the Benton Township treasurer for four years, and serves on the township’s Board of Review and Planning Commission.

“I want to stay active and do what I can to promote Benton Township,” Scarbrough said in relation to running for the Board of Trustees. “I’ve been active in the township since before 2000. Before I was elected treasurer, I was still active with the township.”

Patience VanLandingham, 40, is a financial analyst who has a daughter and stepson with her husband, Jon.

The Republican candidate has a bachelors in business for accounting from Siena Heights University and an MBA from Indiana Tech University.

VanLandingham serves on the Accounting Advisory Committee at Lake Michigan College.

“My goal is to offer whatever experience I have to the community,” VanLandingham said. “I have skill sets that could be utilized. I also believe that change is good. It’s good to get others involved with a fresh approach.”

Cathy Yates, 66, is retired and has two sons with her husband, James.

In addition to her role on the township’s Board of Trustees, the incumbent Democrat is on the Lake Michigan College alumni board, the Christian Education Board for the Second Baptist Church in Benton Township, and was a member of the Untied Way Board and the Child and Family Services Board.

Yates has a bachelor of arts degree in family life from Spring Arbor University, a masters in organizational leadership from Siena Heights University. She got her associate’s degree from LMC and was working on a masters at Andrews University, but did not complete it.

“My reasons for being on the board are to help those who don’t have the proper resources and to make sure people are treated fairly,” Yates said. “I serve all the people. If re-elected, I would like to continue to work with the people.”

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 July 31, 2016)

Lincoln Township looks to renew road, police millages

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Lincoln Township’s trustees are hoping residents will renew two millages Tuesday.

The board approved a resolution to send a 0.25-mill renewal for road maintenance and repair to the primary ballot.

The six-year levy has raised $160,000 each year of its existence. The millage faces its first renewal after it was first passed in 2010.

Residents with a home valued at $100,000 would pay about $25 a year for the levy.

Supervisor Dick Stauffer said the millage helped pay to maintain more than 63 miles of local and subdivision roads over the last six years.

“As long as we continue to use roads we will have continual road projects, so that work is ongoing,” Stauffer said. “To date, no Lincoln roads need to be rebuilt because we have applied prompt maintenance procedures, supported by the current road millage.”

According to the township’s master plan, Stauffer said they intend on spending $370,000 on roads in 2016. The funding is covered partially by the Berrien County Road Commission, while 80 percent of the road maintenance costs are covered from the township’s general fund and its road millage.

“Your Township Board does what they can to control costs,” Stauffer wrote in a newsletter directed to township residents. “We’ve changed insurance coverage to reduce premiums. We’ve not increased the community surcharge for city water during the past six years. We carefully evaluate the condition of township service and maintenance equipment before analyzing any replacement.

“These efforts control costs, but they don’t produce the added dollars needed to address normal road traffic wear and tear.”

Police levy

Trustees further set a 1.5-mill renewal request to cover police operations.

Taxpayers with a home valued at $100,000 would pay about $150 a year for the levy over the next eight years if passed.

According to township records, Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter said the police millage has been renewed every eight years since the 1990s.

“It’s pretty cut and dry, but still important,” Loar-Porter said. “It provides all the funding we need to have a police department. Staffing has been the same number for the last two decades, but it allows us to serve residents.”

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 July 28, 2016)

Regional airport seeks levy from 7 cities, townships

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — The Southwest Michigan Regional Airport has a lot riding on Tuesday’s ballot.

During the last three months, various airport representatives have spoken to township boards and city councils in the hopes adding a 10-year airport millage for the primary election.

This is the third time the airport millage will be sent to voters, with this being a second renewal for most participating municipalities.

The St. Joseph City Commission became the first municipality to support renewing the airport millage for 0.25 mills. The proposed 10-year renewal would raise $84,000 the first year, with the levy going toward maintaining and updating the airport.

For the first time in a decade, Bridgman and Lake Township voters will choose whether to support the airport with a 0.1-mill increase for 10 years. Voters from both municipalities voted down the levy in 2006.

Benton, Lincoln, Royalton and St. Joseph townships face a 0.1-mill airport millage renewal for 10 years. The levy would cost $10 a year for a $200,000 home. Benton Harbor will make its customary $20,000 contribution out of its general fund.

airport millage

Airport Director Vincent DesJardins said the money will be invested into the airport’s aging infrastructure and upcoming projects. He said it serves a great purpose economically than most know.

“It’s not just for the people who use the airport on a day-to-day basis. It’s for the people who come into the community to spend money,” he said. “It could be people flying in just to play golf or to make a multi-million dollar deal. If there’s an organ transplant needed at Lakeland, we’re a close destination.”

Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland said the millage passing is important as the airport has a number of capital expenditures coming up.

Cleveland co-chairs the Friends of the Airport, a group that leads the renewal campaign. The airport is owned by St. Joseph and Benton Harbor and is operated by the Southwest Michigan Regional Airport Authority Board. Each municipality that offers funding through a millage hosts a representative on the airport authority board.

“The equipment they use regularly in the winter to remove snow is over 40 years old,”Cleveland said in a phone interview Friday. “They’re trying to improve that equipment because it’s past its useful life. The other thing is the hangars are completely full. They need to build more. This levy allows them to maintain funding for future expenditures.”

Cleveland said the airport’s gross budget this year is about $3.1 million. The millage covers about $330,000 of its expenditures.

On the fly

While the airport is not commercial, Cleveland cited several reasons how the regional airport helps Southwest Michigan.

In the last 15 years, $35 million was invested at the airport. Cleveland said 95 percent of that investment came from state and federal resources. He added that state and federal governments are considering $3 million in additional funds that could be lost without an operational airport.

Cleveland doesn’t have a timeline, but said he is aware of plans to build more hangars to house airplanes.

He said large businesses that are big economic drivers to the area – including American Electric Power, Lakeland Health, Whirlpool Corp. – use the airport as well as private planes during the tourism season.

“Obviously, the most important aspect is on health and safety,” Cleveland said. “Many don’t know this, but the (U.S.) Coast Guard regularly does its training out there.”

According to Herald-Palladium archives, the airport’s origins trace to 1934 when it was a single, grass-landing strip in a 194-acre hay field. In 1998, control of the airport was given to the authority board – which was supported by the millage from Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and Lincoln and St. Joseph townships.

When talking with boards and councils in recent months, Cleveland said jobs and delivery support for businesses would be lost if the airport closed.

“I try not to think about it not passing,” Cleveland said of the levy. “It potentially could make it more challenging to get into the area when the weather is not great. Since the money is used regularly for capital expenditures, a lack of support could make it more challenging for updating the equipment.”

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 July 31, 2016)

Benton Township clerk, treasurer to have contested primary

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — There are several candidates vying for the Benton Township clerk and treasurer positions Tuesday.

The three Democratic candidates who wish to be clerk in 2017 are Joiesette Hilliard, Barbara Meeks and incumbent Carolyn Phillips. Treasurer also has three Democrats running, which includes Karen Bennet, incumbent Debra Boothby and Richard Royall.

The top vote-earner for both positions will run unopposed at the November general election. Both positions are four-year terms that end in 2020.

Hilliard, 54, is a retired Benton Harbor city employee who has a daughter and a son.

Hilliard was a union steward in her time working for the city.

She attended Lake Michigan College, where she studied liberal arts and business administration.

“Being the next clerk to me would mean serving the people and the community I grew up in,” she said. “I’d like to get more input with the citizens of Benton Township. I want our community to prosper and be more transparent. That means letting citizens know what’s going on.”

Meeks, 59, is self-employed who has a husband, Don, and two grown children.

The candidate was on the Cornerstone Alliance Board of Directors, and serves on the Lakeland Foundation Board of Directors and the Board for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Meeks has a bachelor of arts degree in business administration from Sienna Heights University.

“I believe in change, and in order for change to happen we have to do something about it,” Meeks said. “I can’t just sit still. I’m hoping to be part of the process of that growth to spur development in the township. I want to have some input on what goes on in our township.”

Phillips, 62, is in her fifth term as clerk.

She is a member of the Berrien County Clerks Association, the Benton Charter Township Police and Fire Pension Board and the Benton Township Planning Commission.

Phillips has an associate’s degree from Lake Michigan College.

“My commitment to the community where I was born and raised speaks for itself,” Phillips said. “I would like to continue the record of financial stability and security of the township’s future. We have made improvements on the infrastructure, but I would like to see that continue. I support single-family housing development, as well as commercial.”

The race for treasurer

Bennet, 55, is a clinical assistant who has a husband, Richard, and four grown children.

She is the program chairwoman for the St. Matthews Missionary Baptist Church in Benton Township.

Bennet earned her business degree from Baker College. She said wants to make Township Hall more personable.

“I’ve attended some of the meetings and noticed most people aren’t friendly,” Bennet said. “I have a background in customer service and could improve meetings.”

Boothby, 53, is has a husband, Jim, and two grown children. She is in her third term as treasurer.

She is treasurer of the Berrien County Treasurer’s Association, chairwoman of the Benton Charter Township Police and Fire Pension Board, and is a member with the Medic 1 Community Emergency Service Board, Northwest Berrien Landfill Committee, Southwest Michigan Regional Airport Authority, Michigan Treasurers Association, Michigan Township Association, Chief Elected Officials Council, Berrien County Show Cause Hearing Committee, Lake Michigan College Citizen Task Force, and the Paw Paw River Water Trail working group.

Boothby, who attended Lake Michigan College, said she is running on the experience she has shown through her previous three terms.

“I believe I should be re-elected because of my record of fiscal responsibility and my commitment to offering the citizens of the township the best police, fire and utility services that they have come to expect and deserve,” Boothby said.

Royall, 67, is a retired Whirlpool Corp. employee who has a wife, Lynn, and a grown son.

He was a chairman of the Board of Trustees for the former American Baptist Church in Stevensville.

Royall received a bachelor of science degree in business economics from Purdue University and his masters in business administration from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

“My focus will be on professional management that can properly allocate resources for the benefit of the residents of Benton Township,” Royall said. “The treasurer’s position used to be a part-time position, and I think it should be a part-time position again. There’s been a misallocation of resources in 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 July 28, 2016)

Benton Township planners table motion for special use

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Plans to allow an auto repair shop to operate within a rural property were delayed Monday night.

The Benton Township Planning Commission tabled its motion on the business’ application for a special use permit in order to discuss any potential considerations that could be added.

Michael Braamse, who started Uptown Auto Service in 2009, was issued a warning in May after the township found his business to be in violation of the zoning ordinance.

Braamse’s mother, Helen, owns the 77 acres at 105 Paul Ave. where the business operates. Braamse told planners he turned a garage into an auto repair shop with his mother’s encouragement.

A few residents spoke against the business because of the farmland nearby. Building Official Tom Baldwin read a letter from a concerned couple, which cited issues with the smell of gasoline and the sight of vehicles.

“My family has owned this property for over 100 years,” the letter read. “If the applicants wish to have a business, they should be required to choose a location within a designated commercial area and not force my family to have to put up with the negative impact this business would have.”

When asked what he does with any liquids or excess material, Braamse said he pays to have tires and barrels of antifreeze to be properly disposed of. Braamse, who didn’t operate the business for a brief stretch, said he is the sole employee and does not plan on hiring if the permit is approved.

John Smietanka, Braamse’s attorney, told planners he would meet with them at a separate time to discuss any conditions they wished to add to the permit.

Smietanka provided planners with photos of the property and argued the business was far enough from the road to not diminish property values.

“I think this is a win-win for the township,” Smietanka said. “This is not an impediment to the people in the area. It is recessed in the woods and there is very little traffic.”

Planners did not schedule a date for its next meeting to make a decision for the permit. Two members will meet with Smietanka to discuss any considerations Braamse is willing to do.

Among the conditions planners discussed as a possibility were limiting the special use permit to the pole barn on the property and setting hours of operation.

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 July 26, 2016)

Benton Township seeks to replace police, fire millage

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Funding for Benton Township fire and police support is up for consideration on the Aug. 2 primary ballot.

In previous years, the police and fire operating millage were each 3 mills. Since they expired in 2015, both face millage renewals.

In March, trustees approved a resolution to submit a replacement levy of 6 mills for police and fire on the Aug. 2 ballot. The millage would last 10 years, through 2025. When the millage was last renewed, it was 3 mills for fire and 3 mills for police. It is now being presented as 6 mills for police and fire.

Benton Township Comptroller Kelli Nelson said there is no increase in how much the township is seeking from taxpayers.

“This millage request is essentially a renewal, but must be called a replacement because the name of the proposed millage is being changed and the two previously separate millages are being combined into one,” Nelson said.

The previous two millage levies were last renewed in 2010 for five years each. It is now being put up to a vote for 10 years.

The millage would raise about $2.4 million in its first year. Residents with a home valued at $100,000 would pay around $300 a year for the levy.

If approved, the tax revenue raised by the millage request would be placed in a fund for both police and fire and can be allocated to either department based on the operational needs of the departments, Nelson said.

When a millage is levied for either police or fire, the tax revenue raised must be placed in the respective fund and used only for that purpose.

Township officials began talking about combining the millages in 2014. Nelson their intention was to combine and condense them into one or two millages for “more clarity.”

“The goal is to use the tax revenue in the most effective way possible to provide the best police and fire services possible to the community,” Nelson said. “As always, all money received from police and fire millages are accounted separately from general funds and audited annually by an independent accounting firm.”

What’s the money used for?

Fire Chief Dan Durham said past fire millages have allowed them to provide full-time fire protection for residents.

The fire department uses the majority of its levied funding for staffing purposes.

“Most days it allows us to keep four personnel on a shift so there is no hesitation to go into a structure,” Durham said. “When we respond to a fire, we are required to have two in the structure and two outside it. When you have four on duty, we don’t have to wait for part-time firefighters to get to the station or mutual aid to provide a fourth firefighter. It reduces damage and possibility of life.”

Police Chief Vince Fetke said the police millage has been used to keep officers up to date on technology for the past decade.

From in-car computers used to file paperwork to state-of the art radio systems that are connected to every police agency, Fetke said police presence would not be where it is without taxpayer support.

“The last several years there has been a decrease in staffing to try and save money,” Fetke said. “This will help us operate where we are currently at.”

Added Fetke: “One of the biggest things has been the in-car computer systems we use to access more information in a more time-sensitive way. To complete paperwork in the car, rather than go back to the office, is important. As big as the township is, that cuts down on response time.”

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 July 26, 2016)