Paid maternity leave proposal fails in split vote by Buchanan City Commission

BUCHANAN – A proposal to give six weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave to non-union city employees failed on a split vote Monday night by the Buchanan City Commission. The matter had come up two weeks ago as well when a motion to approve it failed for lack of a second.

City Manager Heather Grace proposed the change as part of a larger overhaul of the city’s personnel policies manual which is likely to be done later this year. She said adding that benefit would help the city attract and retain good employees and added that cities around the state are doing so.

Employees now get 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. The proposal that failed would have given employees six weeks of paid leave concurrent with the federal mandated unpaid leave.

Grace said she was proposing it now because a full-time employee will give birth soon. Without the policy change, employees will have to use up their vacation and sick days if they want to receive pay during their maternity/paternity leave.

“I don’t think one person’s situation should dictate a policy change,” Commissioner Patrick Swem said. “To me, finishing the budget is more important. We can pick this back up after we finish the budget.”

Commissioner Cameron Downey had similar questions. He said he wanted more information such as what benefits employees have now and how many cities of Buchanan’s size have a similar policy.

“Only a few places have put this in place,” he said. “We have only 30 employees, how big are the other places?”

While Downey said the city would in effect be asking taxpayers to pay for another six weeks of leave, Grace said the only potential cost to the city would be if someone would have to be hired to fill in on a temporary basis.

“The staff person would get the same amount of pay as they would anyway,” she said.

The motion failed on a 3-2 vote with Swem, Downey and Mark Weedon voting no. Mayor Sean Denison and Larry Money voted yes.

The issue also was not popular with former commissioner Dan Vigansky, who spoke before the vote. He said he was having a hard time supporting the proposal, noting that government workers get a lot of time off anyway and can accumulate sick and vacation days and not lose them year to year.

Also Monday, commissioners heard two proposals related to economic development. Community Development Director Rich Murphy reported on a business proposal for a building at the corner of Terre Coupe and West Front Street, while Grace reported on a proposal from the Buchanan Area Chamber of Commerce.

Murphy said chef Tim Carrigan is interested in opening a small business in the Terre Coupe/West Front location. He said the problem is that the former gas station building has been vacant for several years and the zoning has reverted back to the original single-family residential designation.

Murphy said that process to make a zoning change back to commercial could take up to 60 or 90 days. The issue would first go to the city’s planning commission where a public hearing would be hosted. If the planning commission agrees with the change, they would make a recommendation to the city commission for a final vote.

With the chamber proposal, Grace said that chamber representatives have proposed the development of a new “Main Street manager/chamber executive director” position to promote economic development downtown and throughout the city. The chamber would provide half the costs for the new position with the city providing the rest.

She said she is exploring whether the Michigan Main Street program allows for such a hybrid position rather than someone focusing full-time on the downtown. She is also formalizing a proposal to bring back to the commission at a later date.

Swem said chamber members are doing some “self-reflection” on what their true mission should be and how the chamber should operate in the community.

“The idea is that there should be a lot more focus on the economic development piece,” he said. “The chamber will still be there, but it might be slightly different than the event group we have been.”

Grace also reported on what the city can expect to get from the new American Rescue Plan. She said indications are that the city will be getting over $1.7 million in two payments: nearly $800,000 in the next few months and another $950,000 next year.

“There are some restrictions on how the money can be spent but they look to be fairly loose,” she said. “The legislation emphasized that it should be used on water and wastewater infrastructure as well as economic development geared toward recovering the local economy. We can also spend money on tourism including parks and recreation.”

Grace said discussion of how to best use the money will be part of current budget talks. The city’s new fiscal year starts July 1. The federal money the city will be getting must be spent by 2024.

Also Monday, Grace and commissioners took time to thank all those who responded to last week’s West Wind Apartment fire last week, including the Buchanan Fire Department, other areas departments, churches and nonprofit organizations.

“I’ve been blown away by the generosity I’ve seen,” Denison said.

Commissioners approved the hosting of the annual Memorial Day Parade on May 31. Money said the American Legion is excited about being able to hold the parade again this year and will follow pandemic protocols. He noted that the post-parade ceremony at the cemetery might be shortened.

The commission did not take action on a Summer Thrill event, but the consensus appeared to be to encourage community volunteers to create some type of weekend event this summer at the Common rather than on the Front Street hill. The regular Summer Thrill on the Hill would return in 2022.

Commissioners approved the renewal of a new 30-year franchise with American Electric Power for the construction and maintenance of electric lines in the city, as well as two marijuana business permit renewals for Cannavista Wellness. AEP representatives said they look forward to sponsoring and supporting concerts, movies and other events in the city.

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