Berrien County to look into Niles real estate opportunities for road department

Published 3:28 pm Thursday, January 12, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County commissioners have authorized county staff to pursue buying real estate possibly in the Niles area for the Berrien County Road Department. That action came at the board’s county board meeting Thursday. 

No additional details were given about the possible real estate purchase during the meeting. County Administrator Brian Dissette did say after the meeting that the county is looking at sites in the Niles area as well as in other parts of the county for the road department. 

“I’m limited on what I can say at this time,” he said. “We hope to have an option agreement (or potentially two options) for the Board’s consideration in the coming months.” 

He noted that it is the county’s intention to secure property for the road department’s usage preferably in the Niles area. “We will be looking at other locations, but the Niles area is our immediate priority,” he said. 

He said it was too early to say what if any existing road department garages might close if plans move forward with the Niles area site. 

“We’ll make those decisions after securing property,” he said. “Put simply, we are trying to place future garages closer to large population areas (and areas that are predicted to be population centers).” 

County commissioners received an overview about the state of current road department garages as well as other county facilities nearly a year ago. The six road department garages are currently located in Baroda, Watervliet, Eau Claire, Benton Harbor, Buchanan and Three Oaks. Repair work was identified for most if not all of the existing garages. 

One Niles area site mentioned in past discussions was property near Pucker Street in Niles Township although some concerns were raised by at least one resident about the property’s proximity to the Dowagiac River. 

County Commissioner Jim Curran made the motion for authorizing negotiations to purchase real estate. The motion stated that county administration would be authorized to “pursue suitable real estate for road department needs” and negotiate and bring back option agreements for the county board’s approval. 

Also Thursday, county commissioners approved a number of items including changes to the board’s bylaws. The board’s Personnel and Human Services committee has been working on the update to the bylaws for several months. In many instances, changes were made to codify what’s already being done. 

Executive Assistant Annette Christie outlined the changes at a committee of the whole meeting in late December. She told commissioners that the recommendation was to change the name of the board’s “committee on committees” to the “executive committee.” Membership will be the same-committee chairs plus the county board chair and vice-chair. 

The bylaw updates also include ones to codify board practices on electing committee vice-chairs, placement of public comment on agendas, information on county administrator and corporate counsel hiring and evaluation and having agendas and information to commissioners two days before each weekly meeting. 

The county board also approved a lease of space in New Buffalo to house a new WIC (Women Infants Children) office in the south county. The Berrien County Health Department recently closed its office in Three Oaks, necessitating the need to find a new south county location. 

The new site is at 704 West Merchant St. in New Buffalo at the St. Mary’s of the Lake Church. The health department will pay $18,120 annually for rent, utilities and maintenance. The contract runs through 12-31-25. 

In committee reports, commissioners said the sheriff’s department responded to 316 traffic related incidents on the second day of the Christmas blizzard, helped Benton Harbor residents when there was a power outage and county road crews put in 2,552 hours between Dec. 23-27, costing an extra $80,000.  

The sheriff’s department is dealing with inflation like the other county residents. Commissioners reported that the jail serves 35,000 meals a month to inmates and that the cost of basic items keeps going up. They said that the cost of a case of eggs has gone from $20 to $80.