Niles to pursue early voting agreement with Berrien County

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, August 29, 2023

NILES — The Niles City Council is taking steps to get ready for the changes being instituted as the result of election law changes last year. 

During its meeting Monday at the Niles Fire Department, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution to approve the city clerk to have the authority to pursue an early voting agreement with Berrien County.

Proposal 2, which passed as part of the 2022 General Election, gives Michigan voters the right to vote early in every statewide and federal election. People will still have the opportunity to vote in person or vote absentee, but will now be able to vote early before a state or federal election. In those elections, early voting must be offered for at least nine consecutive days, beginning on the second Saturday before the election and ending on the Sunday before the election, for at least eight hours a day. The first election at which early voting will be constitutionally required will be the 2024 presidential primary election. 

In an effort to reimburse counties and municipalities for the costs associated with early voting, the State of Michigan, the council’s approval will allow the county to apply for funding from the Michigan Department of State and the Michigan Bureau of Elections to pay for items such as new equipment and additional staffing. At last week’s Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting, Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler estimated that instituting early voting will cost the county nearly $238,000.  

The quick action by the council to approve the agreement with the county occurred because the grant application deadline is Sept. 8 and the county board is not scheduled to meet next week.

The final approval of the agreement will come back before the board for approval.

“We need to prove to the county that we have the authority to work toward an agreement with them so the grant can be applied for and meet the September deadline,” Huff said.

Huff said he expects Niles voters’ participation in early voting to be minimal because of the large number of Niles residents who have opted into the absentee ballot program. He added that the expected early voting location – the former AEP building at 500 Circle Dr., Buchanan, that the county is purchasing – will require Niles residents to commute to Buchanan in order to vote, which may deter residents from using the early voting period.

Councilmember John DiCostanzo questioned if the early voting period would pose a risk to the integrity of voter information by sharing with other municipalities. City Clerk Tina Bergman said the information would not be shared because early votes are not tabulated until 8 p.m. on election day, at which time the votes would be in the possession of their respective clerks.

Councilmember Michael Thompson asked what would happen if the city decided not to offer early voting. Huff responded by saying that the city would be subject to lawsuits because it is now a state law.
Councilmember Gretchen Bertschy said she attended a symposium in Lansing this year where Proposal 2 was a “hot topic.” According to Bertschy, the estimated cost for the state to pursue early voting in 2024 would cost $189 million and is expected to rise every cycle. Councilmember Tim Rogers urged community members to study future election materials to make sure they know who and what they are voting for.

“We voted Proposal 2 in because we were told that we would have the option of early voting and I don’t think anybody really took into account this cost that the city, county, state, whoever is going to have to absorb,” he said. “Pay attention to the stuff you vote for because this is where it comes back around.”

In other business, the city council authorized the Utilities Department to accept the bid from Ostrander Windows, Siding and Roofing of Belding, Michigan in the amount of $420,000 for a roof rehabilitation at the Service Center, charge the cost equally between the Electric and Water Division.

According to a memo to the council from City Administrator Ric Huff, the city’s utilities department operates three divisions (Electric, Water, Labor and Maintenance) from several steel structures on South 15th Street. The buildings were constructed in the early to mid-1990’s and the roof has reached the end of its service life. Numerous leaks and minor repairs have been made over the last several years and a new roof is estimated to cost around $1 million.

The wastewater plant has used a Garland Roofing product on many roofs, dating back to 2016, with exceptional results. Staff contacted Garland and received specifications and budgetary numbers for a spray-on roof coating system. This type of coating can be applied over the existing steel roof panels, offering significant savings over replacement. The first application is the most expensive due to substrate prep, and future coatings (10-year intervals) should be significantly less.

An RFP for sealed bids was distributed and advertised, three responses were received with Ostrander being the cheapest. Ostrander has a good reputation with the City and has done several of the Garland roofs at the wastewater plant.

The council also authorized the utilities department to amend the present lease between the City of Niles and the State of Michigan, Department of Natural Resources to reflect possession of a portion of the former Pucker Street dam site on Oct. 1, 2024, ending Sept. 30, 2044, with any costs being charged to the Utilities Department, Maintenance-Park Improvements.

The city received funding for parking and river improvements at the former dam site, which was scheduled to be turned over to MDNR Parks after construction on Oct. 1, 2023. Construction has been further delayed and it is hopeful that it will be finished before next fall.

Amendment 2 is being prepared by the State of Michigan with relevant parties agreeing to the change.

In further business, city council:

  • Authorized the purchase of a Ford Police Interceptor Explorer from Gorno Ford of Woodhaven, Michigan for $46,919, charging the expense to the Police Department budget.
  • Authorized the Utilities Department to accept the quote in the amount of $119,128 from J. Ranck Electric Inc. of Mount Pleasant, Michigan for the purchase of services to install a 750-k VA pad mount oil-filled transformer at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, including the demolition and disposal of the existing transformer, charging the expense to the Wastewater Division.
  • Authorized the Utilities Department to enter into a professional services agreement with Fishbeck of Lansing, Michigan for consultation and design services.
  • Authorized the Utilities Department to accept a proposal of $15,000 from Fishbeck of Lansing, MI, to evaluate flow information from the recently completed SAW Grant and make recommendations for necessary sewer improvements on Niles’ Westside, with the cost being paid by the Utilities Department Wastewater Division, and authorize the Mayor to sign the proposal contingent on Bertrand Township approving a 50 percent match. According to Huff, there is a forced main sewer line that goes out near the industrial park and Bertrand Township has a desire to make some expansions in that area. 
  • Authorized the Utilities Department to accept the bid of $17,250 from Perceptive Services and Operation of Plainwell, MI, for wet well cleaning and grit removal at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, charging the expense to the Wastewater Division.