Berrien County Commmissioners talk short term rentals, Palisades plant

Published 9:10 am Friday, February 2, 2024

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioners took action on a number of items including the purchase of new software that is expected to be beneficial for accurate property assessment, community development and even public safety.

The county board voted unanimously to enter into a six year professional services agreement with Woolpert, Inc. and Pictomerty International Corp. to provide two images-top down and oblique-of properties in the county each year.

County Commissioner Teri Freehling reported that County Equalization Director Warren Parrish has talked to area municipalities about sharing the costs of the software and has gotten buy-in from 20 of 30 municipalities. She said that the other 10 are either on the fence or unsure.

She said the county board action is being taken now in order for the first fly-over of properties to be done in the new few months before leaves come out on trees.

Parrish told commissioners last fall that the new software will be a game changer in giving area government officials a better view of properties. For example, dispatchers will be able to pull up building images to better direct firefighters in responding to fires and other emergencies.

For assessors, the software will allow them to have more accurate information for their work, while it will help community development officials have better images to market properties and emergency management officials have before and after images of flooding and shoreline erosion.

The cost of the six year contract is expected to be $305,000 with the county’s share of the cost going down as more municipalities agree to share in the costs.

In other action, commissioners voted on two trail developments and on broadband efforts.

The county board approved a resolution to support the Lakeview Trail project along M-63 north of Benton Harbor and to ask the Michigan Trails Fund non profit organization for a $150,000 grant. The project already has secured funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and Whirlpool.

The county also plans to work with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission to apply for grant funding from a new state office called the Michigan Infrastructure Office. Specifically the county and SWMPC are looking for funding to continue the linear trail project to connect non-motorized trails in the county.

With broadband, the county board approved extending the county’s contract with DCS Technology to provide technical assistance on broadband projects. The contract extension will pay DCS $18,000 a month for a period of six to 12 months.

Also Thursday, commissioners heard a legislative update from State Rep. Joey Andrews. Andrews represents the shoreline district that runs from New Buffalo north to Van Buren County.

Andrews said legislators will introduce a new short term rental bill next week in Lansing. He noted that legislators have been working on the proposal since last April, meeting with local officials as well as organizations such as the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Association of Counties.

“The focus will be on local control,” he said. “We’ve used what other have states have done as our model. We want to create a state registry that local municipalities can check. The local governments can then enforce their own zoning and noise ordinances and revoke licenses as needed.”

The legislation would also extend the current hotel tax to short term rentals and allow local municipalities have access to the proceeds from state excise taxes levied on short term rentals. The tax would be on short term rentals of less than 30 days at a time and would start after 14 days of being rented out each year.

Andrews said the goal is to create a new public act that regulates short term rentals and also takes case law into consideration. Michigan Supreme Court rulings in recent years have upheld the rights of local governments to govern short term rentals.

The short term rental issue has been a thorny one in recent years with proposals brought forward and then never gaining traction.

Andrews also spoke briefly about the future of the Palisades nuclear plant. News came this week that the Holtec Company which now owns the property will be getting a $1.5 billion loan from the federal government. He said state legislators are working to make Michigan the leader in the country and the world in developing advance modular nuclear reactors.

County board meeting dates continue to be on commissioners’ radar. Commissioner Robert Harrison said the personnel and human services committee is looking at the ramifications of having more night meetings and making other changes. They will be surveying county staff and commissioners.

In a small fix to the current county board meeting schedule, the board added back the Feb. 22 meeting date after it had been inadvertently left off the schedule. The board will not meet Feb. 29 as it is a fifth Thursday.