By Melanie Williamson
The five committees of the Vermilion City Council are Health and Safety, Legislative, Finance, Utilities, and Streets, Buildings, and Grounds. All five committees meet for a regular meeting on Monday, September 24, and all councilmen and women were in attendance.
Health and Safety Committee
The meeting started with the Health and Safety Committee, which includes reports from Vermilion Police Chief Chris Hartung and Vermilion Fire Chief Chris Stempowski. Stempowski was unable to attend, so Mayor Jim Forthofer read his report for the committee.
Forthofer reported that the department was undergoing equipment inspections. So far, the inspections have gone well, and they have a couple more in the coming weeks. Additionally, Engine 99 is undergoing preventative maintenance, and Engine 80 is currently unusable as they are waiting for needed parts. The recent oil spill is still under review to determine if the incident will fall under the responsibility of the state or federal government.
Finally, Fire Prevention Week will be October 7 through the 13. This will include open houses at each station on October 7 from noon to 3 p.m.
Police Chief Hartung reported that Woollybear weekend went well with only a few traffic issues. Hartung also updated the city council on the events that happened on Tuesday, September 11, involving multiple break-ins and stolen vehicles. The suspect, Jonathan Puccia, is currently in Toledo undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. Hartung stated that he had the opportunity to speak with Puccia, who stated he thought China was after him. Hartung also shared that he has been questioned as to why St. Mary’s school was not notified of what was going on for a lockdown. Hartung responded to these questions stating that everything was happening at once, and it was not immediately clear that the incidents were connected and they were looking for one individual.
Hartung closed his report by stating that in addition to the car break-ins and thefts allegedly done by Puccia, there was at least one other car theft in the city, and he strongly encouraged residents to stop leaving their keys in the ignition of their parked vehicles. He asserted that residents need to protect their things by locking their vehicles and not keeping valuables in them.
There has been a great deal of frustration lately for residents regarding easements and rights-of-way on their property. As the City of Vermilion and Brownhlem Township have attempted to move forward on ditch clean out projects, they have run into the problem of fences and sheds in the way. From the administration side, those structures are not supposed to be there, so they need to be removed. From the residents’ side, most were provided with permits to build the structures, with the argument being if they weren’t supposed to build in that area, why did the city issue them a permit?
During the Legislative Committee meeting, councilman Steve Holovacs presented a draft of legislation that would include the following on all building permit applications. “I certify that I am the property owner or authorized designee for the property owner. The above information is accurate, and all work will be performed only by the property owner or a contractor(s) properly registered with the City of Vermilion Building Department. Furthermore, the property owner is responsible for compliance with all deed restrictions and/or easements which may exist on their property.”
Holovacs stated that this would make the property owner responsible for knowing the property lines and easements. He went on to say that this will make it fair for the building department since it is the responsibility of the property owner to conduct a title search on their property. Councilman John Gabriel stated that the permits are already crowded, and they need to make sure the new wording stands out. Council president Steve Herron asked service director Tony Valerius if this was possible, and he responded that it was.
Gabriel also stated that when residents pick up or submit a building permit application, the department needs to make sure they understand what it means. After more discussion, the council members voted to prepare legislation.
Councilman Frank Loucka informed the council of the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Capital Improvement Grant. He stated they are awarding $250,000 per year for projects that promote tourism in Erie County communities. He went on to explain that the program is a reimbursement grant for 50% of a project, which means the city would need to pay for the entire project up front and then be reimbursed for half of it. Loucka stated that they fund projects that include signage, revitalization, and special experiences.
Mayor Jim Forthofer state that they typically work with tourism organizations within communities, as opposed to directly with municipalities. Additionally, he stated that Main Street Vermilion Executive Director Marylou Susko is aware of the grant program and working on possible options. Through discussion, it was determined that the Lake Erie Shores & Islands logo has to be included in the proposed project. Councilman John Gabriel suggested the finishing the Fulper lot as a possibility with the grant. Councilwoman-at-Large Monica Stark referred back to an idea she had several months ago of putting a sign up across the bridge at Jerusalem Road welcoming drivers to Vermilion. She went on to say that she recently saw one that was painted on the bridge and it looked really good. She strongly felt it would bring a lot of attention to Vermilion. Council agreed to consider the grant and possible projects.
Finance director Amy Hendricks addressed the council regarding the monthly financial report of funds including the sanitation fund, which showed a negative balance. She explained that it was an issue of timing because the purchase orders for the sanitation services were already in place, but the funds were collected monthly, so it appears negative until they near the end of the contract.
Streets, Buildings and Grounds Committee
The item addressed within the Streets, Buildings and Grounds Committee meeting was the Fulper Lot located at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Grand Street. It is referred to as the Fulper Lot because it was previously the location of the Fulper Gas station, which was a mainstay in Vermilion for many years. The city acquired the lot and did the necessary tests and cleaning to make the lot usable. However, since then the future of the lot has been in question.
Councilman John Gabriel stated they he sees the lot can be developed and turned into something eventually. However, given the fact that the city is currently not in the position to develop the land, he strongly suggested they move to make it a nice parking lot instead of a partially mowed field. He reiterated that it could take the city years to develop the property, but the city needs more parking now. Councilwoman-at-Large Monica Stark agreed with councilman Gabriel stating that it was already being used for parking and the issue of needing more parking has come up before. She went on to say that she knows they recently purchased a parking lot, but she feels that many people still do not know it is there.
Mayor Jim Forthofer stated that the city recently finished an inventory of properties to see what they own and what can be sold, and he is preparing a report for the council on that. He went on to say that he is working on attaining grant money to work on a conceptual drawing of what can be done with the Fulper Lot. He suggested there be a happy in between without committing to a black top parking lot.
Stark responded by saying that if the lot were developed for business, there would be even less parking and an even bigger need. She went on to say there are plenty of empty buildings in Vermilion for new businesses. Mayor Forthofer disagreed stating that the downtown area is almost full. Stark responded that other communities such as Amherst had grown immensely, and she believes that having plenty of parking has contributed to that growth. The discussion closed with Gabriel asking city engineer Chris Howard if they can get pricing on what it would cost to turn the Fulper Lot into a parking lot.
The next item for discussion was possible Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) grant projects. These are 80/20 grants, which means the city would be responsible for paying 20% of the total project. City engineer Chris Howard shared that there is 1.6 million in grants available for 2022 and 2023, and he was suggesting that the city submit two projects. The first project being repaving Sunnyside Road from just south of the train tracks to Jerusalem Road. This project would cost approximately $854,000, which would mean it would cost the city $219,000 if the project were approved.
The second project he suggested was Vermilion Road Phase 3, which would be repaving from Jerusalem Road south almost to Cooper Foster. The total project would cost approximately $730,000, which means the city would be responsible for $188,000.
Councilman Steve Holovacs stated that they are getting a handle on the finances, and he felt they shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. Additionally, applying for the grant doesn’t mean they will get it. Councilman Gabriel asked if the two projects would be in the same year. Howard responded that they could be spaced out. Gabriel then asked finance director Amy Hendricks if she thought they would have the money by then. Hendricks responded that with the current refinancing on the city’s debt, it is feasible that they will be able to afford those projects.
Councilwoman Barb Brady asked if it would be helpful to apply with Brownhelm Township. Howard responded that the need to submit their projects by Friday, but they can always approach Brownhelm Township afterward to see if they can share in the cost. Council then moved to allow Howard to submit the projects for grant consideration.
The next city council committee meetings are planned for Monday, October 15, at 7 p.m. in the courtroom of the municipal complex on Decatur Street.