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Bluffton council meeting summary for September 25

By Andy Chappell-Dick

The Monday, September 25 meeting of the Bluffton council was a little surreal for the public gallery, since much of it happened behind closed doors in an executive session that was not on the agenda. Fortunately, the discussion must have been productive because several consequential actions were taken immediately after.

Business began in the usual way with approving bills and minutes. In public comment, a couple of representatives from Ebenezer Church introduced a young family from Russia that has moved to town through that church's sponsorship.  Their story is compelling: the young woman is of Ukrainian descent, and at work she took a stand against the invasion of her homeland. After government officials got wind of her actions the family was forced to flee. A roundabout journey through Mexico and California finally landed them in an apartment on Bluffton's Main Street. We are urged to make the couple and their three young children welcome as they find work and make a new home in the safety of our town.

Councilor Joe Sehlhorst had a lengthy report from the Streets & Alleys committee, which is wrapping up work for the 2023 construction season and looking ahead to next year. There is a massive amount of street work and paving yet to happen this fall, most of it in October.  This includes two “Lions Way” pathway segments; paving on Lawn Avenue, Jackson Street, and Hunters Run; ODOT's resurfacing of Main Street, ongoing curb work and new ADA ramps; and reconfiguring the Thurman Street parking lot.  

Sehlhorst also pointed to the new influence of the "Complete Streets" policy, which will guide sensible development and maintenance of streets for the future.  A project for 2024 is adding two more speed beacons, those radar displays that make us all think twice about why we're in such a hurry. Sehlhorst said, "well, they slow ME down" and an officer present also admitted that the beacons are very successful in doing just that.

Councilor Ben Stahl reported for the Tree Commission.  They've got some plans for the new soccer fields next to SRK and have ongoing work with neighborhoods around town. New business is beginning tree talks for Bluffton's newest public/private partnership, a dog park on Lake Street.  Kudos to the folks who work hard on this committee. Trees don't just plant themselves.  Well, they do, but never where we want them, am I right?

Councilor Mitch Kingsley summarized a series of joint meetings between Personnel, Finance, and Safety Services. The Village is facing hiring and retention difficulties if wages are not raised.  Councilor Dave Steiner pointed to a wage study that shows Bluffton is paying less than similar towns in the area.  It's most critical right now as we are trying to hire a full-time police officer, and without a competitive package nobody is applying.

Village Administrator Jesse Blackburn has also reported that he faces a similar dilemma in the Public Works department.  It's clear, too, that raising starting wages means that the whole scale has to be adjusted for all employees. Fiscal Officer Kevin Nickel had prepared some cost projections, and was asked to come up with more details so that decisions could be made.

With this sobering report hanging in the air, Mayor Rich Johnson quickly had Council vote on two pieces of legislation regarding a sewer easement and an alley vacation, and then asked for an executive session.  As Council and some administrators left for the conference room, the mayor stated that he expected action to be taken afterward.

It would be a full hour before the group returned to regular session. Those remaining in the assembly room discussed the finer points of the weekend's Buckeye squeaker victory over Notre Dame, but eventually even that topic was exhausted. Finally I polled the Emergency Services chiefs to see if any noteworthy content was coming from them later, anything that wasn't in the council packet. They said no.

Our patience was rewarded with two Council actions. The first was emergency passage of a resolution enabling Administrator Blackburn to apply for grant assistance in a major reworking of the Navajo Drive-State Route 103 intersection. Blackburn stated that there are no definite plans at this point, but with the upcoming expansion of the GROB facility, this intersection needs to be upgraded.  

The second action was a motion, put forward by Councilor Steiner, to immediately authorize Police Chief Ryan Burkholder to advertise a new starting wage of $25/hr for the open officer position. When asked if this was part of a new wage structure, Steiner answered that the joint Committees will be meeting again shortly to put that together, but they felt the urgency to take this step to help the police chief.

The Icon reporter was unable to stay for the rest of the meeting. The meeting's minutes will be available on the Village website and in the next meeting's advance council packet.