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March 26, 2019 12:57 am

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City's Insurance Company - Not Taxpayers - Foots ACLU Court Award, Says Mayor

      It was a short Saugatuck City Council meeting Monday night, but it was filled with tension.
     The meeting opened with Saugatuck Mayor Bill Hess stating that the three area newspapers—The Observer Newspapers, The Commercial Record and The Holland Sentinel—had printed “misleading” information regarding an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit in a case the city lost over its actions against two street performers last year.
        Hess contended it was not the Saugatuck taxpayers who had shouldered the $7,500 paid to each of the two street performers as a result of the ACLU lawsuit, as he claimed the newspapers had informed the public, but it was the city’s liability insurance  company which had assumed those payouts.
        The Monday meeting ended with Catherine Simon, a local merchant and former council member herself, harshly criticizing officials over claims the city is not abiding by the Tree City USA guidelines.
        City officials contend many of Simon’s claims have been incontrovertibly proved to be wrong.
        With regards to the ACLU case, Hess noted, “Its unfortunate the three local newspapers have presented information that is misleading to the taxpayer,” said Hess.
        Obtained through the Michigan Municipal League (MML), the city’s annual liability insurance premium is $11,604 and is paid out of the city’s general fund, according to city officials.
        The general fund contains tax dollars that pay for the ordinary activities of the city, expenditures which are financed mostly by property tax revenues and some state-shared revenues.
        The fact MML distributed a total of $15,000 in the ACLU lawsuit to the street performers, will not cause the insurance premium to increase for the city, Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier told Observer Newspapers.
        “Municipal liability losses (total losses paid by an insurance company in the form of claims relative to collected premiums) are spread out over a five-year period. The City of Saugatuck loss ratio is less than 30%. Our liability rep said that until the loss ratio for a municipality gets over 50% or 60%, rates don’t change due specifically to a claim,” asserted Harrier.
        By that account, MML, regarding the ACLU lawsuit, paid $15,000 in claims to total earned premiums of $58,020 ($11,604 padi by the city over five years). That means MML had a loss ratio close to 26 percent.
        Acting on behalf of two college students of music that were barred from playing their instruments (guitar and viola) on Saugatuck’s downtown sidewalks because they did not have a city permit, with one of them being arrested and jailed for a weekend, the ACLU won the argument in U.S. District Court stating the act of street performance was protected under the First Amendment.
        In regards to Simon’s criticism of city officials over tree issues, she contended “the unkempt appearance of the city’s trees and foliage area is a shameful embarrassment to the citizens and guests to the community.”
        But her claim that the City of Saugatuck was not living up to Tree City USA standards have been unequivocally refuted, according to  city officials - including City Councilwoman Jane Verplank who sits on the local Tree Board Committee.
        City officials provided Observer Newspapers documented verification that they say proves they are meeting all Tree City USA standards as required.
        Simon disputes that claim. For example, she accused city officials of not holding quarterly Tree Board meetings. However, city staff have shown that it did in fact schedule a meeting in January, but did not have a quorum, and did have one in April 16.  
        She also claimed city officials had not posted any kind of notice—or approved any kind of proclamation—in observance of Arbor Day 2015. A short article in the March 13, 2015 Local Observer edition informs that city officials did in fact pass an Arbor Day Proclamation for April 24 at the Monday meeting of March 9.
        As for her charges the city is not removing dead trees and getting rid of “dangerous hanging boughs,” city officials say they are doing their best to confront the plague of the emerald ash borer that has devastated many trees throughout the area.
        “If you have any kind of problems with dead or dangerous trees, please contact the city; we’ll deal with it as best we can,” Harrier told Simon after Monday’s meeting.  

City’s Insurance Company - Not Taxpayers - Foots ACLU Court Award, Says Mayor

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