There were shades of "A Miracle on 34th Street" at last week's Culver town council meeting, as Cafe Max owner Susie Mahler poured some 1,000 positive comment cards onto the council table, concerning the outdoor dining facility she installed at her Main Street restaurant last spring. She noted she had the only three negative cards available for council review as well.
Culver’s town hall meeting room was nearly full for the Sept. 25 meeting, with many apparently there to support Mahler's initiative, about which the council had requested the public come to express opinions.
The question of whether to grant Mahler permission to continue use of the sidewalk-based railing outside Cafe Max had been scheduled for September review back in April, when the council granted temporary permission for its installation, pending scrutiny of its use over the summer. Most concerns had centered on whether the railing would prove an impediment to pedestrians or handicapped residents using wheelchairs, or whether alcohol consumption could spill out of the railing and cause frequent violations of Culver's public drinking ordinance.
Several local business owners addressed the council in favor of allowing the venture to continue, including Lakehouse Grille owner Mark Damore, Jr.
"We (merchants) are all fighting so hard to survive," he said. "Innovative ideas like Susie's patio -- we're not trying to cause problems for the town; we're trying to help the town. I employ 36 people (and) we want to sponsor the holes, the soccer teams (and other charitable endeavors)."
Asked by council member Bill Githens if Damore plans his own outdoor dining offering in the future, he said it's "very possible," but added he hoped to do so in the grassy area east of his restaurant, rather than the sidewalk.
" I'm interested in whatever can bring ambiance and happiness to the town," he said.
Julie Brooks, co-owner with Julie Workman of the Civvies clothing store across the street from Cafe Max, said outdoor dining there "completely changes the landscape," adding she hears people frequently praising the venture and has heard no negative feedback.
"It makes the town really welcoming," she said. "More people will come to eat and shop and spend their days at the beaches and lake."
Several other positive comments followed, including from Original Root Beer Stand owner Mark Damore Sr. amd Diva owner Sue McInturff.
Council members discussed removal of the railings in winter for ease of snow plowing, which Mahler said she's able to do. The question of alcohol problems also arose, with Mahler explaining some members of larger groups congregated outside would move outside the railing with drinks in hand, in order to make space for others, and she "dragged them back in."
Culver town marshal Wayne Bean, complimenting Mahler on the look of the railing, asked if dining could continue outdoors without the alcohol, though council member Lynn Overmyer said she didn't think drinkers are "walking up and down the streets" as a result of outdoor dining.
Audience member Jean Rakich noted several bicycles have been parked against the door of the loft apartment near the restaurant entrance, though council member Ginny Munroe pointed out bicyclists aren't, by ordinance, allowed to ride on sidewalks to begin with. Rakich also asked about handicapped access.
"We have a lady who's 85 with a wheelchair who dines there," replied Mahler, adding the sidewalk is still 48 inches, outside Cafe Max's dining railing, which complies with town statute and ADA handicapped access laws.
"If we say Susie's ADA-compliant sidewalks don't make sense," concurred Munroe, "then every sidewalk in town isn't ADA compliant either. We have sidewalks in town worse off for wheelchairs than that area."
Mahler also agreed, following a comment from Culver fire chief Mike Grover, that a gate could be added to the railing at the north door to the restaurant, to allow emergency services personnel access to all entrances.
In response to a query from town manager Dave Schoeff, council members agreed that future outdoor dining endeavors should be brought to council on a case-by-case basis, rather than this situation establishing a formal precedent for other businesses.
The council unanimously approved allowing Mahler to continue with outdoor dining, provided the railing be removed in winter and the gate be added.
*Project increase frustrations
Council members and the town and utility managers shared frustration with having recently learned of an additional $29,230.95 cost to Culver's downtown revitalization project.
Schoeff explained the cost was initially projected at $540,000, with the Indiana Department of Transportation -- who handled grant funds for the endeavor -- locking in that cost and basing funding of 80 percent of the cost on that figure, or a total of $446,000.
Actual construction bids for the project, however, came in higher than anticipated, said Schoeff.
"Obviously INDOT won't increase their funds, so they tell us that's our responsibility."
Culver's Redevelopment Committee had already approved $12,9497.81 as part of the project.
To date, he said, the town is responsible for $158,729. At its previous meeting, the council already approved $129,499 towards the project, but with new, additional cost estimates coming in, $29230.95 is still outstanding.
"We're having a little issue with the engineer with (engineering firm) DLZ," said Schoeff. "It would have been nice to get one amount (of money due) and not keep coming back again and again. For whatever reason, the engineer, in his calculations, gave us the wrong amount."
He emphasized the town would have had to pay the $158,000 due regardless of the engineer's timing, but the full amount should have been provided to the town up front, rather than a lesser amount initially, with a large amount added to the cost later.
"I emailed (the engineer) that we're not happy, and (carbon copied) one of the senior VPs, so they know as a corporation that we're not happy. "
Council member Bill Githens pointed out the cost doesn't include any "hiccups," or problems encountered once construction begins.
Ralph Winters, of the Redevelopment Committee, suggested a public meeting be arranged between the town and the Committee, to discuss whether the two can work together towards the cost.
*Budgeting shortfalls detailed
Mike Stallings, of Culver's tree commission, asked to go on record that the commission is not actually $20,000 over budget. Instead, he said, "Someone goofed."
While an annual budget of $5,000 was voted each year for the past three years, said Stallings, the money was never budgeted on paper, resulting in a technical shortfall of over $15,000. With additional funds approved for emergency tree removal, but also omitted from the printed budget, the total is $21,000.
"These things have to be watched and corrected," added Stallings, who referenced the DLZ engineering matter, the tree commission budgeting error, and, "four or five months ago, you had a $450,000 goof....if you guys don't know what's in your funds, this will creep up and bite you."
The latter amount was presumably a reference to a clerical error in reporting the town's budget, late in 2010, resulting in a budget payout from the state in 2011 $450,000 short of what had been expected.
"We can't change whatever happened," said Munroe of that incident. "I feel deceived and felt betrayed by all that, but I can't change history. Because we're fiscally responsible, it makes you sick when you find out after the fact."
"It should not reflect on you or (town clerk Karen Heim)," said audience member Tom Kearns, "but on the prior parties responsible for it; that should be a matter of record."
Audience member Bill Furry, noting "someone's responsible" for the error, suggested the council "hold their feet to the fire."
Munroe reiterated the past can't be changed.
"There's only so much you can do," she added.
Heim, who took over the clerk position from prior clerk Casey Howard after the shortfall occurred, told the audience and council there have been rumors around town that Culver's rainy day fund is empty, which she said is untrue.
"On the question of where the money came from to cover the shortfall last year, basically there's an extra $220,000 (from the general fund) and an extra $62,000 from MVH last year. Those two funds were affected by the shortfall...that's where that money came from, not the Rainy Day fund or Redevelopment Committee."
The numbers detailed on a sheet breaking down the funding amounts, which Heim shared with the Citizen, specify that $227,308.12 was spent from the general fund and $62,488.53 from MVH, which handles operating funds for the street department.
"Total excess funds spent to replace tax shortfall," says the sheet, amounted to $289,796.64, derived from those two sources.
*Water plant future
In other business, the council approved $14,500 for Commonwealth Engineers to conduct a water study, one of the items on a five-year project list according to Schoeff.
The town manager said he was "shocked" when he visited Culver's water plant, on Ohio Street, where problems, according to utilities manager Bob Porter, include a filtration system dating to the 1950s, undersize piping, problems with the building housing the facilities, and the need to dig another well.
"It's not failing," added Porter, "but it's time to look forward before it does."
Schoeff, who pointed out this project should not be confused with the array of renovations recently completed at the town's sewer plant, said he "watched an engineer poke a hole through a cinder block on the well house. The doors -- they really have to work to get them to fit right, with the warping and settling of the building. I want to ask (Commonwealth) to identify all those items and put a cost association with them. It would take three to four months."
Porter affirmed, in response to councilman Ed Pinder, that the town should seriously consider digging a new well.
In other actions, the council approved the request of Bill Furry for a directional sign for St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church in Culver, to be placed near the northeast corner of State Street and Lake Shore Drive, provided the sign doesn't interfere with a firemen's memorial planned for placement nearby, or that the memorial doesn't interfere with it.
Also approved was hiring two part-time, seasonal workers to assist in town leaf pickup between Oct. 15 and Dec. 21, and $8,000 for Umbaugh and Associates' preparation of the town's 2013 budget.
Council members approved assisting the Salvation Army in bell ringing Dec. 2 at CVS and Park N' Shop, at the suggestion of Overmyer, who said she learned of the need at the latest Council of Churches meeting.
Audience member Bill Howard complimented the work of the council and others towards the betterment of Culver.
"You have a unique situation here with the lake, and the (Culver) Academy, which is the largest employer in the county, and then the town people. The progress is great; I'm so proud to live here," he said.