The Lewiston City Council signaled Monday that it is open to the establishment of a Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter on Snake River Avenue by approving the first reading of an ordinance that would remove a cap on the number of beds.

Current city code limits all types of homeless shelters to 50 beds. The council added the restriction several years ago when the city was in the throes of a neighborhood dispute in North Lewiston, where area residents banded against the former ROC Rescue Mission and the vagrancy they said it promoted. The ROC didn’t have an overnight facility, but had proposed building two at the time.

The ROC eventually closed, and no other operations had proposed a homeless shelter until UGM this year. The faith-based organization already operates shelters in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, and recently opened a thrift store at 419 Snake River Ave., where it wants to add the shelter.

CEO Phil Altmeyer has told the council that it only runs “high-barrier” shelters that require sobriety and participation in rehabilitation programs for its residents. The ROC was considered a “low-barrier” operation because it had no such requirements for the homeless people it served.

The council also unanimously voted to initiate the process to change the necessary zoning regulations to allow high-barrier shelters by conditional use permit. The Lewiston Planning and Zoning Commission can now hold a public hearing on specific proposals before voting on any recommendations to the city council.

Community Development Director Laura Von Tersch also told the council that the amendments contain a process to report problems if someone believes a shelter is not following the rules in its conditional use permit, like maintaining a high-barrier to entry.

“It provides recourse for a resident to make a complaint that the shelter is not complying with their facility management plan, which would address the high-barrier, low-barrier thing,” Von Tersch said. “And then that complaint could then be considered, and if all else fails in terms of resolving it at the staff and operator level, it would come to city council.”

The shelter received an outpouring of support during the meeting’s public comment period, with several people testifying in person and more than three dozen submitting letters of support that were read aloud by city staff. Many said they had personal experience with UGM, either through tours or through knowing someone who needed their shelter, and would welcome them to help serve the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley’s homeless people.

In other business:

The council voted to table a vote on the adoption of a new personnel manual due to concerns over how it treats non-union and other employees. The council already received a detailed presentation on the manual at a previous work session, but Councilor Kevin Kelly put the brakes on approval when he raised questions about the addition of an at-will firing policy and a section on random drug testing.

Councilor John Bradbury said he interpreted the manual to change all termination decisions to at-will instead of “for cause,” meaning that city employees would be stripped of their rights. But City Manager Alan Nygaard, who attended the meeting by Zoom, clarified that the at-will provision was only included for “egregious episodes” that require immediate dismissal. Otherwise, the manual provides protection for employees through a grievance procedure and a progressive discipline policy, he said.

The council will discuss its questions about the manual during its December work session.

Councilors unanimously approved $96,000 in additional funding for the rebuild of the intersection of 21st Street and 19th Avenue, one of the city’s busiest junctions, after bids came in much higher than engineers estimated.

Public Works Director Dustin Johnson explained that the low bid on the majority state-funded project was 24 percent over the $1.3 million estimate. The Idaho Transportation Department informed the city that similar increases are being seen around the state, and agreed to fund $100,000 of the overage. But that left the city to pick up the remaining cost. Johnson said the money will come out of a $367,000 emergency appropriation from the office of Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

The project will widen the intersection with better turn lanes, install new signals and some sidewalks.

Councilors also gave a unanimous nod to begin abating the nuisance created by the December 2019 fire at the former Emperor of India King Thai Restaurant on Main Street. City staff has been attempting to work with owner Praveen Khurana for months to get him to clean up the property and make it safe to the public and adjoining properties, but heard Monday that not much progress has been made.

City Attorney Jana Gomez said preliminary estimates to abate the property are about $70,000, over the $50,000 threshold to require an informal bidding process for the work. The council vote directed the city to request bids on the project as soon as possible.

City Councilor Bob Blakey asked for an update on how much the city has spent on outside counsel to defend against Bradbury’s lawsuit over how the city has provided water to the city-owned Bryden Canyon Golf Course, interdepartmental loans to the golf course and the library, and city utilities paying a fee to the street department for their impact on city streets.

Administrative Services Director Dan Marsh said the firm of Clements, Brown and McNichols has been paid about $66,000 to date. He also said the council should expect additional large bills from the firm over the next two months.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.