County leaders discuss big plans for this year and beyond
MACOMB COUNTY — When looking at their to-do list for 2014, Macomb County officials have a handful of ambitious projects in the pipeline that they would like to make good progress on, if not achieving them outright.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel plans to focus much of his energy this year on his office’s ongoing efforts to establish a central campus of county facilities in downtown Mount Clemens. The project, which has been estimated to cost between $53.5 million and $61.3 million, would involve a massive overhaul of existing county buildings and the construction of a new parking structure.
“We’re starting to gain some buy-in from the Board of Commissioners — they really seem to be on board with this concept and what we’re trying to do here,” Hackel said. “The next step is that we have to put a plan together to figure out how we’re going to pay for this if we decide to move forward.”
The biggest proposed changes would occur in the old county administration building, where many Macomb County courts would relocate and expand their operations following the construction of new courtrooms and hearing rooms. This portion of the project would provide essential upgrades in the wake of the electrical fire that occurred in the facility’s basement in April 2013. The proposal also outlines the addition of two new courtrooms on the fifth and sixth floors of the Circuit Court building. Another aspect of the plan is the proposed construction of a new downtown parking structure that would contain 700 parking spaces, roughly 100 more than the existing 37-year-old structure.
Hackel, the former sheriff, would also like to resolve overcrowding problems at the Macomb County Jail by addressing broader systemic issues at the facility. He is bothered by the fact that mental health patients and people with substance abuse problems are housed in the same building as violent, dangerous criminals.
“I would like to create a central intake and assessment facility here in Macomb County,” Hackel said. “Instead of treating everyone the same, we need to bring prisoners to one central location and figure out where they should go next. We don’t want to just build a big old box to house people in — we need to take steps to reduce recidivism by making sure that people get the treatment they need. That will reduce costs and increase efficiencies in our criminal justice system.”
In addition, the executive hopes to improve county infrastructure through repairs to many of its crumbling roads and bridges. He also feels that significant progress has been made at the Macomb County Animal Shelter since its new director, Jeff Randazzo, took over a year ago and that this trend will only continue.
“We want to become more of a no-kill facility and to get out in our communities to make sure that animals are being treated well,” Hackel stated. “Through greater community outreach, I believe we can ensure better animal care.”
David Flynn, chair of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, indicated that the new proposed downtown campus will be a priority for the board in 2014. Like Hackel, the Sterling Heights democrat believes that county officials must use the space utilization plan conducted last year to reinvest in county infrastructure.
An added component of upgrading county facilities, Flynn said, will be “delivering services to Macomb County residents in a 21st-century manner using the newest and most cutting-edge technology.” As an example, he cited Clerk Carmella Sabaugh’s implementation of self-serve digital kiosks in October 2012, which allowed visitors to the Clerk’s Office to quickly report for jury duty and perform other basic tasks.
With help from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), Flynn also hopes to further the county’s efforts to utilize performance-based budgeting, which allows officials to develop their budget based on the relationship between a department’s funding levels and the expected results from that department.
“Last year was our first year using performance-based budgeting, and this year, we hope to fine-tune and expand upon it,” Flynn said. “By comparing ourselves to other counties, we can see how all of our different departments stack up. That will help us figure out how effectively we are delivering programs and services to Macomb County residents.”
Another goal for Flynn is to continue looking into the possibility of forming a regional water authority in order to bypass the troubled Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), which currently has an outstanding debt of around $5.9 million. The Board of Commissioners discussed the issue at length during a meeting last November, but a great deal more research is necessary before the board can decide if forming a coalition between Macomb, Oakland, Wayne — and possibly Genesee — counties is feasible.
“We need to work more with our neighboring counties to find a way to provide an alternative (to DWSD),” Flynn explained. “Under the right circumstances, we could deliver water and sewer services at a much lower cost. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … but it would have to make good economic sense for Macomb County rate payers.”
Other topics on the board chair’s mind this year include establishing a Complete Streets policy for the county — which he contended would “provide better transportation options for our diverse and aging population” — and continuing to offer assistance to county residents who are struggling to find steady jobs and affordable housing.
“Even though there has been an economic uptick in the last few years, there are still a lot of people out there who are struggling to get by,” Flynn said. “Government support for people at the bottom has largely dissipated, and that has been very troubling for me.”
For Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, the biggest ongoing task in 2014 is to make repairs and renovations at the Macomb County Jail to help alleviate its frequent overcrowding issues. In October, the Board of Commissioners approved an $813,400 project to reopen the jail annex that will include the replacement and installation of mechanical rooftop equipment, the restoration of cooling tower units, and a number of architectural and plumbing repairs.
The move came in response to an incident in September, when Wickersham issued an overcrowding state of emergency after the county jail had exceeded capacity for seven consecutive days. The lockup was originally built in 1954 and currently holds 1,238 prisoners, but it is estimated that it will need at least 1,900 beds by 2030. While Wickersham supports Hackel’s recommendation of establishing a central intake facility, he also believes that a brand new prison must be built in order to accommodate all the additional inmates.
“Mark’s idea is obviously a component of what we’re talking about here, but at the end of the day, we still need to have enough cells to house all of our prisoners,” he said. “We really have to look at how we deal with prisoners as a whole, and we can’t do that if we don’t have more space to work with.”
Dispatch services at the Sheriff’s Department are also in a state of flux this year. Following the grand opening of Macomb County’s new Communications and Technology Operations Center (COMTEC) last month, Wickersham’s dispatchers will soon move into the new facility to join forces with three other county agencies: the Department of Roads, Emergency Management and Information Technology. The Sheriff’s Department already provides dispatch services for Clinton Township and is in the process of negotiating a contract to do the same for Sterling Heights.
“We will be outgrowing our current dispatch facility very soon, especially with Clinton Township and Sterling Heights coming in,” Wickersham said. “So (relocating to the COMTEC building) will give us a lot of room for growth and expansion, and having all of these technical experts together under one roof is a huge benefit for us.”
Additionally, Wickersham hopes to make further progress with the new Child Abuse Prevention Task Force, which he and County Prosecutor Eric Smith created late last year in response to a rash of extreme child abuse cases that had occurred in Macomb County. They hope to improve child safety by being proactive rather than reactive and providing the public with essential information and resources.
“We didn’t want to just sit back and do nothing after we saw all these horrible incidents involving very young kids,” the sheriff said. “We just got to a point where we were tired of reporting on these cases after the fact — we wanted to step in and take action before something bad happens.”