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Harper Woods

January 4, 2014

A look back at 2013

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

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Home Depot operations manager Cindy Lee pets Harper Woods’ new police dog, Xander, during a family safety day last October.

HARPER WOODS — Communities and school districts throughout the state continued to face struggles, undergo changes, tackle challenges and try to rebuild their bottom lines and see growth in 2013. Among the communities and districts were Harper Woods, Harper Woods Schools and Grosse Pointe Schools.

A notable change that seemed to transcend both city and schools was the plethora of new faces and positions among leadership and staff. 

Harper Woods Schools welcomed new board members at the beginning of last year: Trustees Regina Williams and Tabithia Mahone. Well-loved Harper Woods Secondary School Principal Thomas Parker left for the superintendent post in Ecorse Schools and was replaced by Principal Tonya Norwood.

In Grosse Pointe Schools, Brendan Walsh resigned from the school board last year and was replaced by Brian Summerfield, who received a unanimous vote from the remaining board members.

Fire Chief Sean Gunnery took an early retirement last year. Police Chief James Burke was promoted to the newly created position of Director of Public Safety, and a few of the high-ranking fire officers took over additional duties in lieu of hiring a fire chief as the city pared down staff to run more efficiently with city finances in mind.

Library Director Dale Parus chose to take a post with another metro Detroit library late last year, which left the library board in search of a new leader.

Other new faces in the city included additional part-time police officers on the force and the addition of a new K-9 officer.

Here’s a look back at some of the other highlights of the year:

Government news

Harper Woods, like many communities, has had it tough financially in recent years, but things have been starting to look up.
    
The City Council had to vote to pass along a 9.5-mill special assessment in May of last year. During a
budget discussion in the fall of last year, city officials said they’d be looking to approve a special assessment again in 2014 to make ends meet.

Some moves to continue tackling the city’s budget issues were met with little resistance from the community, like cutting staff through attrition; others were less popular, like the move to consider discontinuing leaf service.

“If we discontinue the service, we will not pick it up again,” Council member Vivian Sawicki said when the issue was discussed. “It will not happen. I know it seems like such a minor thing, but it’s a quality-of-life issue.

“Reducing it, I can understand,” she said. “Cutting it out altogether I think would really be a detriment to our community.”

The council voted 4-3 against changing the service last year.

City Council wasn’t the only group looking at its financial situation, but library officials also met to discuss concerns about the financial forecast last year.

One of the bigger changes of 2013 involved the way the Police and Fire departments conduct their business.

When it comes to the public safety fight in Harper Woods, there has been tension in the air for years, but city officials touted good news at the beginning of last year with a contract negotiated between City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk and the firefighters’ union. City officials called the move a step toward public safety — something they’d wanted for years. The agreement ultimately paved the way for the city to use its cross-trained police officers to fight fires.

The City Council passed an ordinance that established the Department of Public Safety. City officials said that the move didn’t change the possibility of placing the Public Safety initiative on a future ballot for voters to approve a City Charter change.

The city made its agreement with MedStar for ambulance service official and, later in the year,
sold its two ambulances. While MedStar is the primary transport provider in the city, firefighters/paramedics continue to respond to medical calls, assisting residents at the scene.    
Besides bringing on some part-time officers in the Public Safety Department last year, there also were more officers who headed into the academy to cross-train as firefighters, thanks to a grant.

The city had a lot of big news when it came to seeking out grant funding in different departments.

Thanks to the part-time police officers and a grant from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, police and the school district were able to team up to get a full-time officer back in the schools.

Bringing Xander, the new K-9 officer, into the fold was made easier, thanks to a grant from the K-9 Safety Partners of the Grosse Pointes, which funded the cost of recertification and some equipment needs.

The Fire Department received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant for about $50,000 for some extrication equipment, and grant funding in the amount of $330,980 for a new fire truck.

One of the biggest stories of the year was the decision to close down Charlie’s Woods Saloon with a 5-0 vote to revoke the liquor license last June.

The city had worked on an agreement with the bar owners for closure of the business because police had been dealing with too many felony incidents at the bar.

A shootout that took place in front of police outside the bar last year was the last straw in what police called a string of incidents at the bar. Those felony incidents have ranged from a stabbing to people getting robbed outside the bar and a person being shot on one occasion in the past year outside the establishment, according to police information. Police said they dealt with crowds and fights. Burke referred to the bar situation as a nuisance in a letter to City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk and said he’s extremely concerned about safety.

“The incidents include aggravated assaults and weapons offenses that place our community and our police officers in danger,” Burke stated in the letter last year. “The latest incident escalated this threat, and I believe the establishment’s license to do business needs to be revoked.”

A piece of welcome news for anyone who has had to spend any amount of time in the city’s court/council chambers came with the news that the city planned to do a makeover. The city renovated the council chambers last year with new paint, carpet and seating after nearly 60 years of use.

Another exciting discussion last year involved working on what Skotarczyk dubbed the Living Streets Project, or ways to plan changes in the community that would help deter crime and make life more enjoyable for residents.

In the schools

There was some big news in the schools, too.

The talk was on technology in both Harper Woods and Grosse Pointe Schools.

Harper Woods received a sizeable grant that allowed it to bring new technology into the schools and right into the hands of each student. The district purchased iPads and laptops for the schools, implementing a one-device-to-one-student initiative.

“We truly are going to have one of the most contemporary learning environments available to students in the state,” Superintendent Todd Biederwolf said last year. “We’ve got some really, really great things going on in the district. Truly, truly, great, great news.”

Grosse Pointe Schools also wanted to make some major technology changes. It spent the greater part of the year working on a technology bond proposal for major infrastructure, security upgrades and new technology. While the debate was lengthy, the board ultimately decided to move forward with a bond proposal that will be on the ballot in February.

Harper Woods Schools was able to take advantage of a better financial situation than previous years to make positive changes, like deciding not to issue layoff notices and waiving pay-for-participation fees. 

A fun change in Harper Woods Schools last year was the unveiling of the district’s new mascot, Pioneer Roc, thanks to the hard work of students Trenton Hudson and Ronald Robertson.

“We sat down and thought maybe we needed more school spirit,” Robertson said. “We wanted to bring more people out to the games.”

He also wanted a mascot that would entertain children.

“I love kids,” Robertson said. “So when they’re happy, it just brings out the love in everybody.”

Other big news involves partnership agreements with groups like ATS Educational Consulting Services and Vista Maria to bring more educational and social opportunities to the students.

A word on crime

A business on Kelly, Second Glance Resale Shop, started out its new year last January by announcing that it had decided to close its doors due to being targeted multiple times by criminals.

The Police Department dealt with a number of incidents during 2013, from armed robberies and shots fired to investigating two murders. A murder case from February of last year is heading to trial in the upcoming months, and police were actively investigating a homicide in December.

While the city has had high-profile cases, there is some good news when it comes to crime in Harper Woods. As of the end of November, home invasions were down 17 percent and auto theft was down 14 percent from 2012. Robberies were comparable: The Public Safety Department had 53 robbery cases by the end of November — there were 54 in all of 2012 — and made 38 arrests. The department had taken 78 firearms off the streets through November.

Harper Woods police brought in a suspect for armed robbery who ended up being a suspect in a high-profile case in which an Eastern Michigan University student athlete was killed late last year in Ypsilanti. Eastern Michigan campus police contacted Harper Woods and let them know that they were extremely grateful.

“Our detectives have a phenomenal reputation,” Public Safety Director James Burke said, praising the entire department. “I am proud and fortunate to work with the group of people I work with.

“Our arrest rate and our conviction rate is extremely high,” he said.

The department handled 25,000 calls for service with 1,700 arrests through November of last year.

“We know what our mission is, and we continue to do it,” Burke said.

Council member Charles Flanagan is vocal in his support of the work that the police do in the city.

“Despite past pay reductions, benefit reductions, and future inevitable pension reductions, the Police Department continues to perform in an exemplary fashion, despite the increased burdens and uncertain future,” he said. “I believe that Harper Woods would be under the control of an emergency manager, were it not for the abilities of the city manager, and chief of police, and the sacrifices already endured by the remaining members of the Police Department.”

Fun, features and other noteworthy events

There were many other highlights during the year, including the news that Harper Woods teen Trevor Neiman completed his Eagle Scout project by giving back to the schools; the Little League created a new T-ball field that it unveiled during the baseball season; big events like the National Night Out continued to draw big crowds; and Sears closed its doors for good after many months of a self-proclaimed “going out of business sale.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at alehmbeck@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1043.