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Shelby Township, Sterling Heights, Utica

January 29, 2014

Leaders weigh in at Heritage Luncheon

By Sarah Wojcik
C & G Staff Writer

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Leaders weigh in at Heritage Luncheon
From left, Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte, Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan and Shelby Township Supervisor Rick Stathakis address a crowd during a panel discussion at the Heritage Luncheon at the Cherry Creek Banquet Center in Sterling Heights Jan. 22.

SHELBY TOWNSHIP/UTICA/STERLING HEIGHTS — Over a lunch of chicken piccata, dozens of attendees listened to the leaders of Sterling Heights, Utica and Shelby Township discuss their municipalities at the Heritage Luncheon.

In round-table discussion, Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte, Utica Mayor and Michigan Municipal League President Jacqueline Noonan and Shelby Township Supervisor Rick Stathakis answered questions at the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual event Jan. 22.

The questions dealt with identifying advancements and hurdles in each of the three respective cities, as well as state funding and business climate.

Each elected official received three minutes to answer each question.

The first question was, “What is the best news to come to your community in 2013?”

Notte named a millage proposal passed to fund a road initiative for safer streets, as well as prevent Sterling Heights from laying off 65 of its police officers and firefighters. Given the down economy, he added that city employees gave concessions.

Stathakis said Shelby Township streamlined its hiring process from 225 days to fewer than 100, created a capital improvement fund and completed Chief Gene Shepherd Park on 23 Mile Road.

“The best thing that happened in Utica in 2013 is we survived,” Noonan said. “We’re the tiniest city in the county with very limited resources.”

She added that the Utica Fire Department finalized its contract and employees undertook a health care reform, which would save the city money over time. She also noted that half of the City Council ran unopposed in the November election and the city hosted myriad community events.

The next question was, “What is the biggest hurdle you had to cross in 2013, and what do you see the biggest one being for 2014?”

“Budget, budget, budget,” Noonan said. “When you have to dig into your rainy day fund, when you have less than three months’ operating budget, was by far our biggest hurdle.”

She said she is proud of Utica’s police, fire and Department of Public Works services, and she looks forward to constructing a hike and bike trail through Utica to connect to River Bends Park in Shelby Township. She also looks forward to replacing the city’s fleet of police cars.

Notte said a challenge for Sterling Heights was addressing residents’ concerns about the new millage for police, fire and roads, and how the city would spend the money. He added that he looks forward to partnerships between the nine communities — including Shelby Township and Utica — involved in MACRO, or Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities.

Stathakis said the biggest hurdle still facing Shelby Township is the unfunded, exponential pension and retiree costs in the Police and Fire departments totaling $35.5 million and 32 million, respectively.

The next question was, “With a projected revenue surplus at the state level, do you expect any of that to trickle down to your community?”

While Noonan and Notte expressed a lack of confidence in the state government for breaking its word on returns promised to them, Stathakis said he hopes to see more roadwork to promote business.

“Who would have thought that the collateral damage of great recession is local government, but there is no doubt about it,” Noonan said. “When you base the financial model on local government property taxes, and property taxes drop a third to a half, you’re going to find yourself under water.”

The last question was, “What have you done in the last year to make your community more welcoming and more business-friendly, and has that … continued to grow existing business and (brought) new business to your community?”

Notte said Sterling Heights is working on diversifying its manufacturing efforts in the auto and defense industries, since the city’s tax base consists of 60 percent industrial or commercial and 40 percent residential.

He said Chrysler would open a new paint and body shop next month, a $1 billion investment, just years after a plant closed in 2010.

“Just last night, the council made a hard decision spending $58,000 on fire for four communities — Sterling Heights, Harrison Township, Mount Clemens and Clinton Township,” Notte said.

Noonan said Utica works with small and big businesses alike to negotiate a deal favorable for both parties, that she expects another dozen or so to call Utica home in the next year. She said Utica resurfaced every road in the city except 1/16 of a mile to enhance the quality of life.

Stathakis said Shelby Township will continue to use its land development tool to showcase available properties for prospective businesses and that it also recently developed the Economic Development Advisory Committee.

“Government should, in some way, focus on creating an environment where businesses in the private sector create high-paying, long-lasting jobs,” Stathakis said.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at swojcik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1029.