’16 sweet for some, bitter for others

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 3, 2017

 Graduates throw their mortarboards into the air at the Utica Academy for International Studies’ June 7 graduation ceremony at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

Graduates throw their mortarboards into the air at the Utica Academy for International Studies’ June 7 graduation ceremony at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

File photo by Sean Work

A presidential election, the passage of a recreation millage proposal and a new city waste hauler were a few of the issues that defined the local headlines in 2016. The following were a few of the biggest stories that affected Sterling Heights:

1. Trump wins elections in city
Sterling Heights voters cast their ballots during the March 8 presidential primary elections, and among the Republican candidates, Donald Trump won his party’s primary with 46.1 percent. Among other top Republicans, John Kasich had 23.2 percent, Ted Cruz had 17.1 percent and Marco Rubio had 8.4 percent.

In the Democratic presidential primary, Sterling Heights voters favored Hillary Clinton, giving her 49.2 percent, compared to Bernie Sanders’ 46.8 percent. However, Sanders won Michigan overall, defying polls.

In the Nov. 8 general election, Trump defeated Clinton in Sterling Heights, receiving about 53.1 percent of the citywide vote compared to Clinton’s 41.3 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson received about 3.0 percent, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein received about 0.9 percent.

Trump, who also narrowly won Michigan, appeared in Sterling Heights for a campaign rally at Freedom Hill days before the election.

Other local winners in the Nov. 8 elections included those for the Macomb County Board of Commissioners: Republican Joseph Romano won the 4th District, and Democrat Robert Mijac won the 5th District. Democrat Henry Yanez retained his seat in the state House of Representatives’ 25th District, and Republican Diana Farrington — wife of term-limited officeholder Jeff Farrington — won the 30th District.

Danielle Nesovski and incumbent Robert Ross won two open seats on the Utica Community Schools Board of Education.

Sterling Heights’ primary turnout was estimated at 35.4 percent, and its general election turnout was an estimated 67.1 percent.

2. Rizzo becomes new hauler, GFL takes over
Although the Sterling Heights City Council was split at times, it managed to complete its quest to approve a new waste hauling contract before its previous contract with Waste Management expired at the end of April.

After a council majority decided in 2015 to take bids for a waste hauling contract, the council voted in February to reject the bids after failing to gather a majority to approve an option for a five-year Waste Management contract.

In March, the council voted 4-3 to issue a request for proposals that sought features like voluntary curbside recycling, voluntary trash carts and the possibility of an eight-year contract. In April, the council heard that Rizzo Environmental Services’ eight-year contract would be cheaper. So the council unanimously approved Rizzo’s contract in April, thus having it go into effect starting in May.

GFL Environmental USA Inc., an American subsidiary of Toronto-based GFL Environmental Inc., acquired Rizzo Sept. 30, thus inheriting Sterling Heights’ contract.

In October, Mayor Michael Taylor said in a statement that city administrators were reviewing the matter. That fall, the FBI arrested officials in Clinton and Macomb townships and accused them of corruption, and media reports connected Rizzo Environmental Services to the investigation.

In December, the city confirmed it would be using GFL’s services under the contract, and GFL founder and CEO Patrick Dovigi emphasized that while trash pickup service would remain the same, GFL would have zero tolerance for corruption.

3. Parks and recreation proposal passes
In June, the City Council voted 6-1 to approve putting a millage proposal on the ballot to levy 0.97 mills over a 20-year period to raise money for parks and recreation projects.

City officials estimated that the plan, known as the Recreating Recreation plan, would cost about $45 million. Associated projects include a splash pad, a skate park, a dog park, a miniature soccer field, paddle launches and landings, a hike and bike trail, a farmers market pavilion and a new, larger community center. Existing parks will also get improvements.

Some residents expressed doubts over the city’s cost estimates or wanted projects to be funded and completed piecemeal. Meanwhile, the city held four informational forums about the proposal in September and October.

On Nov. 8, Sterling Heights voters approved the millage proposal 50.7-49.3 percent. After the vote, the City Council in November approved architects and laid out a construction timeline that would get the projects done within three years.

4. Islamic group, federal government sue city
In August, the Madison Heights-based American Islamic Community Center filed a lawsuit in federal court against Sterling Heights. The lawsuit accused the city of anti-Muslim discrimination and unlawfully burdening the Islamic group’s free exercise of religion and other rights.

This was tied to the city Planning Commission’s September 2015 decision to reject a mosque proposal for an area near 15 Mile Road.

The lawsuit also alleges that city officials conspired to deny the AICC’s application and says that Sterling Heights police talked over email about the possibility of contacting the FBI regarding the mosque or its associated individuals.

In December, AICC lead attorney Azzam Elder said his lawsuit is still in its first stage, and more discovery is yet to be done. Also last month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued its own lawsuit in federal court against Sterling Heights pertaining to the city’s alleged handling of the mosque proposal.

In an official response, the city said it was disappointed with the federal lawsuit and that the mosque proposal rejection was based on land use criteria and not feelings tied to religion. It said that city officials hoped to maintain a dialog with the AICC and to work with it.

5. FCA promises SHAP investments
In late July, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it will spend almost $1.5 billion to further invest in its Sterling Heights Assembly Plant along Van Dyke Avenue and retool it so that it can produce the next-generation Ram 1500 pickup truck. FCA later announced that SHAP will be adding 700 new jobs too.

City officials praised FCA and government officials for their cooperation in making the highly competitive deal possible. Officials predict that the corporate investment will have positive spillover effects for regional jobs and businesses.

In order to offer business incentives, in September the City Council gave parts of SHAP Plant Rehabilitation District status and followed up in October by approving an Industrial Facilities Exemption Certificate.

6. Leaders clash over Freedom Hill
The heads of Warren, Sterling Heights and Macomb County exchanged words after Warren Mayor Jim Fouts wrote a November Facebook post about what he described as an “environmental scandal” that he said could be a “mini version of what happened in Flint.”

Fouts later wrote that it involved construction work at a landfill site at Freedom Hill County Park and expressed concerns about damaged methane gas vents, removed trees and leachate. Officials say an earthen berm was built there over the summer.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel condemned Fouts’ online comments as “hysteria.”

Sterling Heights officials issued an official statement that said the city didn’t have jurisdiction over Freedom Hill or the landfill site, adding that it wasn’t a party to the berm work.

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said on Facebook that the Freedom Hill work “shouldn’t have happened,” but he called it fixable. He added that experts said there were no imminent public health issues from methane or water contamination.

A senior geologist from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said in November that the problem was caught in time, and a plan was put in place to address and fix it.

7. Roads repaired, renovated
Sterling Heights spent several months performing repairs and renovations to Dodge Park Road, from Metropolitan Parkway to Utica Road.

The estimated $8 million project was made possible by around $6.3 million in federal funds, officials said.

In June, City Manager Mark Vanderpool gave an update about summer road work to fix Ryan Road, between 15 Mile Road and Metropolitan Parkway. He also mentioned repairs to the portion of Schoenherr Road from 14 Mile Road to 15 Mile Road, which he said was done by the Macomb County Department of Roads.

In September, the city cut the ribbon to celebrate the end of landscaping and related work being done to Van Dyke Avenue, from 18 Mile Road to south of 15 Mile Road. Although most of the road reconstruction was finished in 2015, a couple of intersections were still listed for construction in 2016.

Officials said that, among other projects in 2016, the Road Commission for Oakland County oversaw construction work on Dequindre Road, from Burningbush Drive to Utica Road, in an area that partly runs along Sterling Heights’ border.

8. Chamber of commerce gets new leader
Wayne Oehmke celebrated at an April farewell party after deciding to retire from his role as president and CEO of the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He had served in that position for around eight years, and his term included navigating the chamber and its members through the financial crisis and recession.

In April, the chamber announced that Melanie Davis, a Sterling Heights resident and Wayne State University graduate, would be taking over Oehmke’s position. She previously worked at the Adcraft Club of Detroit, the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Regional Chamber.

During her first months in her role, Davis held events aimed at reaching out to chamber members for feedback. She also presided over planning a Grub Crawl event along Van Dyke Avenue in September and spoke before Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor at Sterling Heights’ first State of the City Address.

9. Water bills skyrocket
Some Sterling Heights residents expressed outrage at a September City Council meeting after discovering that their water bills for summer water use were much higher than normal.

City administrators attributed much of the cost increase to dry weather and an increase in water consumption year over year. Then-Finance and Budget Director Brian Baker said about 15 percent of the cost increase was due to the Great Lakes Water Authority’s increased water rates. But some council members doubted that a drought could chiefly account for the increase.

The city agreed to waive late fees for September and October bills and give residents more time to pay for those bills. Low-income residents were invited to sign up for the Water Residential Assistance Program.

10. Leadership changes occur
City officials have been preparing transitions among city administrators, and this year saw several title changes, appointments, promotions and retirements.

In April, John Berg shed the interim qualifier and officially became Sterling Heights’ long-term police chief. In June, City Attorney Jeff Bahorski left his role and took on the role of assistant city manager, and Marc Kaszubski was picked to be the new city attorney.

In December, the city honored Mayor Pro Tem Joseph Romano after he made his decision to resign so he could move on to a Macomb County Board of Commissioners position. Finance and Budget Director Brian Baker confirmed that he would be retiring at the year’s end.