City, school leaders show optimism despite challenges

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 25, 2016

 Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns represents her school district at the luncheon.

Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns represents her school district at the luncheon.

Photo by Eric Czarnik

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Local leaders at the Annual Leaders Luncheon shared their opinions, plans and predictions for the year ahead, while some called for the state of Michigan to build a fairer system for financing municipalities and school districts.

The Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry presided over the annual luncheon Jan. 20 at Cherry Creek Golf Club in Shelby Township.

During the event, the leaders of Sterling Heights, Utica, Shelby Township and Utica Community Schools spoke their thoughts about the prior year and gave their plans for the year ahead in matters such as finances, infrastructure, economic development and quality-of-life issues:

Utica

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan, who has been Utica’s mayor for around 28 years, said she expects to leave the position soon. Among the city of Utica’s accomplishments in 2015, Noonan cited the construction of a $14 million ballpark, which she described as a “game changer.” She also mentioned a hike-and-bike trail that is linked with Shelby Township.

Noonan said Utica is taking advantage of the Clinton River and creating amenities.

“We want them to know that when you come to our tiny little city, we have all the great things that our big neighbors have,” she said.

But Noonan complained about the way Michigan finances local government due to the changes in the 1990s in how the state counts the money. She said the state has shortchanged local governments by an estimated $6.9 billion in less than 25 years, adding that Utica has been “cheated out of $10 million” over 10 years.

“Somewhere along the line, those who sit in the state House, in the state Senate and in the governor’s chair have to realize there’s a major, gigantic, horrible mistake you’ve made here, and you have to do something about it,” she said. “Smart people running smart cities know better often than what goes on in Lansing.”

        
Sterling Heights

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor heralded the complete re-election of the City Council in 2015 and described some proceedings that have come from a visioning process to make the city more welcoming, such as a farmers market at Dodge Park. He said the city experienced plenty of roadwork, including on Van Dyke Avenue — and more projects, such as Dodge Park Road, are ahead in 2016.

When asked about his worries, Taylor said the days of downsizing departments and laying people off are generally in the past. While he said he thinks the city is on the right track, he said plenty of retirements and leadership transitions are coming up. Taylor assured the audience that City Manager Mark Vanderpool will be staying on.

Taylor said the city is seeing economic development under the watch of its adviser, Luke Bonner. Taylor said about 100 new houses are under construction, and plans to construct five new hotels are in the works. The formation of a Sterling Enterprise Park promises to expand industry and create as many as 1,500 new jobs, Taylor said.

“We’re almost a fully developed city, but people are finding places to build,” he said.

He said new economic developments could bring in more tax revenue, but under the current laws, he said most properties’ property taxes are not expected to increase significantly. Until the state fixes how local governments are financed, Taylor said, he expects cities to lag behind the economy.

Shelby Township

According to Shelby Township Supervisor Richard Stathakis, 2015 was a year for renovating 24 Mile Road. With the project about 95 percent done, the rest is expected to be completed sometime around April, he said.

Stathakis said roads continue to be a priority on the township’s list.

“People always say that the best roads in Macomb (County) … would be in Shelby Township, but I’m telling you, our residents expect a lot more,” he said.

Stathakis said his township now has to keep up with infrastructure and public safety. He said Shelby Township has hired more police officers and plans to hire even more. He said the township needs a fifth fire station, and building efforts could get started by the end of 2016. He said it is important for firefighters to get wherever they need to go in the township in less than two minutes.

Stathakis said it’s nice to be out of crisis management mode, and the township is looking at quality-of-life projects. Looking ahead, the township also plans to do something about its community center, which includes a district court, a senior center, the cable department and the library. Stathakis said the township has an advisory board working on that, and the township has begun transferring funds toward the project.

“The bottom line is, we are going to fix that community center, whether we move it, whether we renovate it,” he said. “Whatever we do, something significant is going to happen in 2016, and we are very committed to that.”

Utica Community Schools

UCS Superintendent Christine Johns said she is very proud of students’ high academic performance in the school district. She said the school district had a graduation rate of around 90 percent in 2015 — about 12 points above the state average. She said the rate was 94 percent or higher if the alternative schools are not considered. In addition, 2015 was the final year that students took the ACT college entrance exam, and she said students overall saw growth among all core content areas.

Johns said she is optimistic about the future in terms of offering a high-quality level of education for the district’s estimated 28,000 students. A top challenge in 2016 will be stagnant funding, she said.

Another complication to student revenue is that state funding is tied to per-pupil enrollment, and the local birth rate has been declining, she said.

To illustrate, she said the graduating class had about 2,200 students last year, but the current kindergarten class only has around 1,800.

“That trend has occurred for several years,” she said. “And again, dollars are tied to that, so there is a reality.”

Learn more about the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry by visiting www.shrcci.com or by calling (586) 731-5400.

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