City seeks court to fend off interceptor repair assessment

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published May 16, 2017

 Pumps are located close to where the damage originally occurred.

Pumps are located close to where the damage originally occurred.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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Sterling Heights city officials said they are going to court to prevent water and sewer customers from having to pay extra in order to fund repairs to the 15 Mile Road interceptor and sinkhole in Fraser.

The city filed a legal complaint May 8 in Macomb County Circuit Court seeking judicial relief after the city was ordered to pay repair costs as one of 11 community members of the Macomb Interceptor Drainage District, or MIDD.

On Dec. 24, 2016, a sewer pipeline known as the 15 Mile Road interceptor collapsed between Hayes and Utica roads in Fraser, resulting in a large sinkhole that led to local evacuations, home condemnations and regional disruption. The interceptor falls within the boundaries of the MIDD.

According to Sterling Heights officials, the MIDD board officially confirmed an order in April for cities including Sterling Heights to pay their share of repair expenses, which are estimated at a total of around $70 million. The city’s share via the assessment is estimated to exceed $22.2 million, but officials believe that associated financing costs could elevate the city’s final price tag to possibly more than $45 million.

As a result, the Sterling Heights City Council agreed in February to hire a special law firm — Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton — to advise the city on legal issues due to the firm’s expertise with construction issues.

According to an email from Sterling Heights City Attorney Marc Kaszubski, the city has the largest share of the repair costs by far and chose to proceed with the suit on its own “in order to minimize unjustifiable costs to city rate payers,” costs that are expected to be passed on to residents over the next three decades.

Kaszubski said the city is unaware of any other MIDD communities making a similar legal stand, but he said Sterling Heights had to act in its legal interest.

“In doing so, the city engaged special legal counsel to investigate and pursue all legal avenues for cost recovery,” he said.

The lawsuit says the MIDD’s board is responsible for the drain’s upkeep. The MIDD formed a contract with the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District in 2010. The city says the MCWDD had enough information to know that a failure could occur with the drain, received money to maintain it, and broke its deal with the MIDD by not taking adequate action.

The city believes that the MIDD should recoup its repair costs by taking legal action against the MCWDD or the county. This is the third time over the past few decades that the drain has had a major mishap, according to the city, and the city considers the repair costs to be an unnecessary expense.

The city’s lawsuit says the MIDD has ended its agreement with the MCWDD but hasn’t taken any steps to make it fund the emergency repairs.

Sterling Heights wants a judge to invalidate the order for Sterling Heights to pay. The city also wants the court to force the MIDD to legally act so that the MCWDD and/or Macomb County pay for interceptor repairs.

“Sterling Heights, nor the rate payers, should bear the responsibility for those entities and individuals who failed to perform the most basic inspections and repairs to the interceptor and, that if performed properly, would have avoided this catastrophic failure,” Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton attorney Kevin Gleeson said in a statement.

“To date, the (MIDD) board has failed to make any demand on the county or its agency for payment of these costs, and for these reasons, Sterling Heights has no choice but to object to the improper cost assessment on behalf of its rate payers.”  

Macomb County Public Works Office spokesman Dan Heaton relayed an emailed statement from Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller about the new lawsuit, describing the consequences from the agency’s standpoint.

“The lawsuit filed by Sterling Heights has had the effect of stopping the bond sale, the proceeds of which we intend to use to pay for the repair of the 15 Mile sewer collapse and additional work which will stop another imminent sewer collapse,” Miller said.

“At this time it is unclear how we will proceed on this project, which is impacting the health, safety and welfare of half a million Macomb County residents.”

Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon thinks the Sterling Heights lawsuit could compromise the county’s bond situation.

“How would it be if they had to stop working on the project now with disrupting 15 Mile Road, not getting it fixed?” he said.

Cannon said Clinton Township could complain about the sinkhole more than any municipality, due to six bypass pumps going through the township, a consistent increase in traffic due to residents taking different routes, and businesses on 15 Mile Road struggling due to people avoiding the area.

“I guess it’s a little bit selfish on the part of Sterling Heights to say everyone should pay their share,” he said. “Do they want Clinton Township to pay (Sterling’s) share? Washington Township to pay (Sterling’s) share? Someone has to pay for it. There’s no rainy day fund for a sinkhole.”

Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489. For more information about the Macomb

County Public Works Office, visit publicworks.macombgov.org.

Staff Writer Nick Mordowanec contributed to this report.

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