Consolidation characterizes Sterling’s 2012

By: Maria Allard, Brad D. Bates, Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 2, 2013

 Kiyara Patel,1, gets a little support from her father, Nilesh Kumar, of Flint, during a naturalization ceremony at the Sterling Heights Public Library July 27. The family came to the United States from India.

Kiyara Patel,1, gets a little support from her father, Nilesh Kumar, of Flint, during a naturalization ceremony at the Sterling Heights Public Library July 27. The family came to the United States from India.

File photo by Deb Jacques

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While Sterling Heights continued to grow in population — with ascension to the state’s third largest city reportedly on the horizon — its municipal ranks continued to dwindle amid ongoing financial struggles in 2012.

This year saw the city fervently finding ways to consolidate, collaborate and streamline by partnering with neighboring communities. It also marked the first wave of municipal employee layoffs in recent history. But even while the city muddled through a painful period of labor issues, signs of economic hope abounded, including large business investments in the community.

Several long-pending court cases were brought to their conclusions, while others likely to span an extended period have just begun.

January
• During a Jan. 3 special meeting that included presentations by DTE Energy officials and hours of public comment, Sterling Heights City Council voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on smart meters, until the utility giant established a clause allowing customers to refuse installation of the devices on their homes.

Opponents of the radio frequency-operated meters cited health and privacy fear; DTE representatives insisted they were safe and efficient. Soon after, the Michigan Public Service Commission launched an investigation into the devices, and DTE, in a report filed with the commission, agreed to provide an opt-out for residents.

• On their first Monday at work in 2012, Sterling Heights employees’ received notices warning of 20 percent impending workweek reductions, effective July 1, if concessionary benchmarks weren’t met for the 2012-13 budget. Most of the unions avoided shortened workweeks after negotiating contracts and memoranda of understanding that contained concessions. 

• During the annual State of the Tri-Communities address Jan. 25, Mayor Richard Notte highlighted the city’s cost-cutting measures during the previous few years, including the elimination of more than 100 positions through attrition, but stressed the necessity of additional workforce reductions and newly structured contracts.

He, along with Shelby Township Supervisor Richard Stathakis and Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan, also praised the work of the Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities, an 11-member consortium formed to explore how neighboring municipalities can share services to reduce costs.

February
• The Sterling Heights Police Department, Macomb County Sheriff’s Department and Michigan State Police announced plans Feb. 29 to step up patrols and crime and crash hot spots through a federally funded policing program, Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Safety. The strategy entails mapping out traffic accidents and criminal activity, and identifying the overlaps as areas in need of increased attention.

• The Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund and Michigan Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations lobbied for authorities to launch a hate- crime investigation into graffiti scrawled on an under-construction Sikh gurdwara in Sterling Heights Feb. 5-6, which included a gun, expletives, a cross and a misspelled reference to the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The FBI ended up getting involved.

The gurdwara, in progress since October 2008, finally opened its doors Sept. 1.

• In the Feb. 28 presidential primary, Sterling Heights voters went the way of the remainder of the state, tapping Mitt Romney as their choice for the Republican candidate over closest contender Rick Santorum, 42.6 percent to 36.2 percent. Romney ended up earning the party’s nomination but fell to President Barack Obama in the November general election. City Clerk Walt Blessed called Sterling Heights’ 18.18 percent turnout for the primary “particularly poor.”

• The Sterling Heights Ethnic Community Committee’s Cultural Exchange drew more than 1,000 visitors during its 11th annual installment. Held at the Senior Center Feb. 3, the event featured food, music, dancing, costumes and displays representing myriad ethnicities. 

• City staffers took to the podium during a Feb. 7 City Council meeting to express concern about the potential for inequitable cuts between general employees and public-safety personnel. They pointed to the police and fire pension system as a source of the city’s economic woes and suggested a moratorium on comp time for executive and supervisory employees.

March
• City officials confirmed March 9 that 21 command officers from the Sterling Heights Police Department committed “timecard misconduct” during a three-month period by misreporting the hours they worked. Police Chief Michael Reese later issued a public apology about the incident, and the officers involved received suspensions, which were assessed as reductions from their earned leave time.

• Sterling Heights continued to see declines in property assessments, with residential, commercial and industrial assessments falling by an average of 7.1 percent, 8.9 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively.

• Former substitute band teacher Christopher Skebo was charged with criminal sexual conduct and various other counts in conjunction with allegations that he had improper sexual relations and exchanged inappropriate messages with female students at Stevenson and Warren Woods Tower high schools. Skebo pleaded no contest to some charges, in return for dismissal of others Nov. 15. His sentencing is set for Jan. 4, 2013. 

• Reconstruction on the Van Dyke bridge across the Clinton River, at the Utica/Sterling Heights border, began March 12. The pothole-addled bridge was long a sore spot for businesses along the stretch. The reconstructed roadway ended up reopening June 21, several weeks ahead of schedule.

• A neighbor chased off a pair of pit bulls after they attacked a woman on Tahiti, near Metropolitan Parkway and Dodge Park Road, March 11. The dogs’ owner, William Covington, ultimately pleaded no contest and received probation, and the pit bulls were euthanized. The incident was the first to fall under overhauled dangerous dog violation guidelines adopted by City Council in February 2011.

• Crews finished up installation of a solar array atop the roof at Warren Consolidated Schools’ Career Prep Center, part of DTE Energy’s SolarCurrents program. The array harnesses energy from the sun and directs it back into the power grid, generating 189 kilowatts. DTE is paying WCS for usage of the space under a 20-year lease.  

• City Council formally adopted a curbside recycling ordinance to accommodate a long-pending subscription-based program with Waste Management March 6. Originally slated to begin in the fall, the program failed to reach the 5,000-subscriber threshold by a July 1 deadline, which was extended.

On Nov. 7, with enrollment still falling around 700 short of the 5,000 mark, City Council adopted an amendment to the plan that shifted the program’s launch to spring 2013 and established Friday as the pickup date, versus the previous plan to make it coincide with users’ regular refuse days.

• Global defense contractor BAE Systems celebrated completion of its futuristic facility on Van Dyke during a March 15 ribbon cutting. City officials have hailed the project as a cornerstone of the Macomb County Defense Corridor.

• On March 20, Sterling Heights and Utica Community Schools officials announced plans to partner on a project called Velocity Jr., housed at the former Rose Kidd Elementary building. The site hosted various educational day camps throughout the summer, intended to boost students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

• Dozens of Sterling Heights employees learned that they’d likely be among the first municipal workers in recent history to be laid off, after City Manager Mark Vanderpool met with those affected March 29. The individuals whose positions were marked for elimination effective July 1 included several police officers and firefighters, as well as Community Relations workers, engineering aides, custodians and more.

• District and community leaders recognized Davis Junior High teacher Yvette Snopkowski March 29 at Stevenson High School as Utica Community Schools’ top educator from 2011-12, an honor that earned her a new car from Suburban Ford in Sterling Heights.

April
• City Council began muddling through another round of difficult decisions and cuts with the first of several budget workshops April 3.

• Sterling Heights received 3 percent more than anticipated in Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, thanks to the 2010 census, the results of which showed population, poverty and overcrowding increasing in the city. The boost to Sterling’s allocation occurred, despite an overall 11 percent decrease to the CDBG program overall.

• Several municipal officials traveled to Lansing April 18 to decry potentially looming cuts to the business Personal Property Tax, which City Manager Mark Vanderpool argued could mean millions in revenue losses for Sterling Heights. City officials returned to the capital to express their concerns again in late November. The state House of Representatives voted Dec. 13 to repeal the tax, but it made some changes to the bill approved by the Senate. The Personal Property Tax reform bills were signed by Gov. Rick Snyder Dec. 20.

• A report by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments indicated that Sterling Heights is on the cusp of being the state’s third largest city. SEMCOG’s study suggested that Sterling would take the title from neighboring Warren in less than a decade.

• At a Macomb Community College Board of Trustees meeting April 17, the board authorized, by a 5-0 vote, an approximate 2 percent increase effective fall 2012. Chairperson Jim Kelly, Secretary Connie Bolanowski, Treasurer Nancy Falcone, and trustees Joseph DeSantis and Charley Jackson voted in favor of the new tuition rate. Vice Chairperson Christine Bonkowski and Trustee Roseanne DiMaria were absent.

May
• Sterling Heights Television launched a new live streaming option, accessible via Web browser and mobile app, making the municipal channel available at viewers fingertips.

• Eligibility for BetterBuildings for Michigan, a program linking homeowners with low-cost energy audits and incentives for making improvements to their houses, expanded to include the entire city. When it launched in fall 2011, the program was piloted only in one section of the community, near 15 Mile and Schoenherr.

• Multiple meetings of discussion and debate in April and May led to City Council eventually approving a liquor-license transfer May 15 for AMC Forum 30 at Mound and Hall, where company officials wanted to install a lobby bar to serve patrons alcohol.

• Two men declared “persons of interest” in four Detroit murders were apprehended in a home near 18 Mile and Mound May 1. One of the men was later released; the other, Sterling Heights resident James Brown, was charged with disinterment/mutilation and arson in Detroit. Those charges were dropped May 30, then immediately picked up by Macomb County, after investigators said they had reason to believe the crimes occurred in Sterling Heights.

Brown’s arraignment on those counts in 41-A District Court occurred June 1, but a preliminary exam was repeatedly adjourned. Four murder charges were added Nov. 26. His preliminary exam is now set for Jan. 9, 2013.

The case has been dubbed the “Backpage murders,” as three of the four women killed reportedly had escort ads posted on Backpage.com. The bodies of Demesha Hunt and Renisha Landers were found Dec. 19, 2011, in the trunk of a burned vehicle in Detroit. Natasha Curtis and Vernithea McCrary were found dead in another burned vehicle a few days later, Dec. 25, 2011.

• Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Hillside Productions officials confirmed May 4 that Freedom Hill Amphitheatre would indeed see renewed life in the near future, after Hillside cleared legal hurdles, including the settling of a lawsuit with Live Nation, in which the county was an intervening party.

While a Hillside spokesman at the time said the company planned to have a 2012 concert season, none materialized. On Dec. 4, plans for “the new Freedom Hill” were unveiled, with Joe Vicari and Tom Celani at the helm, AEG Live serving as booking agent and Funfest Productions handling day-to-day operations. The 2013 season is slated to start June 1; Grammy-winning trio Lady Antebellum already is booked for June 13.

• City Council voted 5-2 May 8 to approve a $133.5-million budget that called for laying off 27 full-time and nine part-time employees and drawing $4.7 million from reserves.

• Sara Osman stood in for her fallen son, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ergin Vedat Osman, as grand marshal of the Sterling Heights Memorial Day Parade May 28. Ergin Osman, 35, was on the ninth deployment of his military career when he was killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan on May 26, 2011. Thousands of spectators lined Dodge Park Road, per the usual, to watch the parade, which followed a ceremony outside of City Hall.

• Nearly a year after the fact, a case in which Sterling Heights police shot a woman who allegedly advanced upon them with a knife headed to Macomb County Circuit Court. Sterling Heights resident Caroline Hocking-Sullivan claimed self-defense in the May 25, 2011, incident, which occurred when police entered her home to check into a relative’s report that she was suicidal and possibly had overdosed.

Hocking-Sullivan was charged with one count of assault with intent to murder and three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. Her attorney argued that she was startled from a deep sleep and believed the officers to be intruders. A jury found her guilty Nov. 26; her sentencing is set for Jan. 10, 2013.

• The city and the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry gave out the inaugural round of their new Sterling Edge business awards May 23. The winners were Metro Wire & Cable (Local Company of the Year), InfiChem Polymers (Dream Big Company of the Year), Bright Side Painting & Construction (Blue Ribbon Company of the Year), Eckert’s Greenhouse (Green Company of the Year) and General Dynamics Land Systems (Best Place to Work).

• To realize a savings of $2.2 million, the Utica Community Schools Board of Education unanimously voted May 14 to fully privatize the district’s custodian services with GCA Services Group, which had provided services for the district’s high schools, Malow Junior High, the Instructional Resource Center and administrative facilities.

June
• City Council introduced ordinance amendments June 5 that would ban consumer fireworks in Sterling Heights on all but 30 days of the year, deemed untouchable by the state and restricted hours even on those days. The move occurred in the wake of legislation that went into effect this year and expanded the breadth of legal fireworks to include consumer-grade devices that explode and leave the ground. As the weather warmed, the sound of fireworks became seemingly constant in many communities, including Sterling Heights, as many residents took advantage of the loosened regulations. Council adopted the amendments June 19.

• City Council voted 6-1 June 19 to approve a new employment agreement with City Manager Mark Vanderpool that contained concessions, including changes to health care coverage, performance pay and compensatory time accumulation.

• Officials voted to implement a new public comment policy at City Council meetings that limit residents and other speakers to seven minutes of public comment on any one agenda item or during the “communications from citizens” segment. Lights on the podium now warn speakers when they have one minute remaining to wrap up their thoughts.

• Effective June 30, Battalion Chief Chris Martin was promoted to interim fire chief, taking over for the retiring Mike Deprez. Deprez had assumed the position in an interim capacity from Steve Kovalcik, who retired in August 2010, but a new full-fledged chief was never declared. Martin was officially named fire chief Dec. 18.

• Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Edward Servitto sent a grievance by Sterling Heights police command officers back to arbitration after the union contested an arbitrator’s finding in favor of the city.

The dispute occurred after city administration reduced command officers’ workweeks from 40 to 37.5 hours to cut costs in summer 2010, after the union declined to reopen its contract for concessions. An arbitrator upheld the city’s decision in October 2011, but the union filed a lawsuit, claiming he improperly considered issues outside of the collective bargaining agreement — the city’s financial condition — in making a decision.

As of early December, the union and city were “in ongoing negotiations and discussions over a new collective bargaining agreement, and final resolution of the Circuit Court decision regarding a reduced work week arbitra-tion ruling is pending,” according to Sterling Heights Human Resources Director Kelton Winnega.

• On June 27, Warren Consolidated Schools passed its 2012-13 budget, which anticipated $160.5 million in revenues and called for drawing $9 million from the district’s savings account, reducing expenditures by $8.5 million and boosting student-to-teacher ratios to head off a projected deficit.

• The first class of seniors from the Utica Center for Science and Industry and the Utica Academy for International Studies graduated June 9.

• A year after adopting a budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year with a $5.2 million deficit, the Utica Community Schools Board of Education approved a budget revision for the year with a $7 million gain June 11. Budget revisions consisting of a nearly $5 million increase in state revenue from the initial budget adoption and roughly $6.5 million in cuts in instruction and support services accounted for much of the $12.2 million turnaround.

July
• After a 10-day trial that began in June, a jury in Macomb County Circuit Court found Vincent Bosca, of Sterling Heights, and Allen Brontkowski, of Shelby Township, guilty of charges that included unlawful imprisonment, extortion and felony firearms, in conjunction with an alleged case of vigilante justice in June 2011.

The defendants and a third man, Gerald King, held several teenagers against their will, beat them and threatened them regarding the alleged theft of marijuana from Bosca’s home. Bosca and Brontkowski were sentenced to two years for a felony firearms charge, plus nearly five years for other counts. King, who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution, received two years in prison, with credit for 466 days served, and five years’ probation.

• Despite a soggy start, the city held another successful Sterlingfest Art & Music Fair July 26-28. The annual summertime celebration drew thousands to Dodge Park for rides, musical entertainment, art vendors and more.

August
• Controversy ensued after a video surfaced showing City Council member Paul Smith wielding protest signs depicting the violent demise of Democratic officials at a 2009 tea party rally in Troy, before Smith was a councilman.

Some residents defended Smith’s right to free speech, while others expressed outrage about the footage. City administration released a statement disavowing Smith’s views, and his fellow council members passed a resolution, asking for his resignation Aug. 8, but Smith refused to step down.

The situation got as far as Secret Service members interviewing Smith Aug. 9 to determine there was no threat, but after two City Council meetings, the issue disappeared into the background. 

• Crews working on a portion of the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor near 15 Mile and Maple Lane Aug. 15 made a grisly discovery in a line 50 feet below ground: about a dozen non-skeletal human remains. The only immediate clue to the victim’s identity was a partial, elaborate tattoo. Evaluations of the remains by the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office and a lab in Texas revealed that they belonged to a white female. As of press time, it was still unknown who the person was and how the body parts ended up in the sewer, but police continued to investigate. 

• In one of several policy amendments for the year, City Council voted to tweak the appointment process for members of six boards and commissions, including the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, among others. Chosen due to their potential to have a significant impact on the community, those panels will now be handled separately from others, with candidates proceeding through a two-step approval process: introducing at a May meeting, confirmation at a June meeting.

• At the Aug. 21 City Council meeting, City Manager Mark Vanderpool warned that the complete reconstruction of Van Dyke, from 15 Mile to 18 Mile, was on the horizon for 2015. The $30 million project, which has been long looming, will take at least the entire construction season, according to a Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman.

• Warren Consolidated Schools ushered in the new school year with a number of administrative shifts, with new faces moving into positions at the Career Preparation Center; Siersma and Hatherly elementaries; Grissom and Beer middle schools; North Star Academy; and Warren Mott, Cousino and Sterling Heights high schools.

• Macomb Community College and Oakland University officials signed a reverse transfer agreement Aug. 14 at the University Center in Clinton Township to allow students to use credit hours earned at OU toward an MCC associate degree.

The agreement applies to students who acquired 30 credits at Macomb and 35 degree credits at OU. The students can be those who transferred from MCC to OU or who are attending both schools simultaneously.

September
• City Council voted unanimously Sept. 4 to indefinitely postpone adoption of a measure that would have tightened restrictions on garage sales, including their frequency and the nature of the items available for sale. The issue had already been delayed from September 2011. The original impetus behind the policy was to curtail garage sales that had become excessive in scope and duration.

• Warren Consolidated Schools ushered in the new school year with a number of administrative shifts, with new faces moving into positions at the Career Preparation Center; Siersma and Hatherly elementaries; Grissom and Beer middle schools; North Star Academy; and Warren Mott, Cousino and Sterling Heights high schools.

• A former Jeannette Junior High School student was arrested after allegedly making a threat against the school and its students on his Facebook page. The 14-year-old was arraigned in juvenile court Sept. 14 on charges of making a terrorist threat and using a computer to commit a crime. He later received probation after pleading no contest to the latter charge, a seven-year felony, and malicious use of a telecommunication device, a six-month misdemeanor.

• Through the state’s Public Act 312 labor negotiation process, an arbitrator ruled Sept. 17 on a contract for the Sterling Heights Police Officers Association, whose previous agreement expired June 30, 2011, and had been a point of contention between the union and city administrators. 

Out of two-dozen contested issues, the arbitrator found in favor of the city on some and the union on others. The new contract’s provisions included, among others, a two-year wage freeze for all current officers, a 10 percent wage reduction for all new hires for five years and a 33 percent reduction in longevity pay.

• Utica Community Schools adopted district-wide full-day kindergarten classes in 2012, and kindergartners used new technology, such as iPad applications, adaptive Dreambox math software, and an ELMO digital projector and interactive whiteboard in their first full day of school Sept. 5.

October
• The Sterling Heights Fire Department resurrected its annual open house Oct. 14, after a two-year hiatus. Firefighters volunteered their time and sponsors offered financial and in-kind support to bring the event to fruition.

• Among many tax abatements granted by Sterling Heights City Council in 2012 were two for more than $170 million in investments by Ford Motor Co. at the automotive giant’s two Sterling-based plants. Together, the measures entailed abatements in excess of $2.1 million in city taxes throughout their 12-year terms and will generate the identical amount in new tax revenue.

• City Council approved a reorganization of the city administration to accommodate recent staffing reductions Oct. 16. The changes included consolidation of several roles and the reassignment of others, as well as the shift of the City Development Department to fall beneath the Department of Public Works.

• Macomb County Judge John C. Foster dismissed a discrimination lawsuit against Warren Consolidated Schools filed in 2010 by the parent of a former student. Plaintiff Jamey Petree claimed that the reading of a book about slavery, which contained strong language, in a Black Elementary classroom, affected the “mental and emotional wellbeing” of his daughter.

• About 150 people — including students, staff and local dignitaries — gathered at the Macomb Community College Michigan Technical Education Center in Warren to celebrate its 10-year anniversary Oct. 31.

• Macomb Community College faculty held a grand opening Oct. 17 for the school’s new art gallery in “S” Building. The gallery will feature the artwork of staff and students.

November
• More than a year after Sterling Heights’ emergency dispatchers began speaking out against a conceptual plan to consolidate operations with Macomb County, City Council voted 5-2 Nov. 20 to move forward with an intergovernmental agreement to make the plan a reality.

Under the arrangement — which city officials said would save $5.4 million throughout three years with legacy costs factored in — Sterling Heights will be part of a Mount Clemens-based regional dispatch center. Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said it’s likely the county will hire Sterling Heights’ displaced dispatchers, if they seek employment at the new facility.

• In the Nov. 6 general election, Sterling Heights’ presidential sentiments went the way of the country’s, with 50.2 percent of the city’s voters supporting President Barack Obama to challenger Mitt Romney’s 48.4 percent.

Residents also cast votes on six statewide ballot proposals and selected a number of individuals for local, county, state and federal seats, including Sterling Heights firefighter Henry Yanez, a Democrat, for District 25 state representative.

• Voters in the Warren Consolidated Schools district elected two newcomers, Sue Trombley and Ben Lazarus, to the Board of Education in the Nov. 6 general election.

• Sterling Heights was among eight “top performing” communities in the 2012 eCities program, conducted by iLabs, the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Center for Innovation Research. The annual program evaluates participating communities on their success in fostering entrepreneurial growth and economic development.

• At the polls Nov. 6, voters turned down a $56 million bond initiative that, if passed, was designed to fund capital expenditures to renovate and update Macomb Community College facilities and the school’s technology infrastructure.

December
• At the Dec. 4 City Council meeting, Plante & Moran’s Mark Hurst informed officials that the city had once again received an unqualified opinion, the best available, on its annual audit.

• Warren Consolidated Schools Superintendent Robert Livernois canceled school Dec. 11 when approximately 750 staff members, mostly teachers, said they would be absent. WCS Spokesperson Robert Freehan would not comment on why the staff members took the day off, although WCS board member Ben Lazarus said it was to go to Lansing to protest the right-to-work legislation Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law on the same day.

• Local superintendents began disclosing information in parent letters and at school board meetings about House Bill No. 6004 and Senate Bill No. 1358. Local educators said that, if passed, the bills would dramatically alter Michigan’s public education system and would create an Education Achievement Authority/Chancellor that would exceed its single purpose.

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