Eastpointe State of the City highlights include SMORSA and schools

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published February 24, 2016

 East Detroit Superintendent Ryan McLeod talks about the district getting out of its deficit in 2015 during the annual State of the City address Feb. 17 at Eastpointe Manor.

East Detroit Superintendent Ryan McLeod talks about the district getting out of its deficit in 2015 during the annual State of the City address Feb. 17 at Eastpointe Manor.

Photo by Kevin Bunch

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EASTPOINTE — The annual State of the City address on Feb. 17 focused on positive news and events that took place in Eastpointe and East Detroit Public Schools during the past year, though the speakers noted upcoming challenges.

Mayor Suzanne Pixley said 2015 proved to be an important year for Eastpointe, and noted that at this time last year, officials were hoping voters would approve what she called one of the most important votes in the city’s history: a public safety millage through the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority.

“When (City Manager Steve) Duchane came up with SMORSA, I said, ‘Really?’” Pixley mused. “In an era when most other elected bodies are really hesitant to ask for an additional single-mill levy, we sought a 14-mill increase to fund public safety here in Eastpointe for 20 years.”

After the city saw revenues wiped out in the aftermath of the housing crisis, Pixley said officials faced a budget crisis where they could either drastically slash police, fire and EMS funding or go into the red.

Voters approved the millage overwhelmingly, Pixley said, allowing the city to not only maintain its existing public safety levels, but also add five firefighters, five police officers and an animal control officer.

“Our citizens demanded top public safety and we didn’t want to disappoint,” she said. “Duchane said the following day he had 16 calls in three hours asking how we did it, and we wondered that too.”

The city also continued its push to upgrade infrastructure in 2015, Pixley said, which included resurfacing Kelly Road between Nine Mile and 10 Mile roads, building a new salt dome for the Department of Public Works, completing the Sweeney Sports Hill in Spindler Park, opening the city’s first dog park at Memorial Park, adding more LED streetlights, adding a new façade at the library, and continuing to replace water mains and repair sewers throughout the city. The Recreation Authority of Roseville and Eastpointe also finished an expansion of the senior center across the city border in Roseville.

Pixley said the city received top marks for the fourth year in a row for its budget from the Government Finance Officers Association, and the government water quality report found the city’s drinking supply “more than satisfactory.”

Eastpointe also added several new businesses, like Milestone Grill, Detroit Wing Co., Action Impact Firearms & Indoor Gun Range, and the Crystal Room Wedding Chapel.

In more good news, Pixley said the city’s home values jumped 11.6 percent, though state law limits how much the city can collect in additional revenues from property value increases.

East Detroit Superintendent Ryan McLeod announced that for the first time in six years, the school district was out of debt, ending the 2014-15 school year with a $1.8 million general fund balance.

“Our triumph over what would be considered by most an insurmountable financial deficit was accomplished by reducing our per-day expenses by almost 37 percent,” McLeod said. “This reduction in expenses occurred while we received millions of dollars less in revenue due to decreases in state funding and declining enrollment.”

Those reductions required sacrifices on the part of the staff and hard decisions by administrators and the school board, he said, but with the district’s finances in order, they have turned to improving student achievement with the help of the Macomb Intermediate School District. The high school graduation rate is now above the state average — a 20 percent increase since 2010, McLeod said.

Gov. Rick Snyder recently announced that a CEO will be sent to oversee four of the district’s schools — East Detroit High School, Kelly Middle School, Pleasantview Elementary School and Bellview Elementary School. McLeod said details are still light, but they are being told that this is a “collaborative partnership” to improve academics rather than a total takeover.

“The CEO will be working with the superintendent and the Board of Education to assist with the turnaround,” he said. “We also understand that there will be no mass staff changes.”

The district already assembled a “turnaround team” last October to rapidly improve academic achievement and address deficiencies across all schools, McLeod said. He said the district wants to focus on improving academic standards, ensuring the school environment is a safe one, improving parent and community involvement, and retaining fiscal responsibility.

Also as part of the State of the City, Judge Carl Gerds talked about the 38th District Court and noted that he was, for the third year in a row, the busiest judge in the state. He said the city faced three major tragedies early in 2015 involving the deaths of infants and children, which had an impact on the court’s staff and the community at large.

The court’s workload was not significantly different from the workload in 2014, Gerds said, with about 17,304 cases heard. Of those, 432 were felonies, 1,967 were misdemeanors and 12,297 were traffic-related.

The court also added an online component, allowing people to look up court records or pay traffic fines on its website. The state has helped make the 38th District Court a “virtual court” where people held in Michigan prisons or the jails in Macomb County and Eastpointe can appear in court remotely via camera.

“It’s made a big difference on how we handle people,” Gerds said. “The state’s figured out that they’re paying for it, but they still save $3 million a year in transportation costs.”

Declining enrollment in the law school at the University of Detroit is making it difficult for the court to give prospective attorneys real-world experience. Gerds said the court has had an arrangement where a professor at the university brought along students and had them defend people in court at no cost to the defendants or the court; the professor, a licensed attorney, would oversee and advise the students.

Gerds said he is not sure they can do the program again this year due to the number of students, and he has been trying to reach out to other law schools to see if any would be interested in participating as well

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