Judge rejects Sterling Heights’ motion in lawsuit against county

City weighing its options; county bonds available to be sold

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published May 15, 2017 | Updated May 22, 2017 2:48pm


MACOMB COUNTY — Sterling Heights, one of 11  communities part of the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District, or MIDD, may be looking for other options after a judge tossed its lawsuit May 15.

Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Faunce rejected the city’s motion to not be held financially liable for its $22.2 million assessment for fees incurred from the most recent interceptor collapse on 15 Mile Road.

The city of Sterling Heights, as part of a second motion, requested that the Macomb County Drain Drainage District Board sue the Macomb County Wastewater District for malfeasance in regards to poor maintenance and operation of the sewer — alluding to past sinkholes and work performed under the leadership of former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco and other possible contractors.

The other 10 members of MIDD include Clinton Township, Harrison Township, Fraser, Chesterfield Township, Lenox Township, Macomb Township, New Haven, Shelby Township, Washington Township and Utica. Selfridge Air National Guard Base is also involved.

After the ruling, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, who defeated Marrocco in last November’s election, said Faunce made the right decision in court — adding that Sterling Heights’ lawsuit was “erroneous” and “very irresponsible.”

“We have a huge hole in the ground, we have the biggest emergency this county has ever been living through. … As I’ve told the mayor of Sterling Heights many times, I don’t care if you sue; just let us proceed to sell our bonds,” Miller said. “By them filing this lawsuit, they have already cost a lot of money.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel mentioned the county’s 900 or so drain districts, saying that they are not the responsibility of the county. He couldn’t compute why Sterling Heights sued the county, other than to possibly look good in defense of taxpayers.

“The problem is, doing what they’re doing and blindsiding us with this, knowing full well that it really wasn’t going anywhere, could have only been to extort the county to come up with that thinking we weren’t going to sell these bonds,” Hackel said.

In regards to the second motion, Miller said Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor is “asking us to sue ourselves.”

Taylor was adamant following the hearing that he was looking out for the best interests of Sterling Heights’ rate payers, saying they did nothing wrong, but have to make up costs due to past breaches of contract. That cost could increase to $40 or $50 million after interest accumulates, he noted.

Going after the wastewater district is one course of possible action, he added, though he said he would discuss further options with members of Sterling Heights City Council and with attorneys.

“When governments fail their residents, they need to be held accountable,” Taylor said. “When governments take on an obligation and fail to live up to their obligation, we need to hold them accountable, because if we don’t, they will continue to fail us over and over again.

“That’s fundamentally what this is — it’s about fairness and doing what’s right for our rate payers.”

Attorney Joseph Viviano, on behalf of the county, said during the hearing that Sterling Heights was not challenging the assessment. Rather, he iterated that the city just doesn’t want to pay its share.

The city of Sterling Heights is responsible for a MIDD-high 32 percent of the water flow, he added, yet doesn’t want to pay for the remedy even when they receive the full benefit of the work.

“Their legal case is frivolous,” Viviano said.

Kevin Gleason, an attorney representing Sterling Heights, said delving into the assessment of the “catastrophic failure” of operational management is worth looking into.

He said that one point of objection alludes to no prior investigations occurring in regards to past leadership or past drain boards, and that looking into other documents would “probably” lead to more misappropriations.

Marc Kaszubski, also representing Sterling Heights, added that if the old board maintained the sewer project correctly, the amount each MIDD community is paying now would be less. He called it “an illegal assessment.”

The court’s decision allows for the Macomb County Drain Drainage District Board to sell $70 million in bonds.

After originally being scheduled to sell the bonds on May 17, Miller said the earliest date now is estimated to be May 24, adding that the bond process is already underway.

Miller also noted that pipe lining headed east of the damaged interceptor needed to be addressed.

About 3,700 feet of pipe near the site of the interceptor collapse was delayed due to Sterling Heights’ lawsuit. That lining was ordered after cracks and structural damage were recently discovered in late April, leading to an additional approximate $6 million in fees tacked on to the existing $70 million.

“What Sterling Heights is doing, they’re playing a very dangerous game here. … I’m certain there’s already an additional cost,” Miller said. “I would just hope that Sterling Heights does not appeal this until we get the bond sale sold, and then go sue whoever they want to sue. We’ve got to get this thing fixed.”

Representatives of multiple MIDD communities were present during the hearing.

Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon praised Miller for her work since coming into office, and he said Clinton Township has been more affected by the damaged interceptor than any of the other 10 communities — alluding to a senior citizen complex located near the sinkhole, businesses negatively affected on 15 Mile Road, and bypass pumps and heavy traffic on well-traveled roads, such as Garfield Road.

“We have suffered and we will pay our fair share, but we don’t want to pay anybody else’s share. … We think it’s kind of selfish, quite frankly,” Cannon said. “Sterling Heights has great leadership, but they made a serious mistake on this one.”