Lemonade is prepared at the Dodge Park Farmers Market in June.

Lemonade is prepared at the Dodge Park Farmers Market in June.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Recreation, but not relaxation, in 2017

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 2, 2018

 Nazar Shaitov, of Sterling Heights, demonstrates outside the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit during a June protest concerning federal agents’ detention of Iraqi nationals.

Nazar Shaitov, of Sterling Heights, demonstrates outside the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit during a June protest concerning federal agents’ detention of Iraqi nationals.

File photo by Deb Jacques

 The Sterling Heights Police Department introduces its new police dog, Ivy, Feb. 7.

The Sterling Heights Police Department introduces its new police dog, Ivy, Feb. 7.

File photo by Donna Agusti

 An M-59 road sign stands in front of a shopping plaza. Road crews worked on the road in Sterling Heights for several months in 2017.

An M-59 road sign stands in front of a shopping plaza. Road crews worked on the road in Sterling Heights for several months in 2017.

File photo by Deb Jacques

Whether it involved city services, features or personnel, 2017 was a year of change in Sterling Heights. 

The Recreating Recreation initiative began to show tangible results, creating new and improved amenities. Sections of roads, including M-59/Hall Road, were fixed, and an advanced life support transportation service run by the Sterling Heights Fire Department took shape.

Here is a look at what happened in the city in 2017: 


Recreating Recreation remakes city’s amenities

City officials and staffers got to work on park renovations and new recreation amenities following the November 2016 voter approval of the Recreating Recreation millage, which officials expect will fund around $45 million in improvements through 2019.

Among the work done at local parks, Warren Contractors and Development made renovations to Chappelle, Delia, Hadley, Hampton, Imus and Washington Square parks, such as athletic court resurfacing. In September, City Council members celebrated a new tennis court surfacing with a ribbon cutting at Delia Park. Parks and Recreation Director Kyle Langlois said playscapes were improved at multiple parks.

The city closed down Dodge Park in August to begin work on major renovations there that are expected to wrap up by late spring or early summer 2018. As a result, some city events, such as the Sterling Frights Halloween and A Sterling Christmas, had to be temporarily moved to the City Center area.

A skate park located near the city’s library was built by design firm Evergreen Skateparks. The attraction had its official grand opening in November.

In other parks and recreation happenings, as part of the city’s revived interest in installing public art, city officials welcomed in November the installation of “The Seed,” a 26-foot-tall seedling sculpture made out of metal and glass by Erik and Israel Nordin. The sculpture was installed at the traffic circle at Utica and Dodge Park roads. The sculpture was dedicated to residents for supporting Recreating Recreation.

The city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June for the completed pedestrian bridge over the Clinton River in Dodge Park. In July, the Sterlingfest Art and Music Fair brought rocker Bret Michaels as its headliner act.

Meanwhile, city officials announced in October that nearly all of the environmental restoration work for the Clinton River Habitat Restoration Project in Sterling Heights had been finished. That work was funded through a $4.5 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant.


City Council changes with appointments, election

In January, the City Council appointed Liz Sierawski to fill the seat left vacant by Joseph Romano. Romano left the council at the end of 2016 after very narrowly defeating Sierawski in an election for Macomb County commissioner.

Another appointee, Gary Lusk, joined the City Council in March to replace Doug Skrzyniarz, who earlier resigned, citing family and career reasons.

Council meeting policies also changed. The City Council voted 4-3 in March to reduce public speaking time per agenda item from the usual seven minutes to four minutes. In August, the City Council started holding council meetings at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. following a July vote on the policy change.

On Nov. 7, residents went to the polls and chose to bring back six of the seven people who were already on the City Council for two-year terms.

Mayor Michael Taylor won over his main challenger, Jeffrey Norgrove, 76.6 percent to 23.4 percent, also beating write-in candidate Steve Naumovski. For the rest of the council, five out of six incumbents retained their seats. They are, in order of highest vote totals: Liz Sierawski, Maria Schmidt, Barbara Ziarko, Deanna Koski and Nate Shannon. Challenger Michael Radtke edged out incumbent Gary Lusk for the last remaining spot. 


UCS deals with budgetary perils, collective bargaining

In October, auditing firm Plante Moran announced in a report on the 2016-17 audit that, unlike in most years, UCS actually increased its fund reserves that fiscal year due to a one-time sale of land. 

However, the firm warned that the district still faced financial challenges. UCS officials expected to tap into the fund balance in 2017-18 when they adopted that fiscal year’s budget in June, citing declining enrollment and insufficient state funding as reasons.

Meanwhile, according to UCS, the district and the Utica Education Association teachers union began collective bargaining talks in March, entered mediation in August and then entered a fact-finding hearing in late November.

Then a third-party fact-finder, George Roumell Jr., issued 14 recommendations on a teacher labor contract that deal with benefits, furlough days, teacher pay and more. He urged a deal as soon as possible, adding that the district’s finances were unsustainable and on the road to trouble. At press time, a deal had not been reached.

In December, UCS Board of Education legal counsel Gary Collins said the district intends to negotiate based on the fact-finding report. According to UEA President Liza Parkinson, the teachers’ prior contract ended in June. She said her union has offered concessions, and she called the fact-finding report “inaccurate and misleading.”


Police investigate murders, undergo staffing changes

At the Sterling Heights Police Department, the year started off with a February announcement that the Police Department would be training a new police dog, Ivy. The city also rolled out its Community Outreach and Engagement program, assigning one police officer to each of six city districts.

In the spring, then-Police Chief John Berg said he would be leaving due to the city not extending his contract. Police Capt. Dale Dwojakowski was promoted to interim police chief in June and became chief in September after the city manager  made the appointment and the City Council confirmed it.

Near the end of the year, three reported homicides occurred over a span of two weeks in the city. Police discovered the first two incidents Nov. 27 and Dec. 2 — both at a candy business located along Mound Road, north of 15 Mile Road. Both victims, Sufian Saba and Laith Anki, worked at the business, police said.

The third homicide reportedly happened in a parking lot at the Parkside East Apartments Dec. 9, and the victim was identified as Kiah Hopson. At press time, police had not released any description of possible suspects, and no arrests had been made.


Fire Department implements ALS transport plan

The city implemented a plan adopted in December 2016 to have the Sterling Heights Fire Department provide advanced life support transport services instead of Universal Macomb Ambulance Service. Throughout 2017, the city pressed on with plans to hire 15 Fire Department employees and purchase five ambulances and other equipment to accommodate the new plan.

In June, the City Council adopted an ordinance to allow the city to recover costs for the ALS transport services in order to adhere to the program’s goal of being cost neutral. In August, the city announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had awarded the city a $2.62 million federal grant via the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program. The money was to be used for employing firefighters/paramedics.

The ALS service formally rolled out Nov. 1 with a kickoff ceremony at Fire Station No. 5.


M-59, other roads under construction 

In June, city officials estimated that around $56.9 million in road work projects would occur in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Major roadwork projects that took place in Sterling Heights included M-59/Hall Road, from around M-53 to Hayes Road. The work started in March, and sections of the thoroughfare saw partial lane closures. The Michigan Department of Transportation wrapped up roadwork and reopened the road’s lanes in late October, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Under the Road Commission for Oakland County’s watch, preparatory work took place along Dequindre Road, between 18 Mile Road and M-59, though the bulk of the work is slated for 2018.

According to officials, work was also done on parts of Schoenherr Road, Metropolitan Parkway, 15 Mile Road and southbound Mound Road.

The city has been working with government and business partners to acquire funding to more thoroughly fix and upgrade Mound Road through an Innovate Mound campaign.

The project would target Mound from Interstate 696 to M-59, reconstructing the road and adding landscaping, two pedestrian “skywalk” bridges and smart technology upgrades. City Manager Mark Vanderpool said the road is currently in “horrible” condition.

In August, the City Council voted to pledge about $29 million in matching funds if an estimated $130 million federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant is approved to fund the Mound Road project. City administrators say the matching funds would come from Act 51 dollars from the state. In November, the city announced that the INFRA grant application had been submitted.

Innovate Mound advocates anticipate that the project will cost $217 million. The campaign also plans to seek out more grants to cover the project’s full cost.


City goes to court over interceptor repair costs

Sterling Heights went to court over costs related to the December 2016 sewer interceptor collapse along 15 Mile Road in Fraser that caused a sinkhole and other disruptions.

As a member of the Macomb Interceptor Drainage District, Sterling Heights was billed earlier in the year for more than $22.2 million of the then-estimated $70 million in repair costs — higher than other MIDD member communities.

City officials hired a law firm for advice, and Sterling Heights filed a legal complaint in Macomb County Circuit Court in May seeking judicial relief. Although a judge rejected part of the city’s complaint, the city pressed on with its quest to seek cost recovery at the county level. In July, Sterling Heights expanded its suit by adding additional counts and defendants.

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said the lawsuit is meant to protect city ratepayers, and he said the county needs to accept its responsibility with the interceptor collapse. County officials characterized Sterling Heights’ legal moves as a distraction.

Although the interceptor was fixed by the year’s end, the legal dispute is ongoing.


Housing, enterprise park develop

Mayor Michael Taylor spoke on local economic development during his Sept. 29 State of the City address, adding that over 1,500 new residential units were planned, which could someday help give Sterling Heights the third-highest population among Michigan cities.

In September, City Manager Mark Vanderpool talked about progress at the new Sterling Enterprise Park, near 17 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue. He said Mitchell Plastics was expected to be in full production by January. City officials said a second business, Metalsa, was under construction at the enterprise park.

City officials also announced in October that they would put in four signs that identify the manufacturing-centered Sterling Innovation District, which stretches from around 14 Mile Road to M-59, and from around Mound Road to Van Dyke Avenue. One such sign had been installed at press time, at the Velocity collaboration center along 18 Mile Road.