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Eastpointe, Roseville

January 1, 2014

Remember six big stories that shaped 2013

By Kevin Bunch
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
City Year volunteers Chantel Sims, Sharani Jayaratne and Catherine Fischer greet Antonique Morris on her way to East Detroit High School in September. The volunteer organization seeks to help students through mentoring, extracurricular activities and schoolwide projects.
Charlie Ingrao, of Warren, gets a half-face Spider-Man mask painted on by Kim Torres during the Art and Ice Festival Feb. 15 in Eastpointe.
Angel Spires is comforted by her grandmother, Annie Spires, July 11, as she asks the public for information regarding her father’s killing June 15. Eric Spires, of Eastpointe, had been shot to death in a vacant field on Detroit’s west side after telling family he was on his way to a block party.
 

With 2013 drawing to a close this week, we at C & G believed the opportunity was right to look back at some of the year’s biggest stories and best photos in the cities of Eastpointe and Roseville.

Roseville Fire Department receives staffing grant
The Roseville Fire Department received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant worth $1 million Sept. 5 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hire six new firefighters.

The grant funds the new firefighters’ salaries and insurances for two years, and helps bring the Fire Department back to its full force of 44 people. For the past few years, the department had been reduced to 38 people due to the poor economy reducing its funding, which required staff to work more overtime and take on more jobs to fill the gap.

“Six new employees would bring our numbers back up,” Roseville Firefighters Union President Scott Bala said Sept. 24. “This is an amazing opportunity for our city to restore those staffing levels, and it goes a long way toward helping protect the citizens of Roseville.”

During the City Council discussion Sept. 24, Fire Chief Mike Holland said everyone interested in the position understood that this could be temporary until the funding runs out and that the department just needed to get everybody hired within 90 days to qualify for the grant.

Holland added that the extra staff means the city can begin operating its third ambulance, thereby improving EMS response times and earning the city around $50,000 in mutual aid runs. It would also save money by reducing overtime pay for firefighters. Councilman Sam Aiuto said Sept. 5 that the extra firefighters would be a net positive for the city’s pension fund, adding money into it without staying long enough to get much out.

The grant could not be used for any other public safety measures other than hiring the six firefighters, though City Council members were a little concerned about hiring people without being able to guarantee future employment, as opposed to using the money to retain existing firefighters.

The grant also requires a city to keep staffing at the levels laid out in the grant unless it seeks a waiver with FEMA, which the city did do during the previous SAFER grant cycle in 2010. Mayor John Chirkun said in April that the city likely would have been forced to lay off two firefighters if the grant had not been received.

Holland said Sept. 24 that he intended to submit a retention grant request to FEMA in 2015 to keep these additional firefighters longer than two years.

Recreation Center expansion moves forward
The Recreation Authority of Roseville & Eastpointe decided to move ahead on expanding and repairing the recreation and senior center on Sycamore Street, agreeing to go out for bids in early 2014 so work could get underway when the weather permits.

Recreation Director Anthony Lipinski estimated Oct. 10 that the project cost will be around $3.8 million, which the authority is hoping to get from the cities as a loan, to be paid back with interest. The cities have not yet approved the loans, but if their respective City Councils vote against it, then the authority will seek private financing.

The authority is seeking $1.8 million from each city, with a 2.75 percent interest rate, meaning both cities would see a return on the investment. Authority board member Steve Duchane said in November that the cost fits into the authority’s long-term budget plans, so it should not impact operations.

The building would see expansions to the fitness room, small gym, game room and computer room, and add a senior office, a private meeting room, a senior drop-in room with restrooms and a kitchenette, and a gathering room. The work will include repairs to the building’s roof and other maintenance issues as work crews will already be on site; engineer David Gassen estimated those to cost $450,000.

Lipinski said in October the expansion work was discussed during the campaign to combine both cities’ recreation departments, and that even before that happened, the building was maxed out on the programs it could hold.

“During the campaign, it was discussed to expand this building just because it’s a little more centrally located for both communities. It’s three miles from the south border of Eastpointe, and three miles from the north border of Roseville,” Lipinski said Oct. 10. “What we thought was if and when the authority was formed, we could expand this building to accommodate the number of users at the building.”

State statutes prevent the authority from seeking a bond measure for about 20 years.

Work should take around eight-10 months, and Lipinski said the building should still be largely open during the expansion, except for any rooms being worked on. The authority will also be able to reduce costs by providing some utilities directly to construction crews, rather than going out and dealing with a middleman.

Meanwhile, the Eastpointe Community Center is being leased to community groups to keep the building in use. As of November, two organizations — the Breath of Life Church and the Eastside Cowboys Athletics program — are using the space there.

New life being breathed into Macomb Mall
Developer Lormax Sterns started the process of redeveloping Macomb Mall, purchasing the mall property — except for Sears — in May and beginning its redevelopment plans in December with the demolition of the former Crowley’s building.

Karl Zarbo, director of operations with Lormax Stern, said in a written statement last July that the company was confident all vacancies in the mall would be filled in the near future.

“The exciting part is what we hope to redevelop there,” he said Nov. 12 to the Roseville City Council. “It’s a 50,000-square-foot box (storefront) and anchor. The footprint of where the (Crowley’s) Value City building was would house a single tenant.”

Zarbo suggested at the time that the building replacing Crowley’s already has an interested tenant, but no announcements have been made. He said the old building was obsolete and nearly worthless to most modern retailers.

Roseville City Manager Scott Adkins said in November that discussions about setting up a commercial rehabilitation district started shortly after the property sale in May. The district would lock property-tax values on the Crowley’s building area to current levels for 10 years, though values could still rise in the surrounding areas.

“We will still see an increase if the land value changes around there, and while we have the personal property tax, we will still get that,” Adkins said Nov. 12. “Whatever they do is going to increase the surrounding value — there’s no doubt.”

The replacement of the Crowley’s building is just the first step. Once the building comes down, Zarbo said work on its replacement would begin, with a hoped-for completion date in fall 2014. At that point, a new tenant would move in.

Lormax Sterns has plans for the rest of the mall, Zarbo said, such as reorganizing the locations of mall retailers, remodeling the interior, and adding a new “junior anchor” store.

Zarbo said in November that developers are also interested in highlighting some of the mall’s nearly 50-year history after it has been remodeled, such as its 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Developers also want to update the Macomb Mall sign, though Sears, not Lormax Sterns, owns that.

He added that Macomb County could use this redevelopment to spur further commercial development along the Gratiot corridor near the mall.

Lormax Sterns also owns and redeveloped Livonia Mall, and Zarbo said the remodeling there helped attract new businesses. He said he believes the same should be true at Macomb Mall.

Eastpointe deals with budget constraints and systemic debt
Eastpointe made several moves to try and reduce its expenses in the wake of smaller revenues in 2013, but it is still facing red ink within a matter of years, barring major systemic changes to funding.

After the recession hit in 2008, property values within the city plummeted, taking city revenues with them. Prior to the recession, the city collected $16 million a year in property taxes alone; in 2012, it brought in about $9 million, Financial Director Randy Blum said in December.

“You could do an across-the-board, 50 percent pay cut, and we’d still have a deficit,” he said. “There’s just not that many active employees left to make a dent, and our biggest cost is the retirees.”

The city was able to move its retirees to a third-party retirement administrator, which saves a projected $300,000, and it created a citywide special lighting assessment, which raises around $429,000 a year to maintain, upgrade and replace light poles in the city. It also hoped to get the Headlee property tax reduction rolled back so it could collect its full amount, but the proposal fell short at the city’s election in November.

City Manager Steve Duchane said one problem is how state law constrains a city’s ability to finance itself, in addition to reductions in constitutionally mandated state-revenue sharing from Lansing that legislators used to balance the state budget.

Duchane ended up joining a legislative task force in August to come up with legislative recommendations to help the financial problems facing Eastpointe and many other communities throughout the state. One of the group’s recommendations — allowing larger cities to set up a public safety special assessment to help fund fire and police services, which currently are a major drain on Eastpointe budgets — has passed in the Michigan Senate and awaits House action.

The task force also is exploring changes to the Headlee amendment — which limits property tax collection when property values increase, to account for the massive loss in property values caused by the recession — as well as budgeting tweaks and a retirement benefit pool. Retirement costs continue to be a major issue for municipalities throughout the state.

Blum said in an interview in December that the city has done a good job cutting its costs to run leaner, but it is still losing money year over year. At this point, he said the city needs to begin cutting into the services, such as police and fire, or else face insolvency.

“We’ve cut benefits and retirement for current employees; we’ve cut wages — we’ve reduced staffing.” Blum said. “We’re down to the point where we’re as far as we can go and still provide the services the residents want. It’s now a question of if they’re willing to pay for it.”

A financial report released by the city said that, by 2016, the city is looking at running into red ink, though larger-than-expected savings earlier this year are helping stave off that point by a matter of months, Duchane said. The city was able to delay filling vacancies in the Police and Fire departments early in 2013 and had one-off savings from changing garbage collection companies and its ambulance service system.

Blum said that if the state government passes the public safety assessment bill by the spring, the city would have time to get it on the ballot in 2014.

Roseville man pleads no contest to attempting to hire hit man
A Roseville man was sentenced to between four years and three months to 20 years in prison after attempting to hire a hit man to kill his wife, who lived in a nursing home.

Charles Tringali, 69, entered a “no contest” plea in April at the Macomb County Circuit Court, which is not an admission of guilt but means the court will treat it the same as a conviction for sentencing. Tringali originally had been arrested in October 2012 after meeting with an undercover detective posing as a hit man.

“An individual came to us that morning and told us that someone wanted to have their wife killed and was looking to do it very soon,” Roseville Police Chief James Berlin said in April. “He was very eager to find someone to get the job done very quickly, so we had to act quickly.”

The detective, wearing a wire and audio recorder, had a lengthy discussion with Tringali about the time, location, payment and method-of-death, he testified, before signaling to waiting officers to make an arrest. Police testimony indicated that Tringali never explained why he wanted his wife killed, but the evidence that he wanted to go through with it was clear-cut.

His wife was planning on being at home on a one-day leave, and court testimony indicated that Tringali wanted to have the killing done at that time.

“I made a reference to the severity: ‘You know, it’s not like killing a dog; you know, you do this and there is no turning back.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ He made a reference that it was a mercy killing — originally, in the first course of our conversation, and then as it progressed, I found him very cold and calculating,” the officer testified during a preliminary exam in 39th District Court March 1.

Tringali’s “no contest” plea was withdrawn in May, but he requested it be reinstated Oct. 22. The plea deal originally was for a minimum of 72 months in prison, though Tringali’s defense attorney, Steven Freers, was pushing for a reduced sentence owing to his wheelchair-bound client’s reduced threat to society.

Eastpointe man on trial for allegedly murdering wife
Anthony Webster, 46, of Eastpointe, currently is awaiting trial in Macomb County Circuit Court, where he stands accused in the Jan. 25 shooting death of his wife, Christina Lazzana-Webster.

In the preliminary exam Feb. 28 at the 38th District Court, Judge Carl Gerds bound over the case to the circuit court, but he agreed with the defense team that evidence was circumstantial against Webster.

However, Gerds said that when all the facts and circumstantial evidence are compiled — the fact that the victim was found in Webster’s bedroom, that Webster had numerous guns in the house that were all removed, that she was killed by a gunshot, that a loaded gun was found on the front yard, and that cellphone records indicate Webster was on the scene — the case seemed stronger.

“These are clearly independent observations and facts that support one another, and for that reason, I do believe the prosecution has met their burden, and I am going to bind the matter over on the charges as submitted, and as contained in the complaint, second-degree murder and the felony firearm charge,” Gerds said Feb. 28.

Webster’s defense attorney, Randall Upshaw, argued that the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Webster was at the scene the night of the killing and suggested that for all the court knew, it could have been Lazzana-Webster’s ex-lover.

Webster and his wife were the proprietors of Big Top Popcorn and reportedly had marital problems, according to testimony from Lazzana-Webster’s best friend, Kimyana Reece, in February.

Webster is facing felony murder and weapons charges at the circuit court, with his trial set for Feb. 25, 2014.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Kevin Bunch at kbunch@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.