Top 10 local stories of 2014
10. Personnel issues in prosecutor’s office
HURON COUNTY - A controversial personnel matter in the Huron County Prosecutor’s Office that left the office short staffed from July through November was resolved Nov. 12 after the Huron County Board of Commissioners hired Dawn Schumacher as the Chief Assistant Prosecutor.
The resolution, introduced due to the need to fill the vacancy left by the separation of the county and the previous Chief Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Evans earlier this year, originally failed on a tie 3-3 vote.
John Nugent, Dave Peruski and Ron Wruble voted in favor of rehiring Schumacher, and Clark Elftman and John Bodis and Steve Vaughan voted against. Commissioner Jeremy Tietz was absent.
Following the board’s decision, Rutkowski said he was pleased Schumacher would return to his office.
“Based on her experience and the job she did previously in the chief assistant position, we’re looking forward to her working for the county again,” he said.
Schumacher, who resigned from the chief assistant position in May, 2013, was slated to replace the former chief assistant prosecuting attorney, Thomas Evans, on July 7. Evans, who was hired to fill the position on June 25, 2013, was to then be reassigned to assistant prosecuting attorney, according to a resolution passed by commissioners July 1.
Evans objected to the reassignment and sought legal council, and commissioners rescinded the motion at their next meeting.
Following four closed sessions held to discuss personnel issues related to Evans’ employment, Evans was offered a severance that went into effect Sept. 11 but states he will remain on the county’s payroll through the end of 2014. In total, Evans will receive nearly $21,000 in compensation, including accrued sick and vacation time and payments in lieu of county health care, according to figures supplied by Huron County Clerk Lori Neal-Wonsowicz.
At the time, Rutkowski strongly advised against offering Evans any compensation, saying he was within his rights as a department head to reassign Evans and that the settlement will undermine the authority all county officials have over their departments.
“Considering a payoff of Mr. Evans undercuts the authority of myself and every other elected official to hold their staffs accountable for their actions. The decision of the board on this motion has long-term ramifications with present and future decisions by elected officials in addressing effectiveness of staff. The board would take the role of micromanaging the decisions of persons who were elected by the people to run their offices as effectively and professionally as possible,” he said.
9. Affordable health care clinic opens in Bad Axe
BAD AXE — Uninsured and underinsured Thumb residents now have better access to affordable, comprehensive healthcare thanks to a family practice health center that opened in February on the Huron Medical Center campus.
Former Huron Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Jan Sternberg in late 2013 that Heath Delivery, Inc. planned to open a family practice health center on the Huron Medical Center campus and a clinic at Huron Behavioral Health. The two sites offer medical, dental and mental health services at rates based on the patient’s income.
“They really have the patients’ needs at heart,” Sternburg said. “I’m excited we are able to bring this to our community.”
The Thumb Area Community Health Center offers appointments and in-office treatment on a sliding scale. Most uninsured, low-income patients will pay only $20 for their appointment, Center Manger Michelle Colton said.
Uninsured, underinsured, Medicare and Medicaid patients can all receive low-cost treatment at the center.
“There’s no discrimination whether you have insurance or not, or what kind, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is welcome regardless of insurance coverage,” Colton said.
She said uninsured patients pay for their appointment on a sliding scale depending on income. Those who qualify pay the lowest rate of $20, and others pay 25 percent of the cost of their appointment and treatment.
Immunizations, tests, sutures, family planning services, physicals and many other in-office treatments are included in the cost
The clinics were made possible by an $858,333 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant will also go toward opening two sites in Shiawassee County.
The Mission of Health Delivery, Inc. is to provide excellent health care to individuals and groups in Saginaw, Bay, and other nearby counties, especially those who are underserved, uninsured, or underinsured. The services provided are sensitive to the needs of the community, are not based on ability to pay, and are offered without regard to criteria such as race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. Health Delivery operates in 20 locations in the Great Lakes Bay Region, providing health and dental care to anyone. For more information, see www.healthdelivery.org.
8. Unemployment figures improve, but businesses still struggle
HURON COUNTY — The unemployment rate for the county is declining at a slow, but steady rate, but area businesses clearly were still feeling the effects of the Great Recession in 2014.
Huron County the employment rate fell to 5.10 percent in October, compared to 5.70 percent in September and 7.50 percent in 2013. All the figures are lower than the long term average of 8.63 percent, according to data from Metropolitan Area Employment and Unemployment.
Despite the positive trend, some local businesses continue to struggle, a fact most clearly seen with the closing of one of the area’s largest retailers, Kmart. The 61 employees of the Kmart in Bad Axe learned in February that the store would close its doors in April.
Sears Holdings, the parent company of Kmart, has suffered losses for years. According to its 2012 annual report, Sears Holdings recorded a net loss from continuing operations attributable to Holdings’ shareholders of $930 million ($8.78 loss per diluted share from continuing operations) and $3.1 billion ($29.15 loss per diluted share from continuing operations) for 2012 and 2011, respectively.
“Store closures are part of a series of actions we’re taking to reduce on-going expenses, adjust our asset base, and accelerate the transformation of our business model. These actions will better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail – at the store, online and in the home,” Riefs said.
The company has previously stated its past practice has been to keep marginally performing stores open while it worked to improve their performance.
“We no longer believe that to be the appropriate action in this environment,” the company said in a statement.
Eligible Kmart employees from the closing store received severance and had the opportunity to apply for open positions at area Sears or Kmart stores.
Most of the store’s employees were part time/hourly, Riefs said.
7. Wind energy continues to divide community
HURON COUNTY — County residents and leaders continue to debate whether the economic benefits of hosting wind parks is worth the potential cost to community health, animal welfare and the county’s landscape.
Most recently, the argument pitted neighbor against neighbor in Meade Township, where, after months of contentious meetings, the Meade Township Board approved a wind overlay district request made by Detroit Edison in November.
Residents sought to overturn the board’s decision by petitioning for a referendum vote, but the plan was upset because the petition’s language did not meet legal requirements.
The Huron County Board of Commissioners will reconsider previous motions to issue a moratorium on new wind park development. Commissioner John Nugent said he plans to bring a motion to that effect due to an increasing percentage of the community opposes wind parks and is asking the county to halt new developments.
“A lot of you saw what is happening in Meade Township. There is a growing concern about these wind turbine developments and the fact that we have an antiquated ordinance that is in the process of being revised,” he said. “I think a moratorium is in order at this point until that ordinance can be revised.”
He said he believes a not only would protect the interests of the community, it would prevent the wind companies from incurring additional costs associated with planning developments in the county.
Nugent’s suggestion fell on the heels of an announcement by Geronimo Huron Wind, which is planning a 100-megawatt wind farm spanning McKinley and Winsor townships.
The Apple Blossom Wind Farm’s footprint represents a total investment of nearly $200 million once fully developed, according to information from Geronimo. It will consist of between 43 and 62 turbines, depending on the type of turbine selected.
Currently, the county is working to revise its zoning ordinance as it relates it wind and has put together a Wind Energy Ad Hoc Committee to study the ordinance and make suggestions to the county’s zoning board regarding possible revisions.
Following the ad hoc committee’s recommendation, in August, the Huron County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to hire Acoustics by Design to assist with the development of an updated noise ordinance as it applies to commercial wind turbine noise.
The firm, an independent acoustical consulting firms headquartered in Grand Rapids, will be paid $10,500, plus expenses, to review the county’s ordinance and suggest changes so that it better protects residents from the potentially negative effects of living near a wind farm.
Commissioners expanded the study in November, which they authorized ABD to conduct a night study to assist updating noise ordinance pertaining to wind turbines for $9,650.
6. Area athletes show muster at state level
HURON COUNTY — Although no team claimed a state championship in 2014, several local teams had seasons to remember.
Female athletes from Unionville- Sebewaing Area High School continued to dominate in softball and volleyball.
USA’s softball team had a nearly perfect season, winning 40 games before falling to Gladstone in the state championship game June 14 at Michigan State University.
Following the loss, Coach Steve Bohn struggled to cope with the shock of not achieving what the team had worked so hard for.
“It was such a great season, and the girls played so well, right up until the last game,” he said. “We had eight hits, we just didn’t get the one that got that next run in. We did everything we were supposed to do and just came up short. Our goal right from day one was to win every game and win the state championship. We won every game, and we didn’t win the state championship, so it’s pretty tough to swallow right now,” he said.
The Patriots lost nine seniors to graduation, six of whom were starters. Senior players were Alli Hoppe, Mackenzie Reinhardt, Camille Mayhew, Katie Gremel, Stephanie Neuman, Callie Hahn, Jennifer Winchell, Mackenzie Eurich and Rachael Hahn.
USA’s volleyball time surprised everyone, even themselves, with a run at the state championship.
The team was knocked out of contention Nov. 12 during the state semifinal match at Kellogg Arena, but both coach and team said they’re happy to have made it as far as they did.
Coach Teresa Rose said even she did not expect the team’s success, and she’s proud that they were able to play in Battle Creek.
“I really thought Ubly would take us out in districts, and our girls came out and pushed hard. They wanted to go, and I knew that if we could get out of districts, we’d have a good chance of getting here,” she said. “We got here, so I’m happy with the way they played.”
USA star Erica Treiber echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“I think the way we played, we proved to the whole community and everybody around us that we really are a good team and we can go far if we put our minds to it. And now, making it to Battle Creek, I think we proved a lot of people wrong, which is such a great feeling,” she said.
Rose said she will lose six seniors to graduation, including Treiber, but she still has high hopes for next year’s team because of the sport’s popularity in the school.
“We’ve got a lot of good girls who like the sport. I’m glad they like it and they want to work. We’ll keep going out there and doing the best we can,” she said.
Another girls team that fared well was the Ubly Bearcats softball team.
The back-to-back regional champions Bearcats softball team lost to Vestaburg in the state quarterfinal game.
In the dugout after the final out, coach Courtney Dekoski told the girls they should hold their heads high.
“You’re crying because you’re competitors,” Dekoski said, reminding the team about their impressive year. “Each and every one of you guys should be proud of yourselves and what you accomplished all season long.”
In 2013, the Bearcats claimed first ever regional championship, and Dekoski said the team should be proud that they were able to repeat. She said the team is losing only two players to graduation, and they can look forward to a winning future.
“These girls, they work hard in the offseason. We’re going to expect big things from this team next year,” she said. “We can’t be disappointed at all. We’re proud of these girls. They put together a great season.”
The Bearcats will be saying goodbye to seniors Lindsey Briolat and Kari White.
The Harbor Beach football team continued to impress this fall with another regional title. Their season ended Nov. 22 at the Division 8 state semifinal matchup at Alma College, where they fell to Muskegon Catholic Central with a final score of 42-6.
Coach Troy Schelke said while any loss is disappointing, his team can be proud of the season it had and the effort the players made during every game.
“Great season, outstanding seniors, great team, outstanding players who worked hard and did everything we asked. I couldn’t be more proud of them. There’s nothing we did here today that affects my opinion of anybody. I think we battled hard here today. We just ran into a team that was better than us, sometimes that’s going to happen,” he said after the Muskegon game. “I think we’ve beaten everybody that were as good as or slightly better than us, so that’s pretty good when you do that. We just ran into some buzz saws with this team, Muskegon, and with Ishpeming last year.”
Prior to the semifinal game, the Pirates allowed an average of only 4.9 points per game, allowing the most points by Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes during the Nov. 8 district championship, a game which Harbor Beach won 39-21.
The Pirates will have several holes to fill on their 2015 roster, including quarterback. Among those Harbor Beach is losing to graduation are: Josh Schelke, Austin Seltz, Chris Keyes, Devin Lemanski, Mitchell Hirn, Julian Tenerife, Noah Kraft, Jonis Herman, Austin Ginther and Dalton Okie.
Huron County athletes also did well in individual sports, claiming a few state championships.
Luke Anderson, Harbor Beach, won the 1600-meter race at the Division 4 Boys State Meet with a time of 4:17.49. In December, Anderson signed a letter of intent to attend Central Michigan University next fall and run for its track, indoor track and cross country teams.
USA’s Tucker Scharf also claimed a state title in discus, with a throw of 148-06.
Laker’s Kayla Deering won the state shot put title with a state-record throw of 45 feet 1 inch. Deering went on to compete on the University of Michigan track and field team.