Residents: Officials’ answers lacking

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK —At a town hall meeting Tuesday designed to address concerns from residents about the Allen Park Studio Center, there was no shortage of questions.

But for many who attended, a lot of the answers were unacceptable.

“Questions were delayed or deferred,” resident Harry Sisko said.

“The city attorney was the moderator or filter. You had a whole panel of City Council people that did not talk.”

More than 70 residents attended the meeting. Questions submitted beforehand were read by City Clerk Michael Mizzi and answered by City Attorney Todd Flood and council members.

Many attendees expressed concern during the meeting that their questions were being answered by Flood, who took over as city attorney Jan. 1, instead of council members. By a show of hands, nearly half the attendees had further questions after the two-hour meeting.

Council members said they did not have answers for many of the questions, concerning things like account balances and lease rates for the remaining tenants. Many questions involving financial aspects of the property could not be answered because city Financial Director Timothy McCurley was out of town.

Flood and council members pledged to answer all remaining questions. The medium for answering the questions hasn’t yet been chosen, but is to be announced at a future council meeting.

Flood told audience members that Jimmy Lifton, whose two companies, Unity Studios and the Lifton Institute for Media Skills pulled out of their leases early in October after a year in the complex, could face legal recourse from the city.

“By no stretch of the imagination are they out of the woods yet,” Flood said. “…the possibility of culpability on that entity is still there, and we are moving forward with looking at whether or not there is a viable lawsuit on that issue.”

In recent months, concerns were raised by a number of media outlets that the studio complex, for which the city paid nearly $25 million in 2008, was overvalued by as much as $4 million. Many residents asked whether the 104-acre property was appraised before the city bought it.

Anthony Guerriero, who was the city’s attorney at the time of the purchase, said he never was called upon by the council to seek a full appraisal of the property and that only a portion of it was appraised before the city purchased it.

Another hot-button issue addressed was the use of $1.4 million from the general fund to cover the outstanding debt on the complex without a vote from residents. City officials said they went ahead with the project after more than 90 percent of residents showed support for it on a survey. Officials did not say how many responded to the survey.

“The expenditures exceeded the revenues as it relates to the property,” City Administrator Eric Waidelich said. “Those bills had to be paid. But the dollars that were spent to pay those bills have to be paid back to the general fund through the property.”

One question accused city officials of leaving Kim Kleinow, who was the city’s finance director at the time, out of closed-session meetings involving the purchase of the property. Kleinow, who left her position with the city in July 2010, attended the meeting with her husband, who asked council members why his wife was excluded from the meetings. He declined to give his name to a reporter.

City representatives said those meetings were set by an advisory council, and that council members were invited, but had no control over the guest list.

Mayor Gary Burtka defended his claim that the complex would bring about 3,000 jobs. He said the figure was presented to the council when plans for the project began. He also noted that two tenants, Stautzenberger Institute and Automotive Technical Co, have expanded their leases, but did not know how much total space now was occupied in the complex.

The city’s $1.3 million in bond debts for the property also were addressed. Flood said officials are working on a solution to pay the debts.

The meeting at times included shouted-out questions from seated residents and bursts of applause from audience members. One resident announced he was leaving after his question was not answered to his satisfaction.

Resident Jack Selix said he was disappointed that so few council members fielded questions.

“They think they know everything about everything,” Selix said, “but no one up there was able to speak.”