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Published: Wednesday, 1/2/2008

Economy soured in '07 for Monroe County, but new center serves as bright spot

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Stevie Beale, 18, of Bedford Township, paralyzed from the waist down in a crash that killed Charlie Fackelman, 17, of Toledo, is shown working with trainer Rachel Fitch in June. Stevie Beale, 18, of Bedford Township, paralyzed from the waist down in a crash that killed Charlie Fackelman, 17, of Toledo, is shown working with trainer Rachel Fitch in June.
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Some Monroe County residents will look back at 2007 as a year in which important buildings debuted, such as Bedford Township's $3 million Government Center that opened Oct. 1.

Less visible was the balancing act that cash-strapped school systems managed to pull off, providing quality education for youths while confronting another year of Michigan's lackluster economy.

Perhaps the year's most far-reaching news, though, was Ford Motor Co.'s announcement that it will close the former Visteon Corp. factory, Automotive Component Holdings, by the end of 2008, putting 1,200 people out of work.

The automobile manufacturer said it was unable to find a buyer for the Monroe plant. Employees, including 850 represented by the United Auto Workers union and 150 temporary employees, were notified Aug. 24.

DTE's coal-fired plant in Monroe is entering the second year of a two-year, $850 million improvement project. DTE's coal-fired plant in Monroe is entering the second year of a two-year, $850 million improvement project.
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The plant once employed 2,200 people. It was among the factories Ford took back in a 2005 bailout of Visteon.

The region's economic slump caused Monroe property values to plunge so much that the city became one of the nation's 20 worst metro areas for falling home prices, according to a study released in late November by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.

The study found that home prices fell 6.9 percent in the third quarter of 2007 when compared to the same period last year.

Overall, Michigan had the worst price decline of any state between 2006 and 2007 and the least overall appreciation over the last five years, according to the report.

Bedford Township's $3 million Government Center that opened Oct. 1 has 9,300 square feet of space, more than double that of the former facility. Bedford Township's $3 million Government Center that opened Oct. 1 has 9,300 square feet of space, more than double that of the former facility.
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The struggling housing market was blamed for problems experienced by Monroe's venerable furniture manufacturer, La- Z- Boy Inc.

In November, the company reported a fiscal second-quarter loss of $9.9 million, or 19 cents a share, for the quarter ending Oct. 27, compared with a profit of $1.95 million, or 4 cents a share, for the quarter a year ago.

Sales fell 12 percent to $365 million from $414 million a year ago, and well short of the $372 million that analysts had been expecting, prompting the company to scale back its 2008 fiscal forecast.

Monroe County residents have weathered tough times before. They ran into a number of high-ticket items in 2007, including the unresolved issue of jail overcrowding.

One courtroom drama that captivated the county's attention was that of a former Bedford school board member who was found guilty for causing a fatal traffic accident, plus that of the deceased teen's father. The latter now faces prison time himself over accusations that he went to the suspect's house with a gun and threatened to shoot him.

All because of alleged road rage.

Randy Krell, 52, who served three terms on the Bedford school board, was sentenced in August to nine months in the Monroe County jail for his role in a 2006 traffic crash that resulted in the death of Charlie Fackelman, 17, of Toledo. The same crash left Stevie Beale, 18, of Bedford Township, paralyzed from the waist down.

Krell had pleaded not guilty to vehicular manslaughter and felonious driving, but a jury in late June found him guilty of negligent homicide.

He was convicted for chasing a car filled with teenagers through Bedford Township the night of June 15, 2006, after one of them threw a bottle of water at his car.

The car's driver, Austin Oberle, of Toledo, who was 17 at the time, struck a tree. He pleaded guilty June 25 to two felonies - felonious driving and negligent homicide - and was sentenced to six months in jail, 89 days of community service, and three years' probation.

The Fackelman youth's father, Charles V. Fackelman, 46, is to go on trial Jan. 28 in Monroe County Circuit Court on two counts of felonious assault, one count of home invasion, and one count of possession of a firearm while committing a felony. If convicted, he could be imprisoned up to 22 years.

Mr. Fackelman is accused of going to the Krell home in Lambertville on the night of March 28 and pointing a loaded gun at him. Krell escaped by fleeing to a neighbor's house.

Monroe County Prosecutor William Paul Nichols subsequently announced plans for Monroe County's first-ever Road Rage Awareness Week this July.

Other 2007 Monroe County stories of note came from the Fermi 2 nuclear plant and the Monroe coal-fired power plant, both owned by DTE Energy and operated by its subsidiary, Detroit Edison Co.

The Fermi complex, 30 miles north of Toledo, made national news in February when DTE announced plans to build a third nuclear reactor there - the Midwest's first such project in years. Besides the Fermi 2 plant, which is licensed through 2025, the site has been used for an experimental reactor known as Fermi 1, which was shut down in 1972.

A new plant would cost $3 billion. A myriad set of economic and other issues need to be sorted out before such a project comes to fruition; the utility plans to spend $30 million just preparing its application. It is expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this fall.

DTE hopes to break ground on a new plant before 2013 to take advantage of $300 million or more in incentives under the Federal Energy Policy Act.

In October, eight months after that announcement, the Fermi complex grabbed headlines again when it was investigated for a possible act of sabotage inside the Fermi 2 plant.

A hole and five indentations were found in steam lines that are part of Fermi 2's safety relief valves.

The FBI investigated the incident with the NRC and other authorities.

All agreed with the company's conclusion that it was an accident. The damage was attributed to workers who hit steam lines while drilling to remove insulation during the plant's refueling-and-maintenance shutdown.

The NRC issued four violations of "very low safety significance" to DTE. No fines are expected, according to NRC spokesman Viktoria Mitlyng, who said the report won't be released for security reasons.

"It was approached as a potential security [threat]. The entire response was classified for that reason," she said.

DTE's progress at its coal-fired power plant could be seen by those driving within the vicinity of the plant.

Now two years into its second phase, the $850 million project is one of Michigan's biggest.

Nearly all of the work involves modernizing the aging Monroe plant with better pollution controls to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

The second phase is in addition to the $650 million first phase the utility completed in 2003 at the plant, the nation's sixth largest.

Also in 2007, Monroe County commissioners came to agreement on a two-year contract with Charles Londo, the county administrator and chief financial officer. It runs through February, 2009.

But unlike previous contracts Mr. Londo had during his previous 10 years with the county, there is no evergreen clause that allows it to renew.

Commissioners in late August established goals "to help maintain a professional and successful working relationship" with him.

That was done, in part, in response to disputes they had over Mr. Londo's handling of Sheriff Tilman Crutchfield's budget.

The current board called for a special meeting to address Mr. Londo's contract with 24 hours after being sworn into office last January.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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