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Mount Clemens — Macomb County officials are moving ahead with plans to issue up to $300 million in bonds to cover an unfunded retiree health care liability and, they hope, transform downtown Mount Clemens by renovating several county-owned buildings.

The county's proposed sale awaits state Treasury Department approval. That could come by mid-February, said Treasury spokesman Terry Stanton.

But what the bonds are expected to accomplish could be felt for a long time.

"There is no question that this is important for our finances, guaranteeing promises made for retiree health care will be promises kept," said Mark Hackel, county executive.

He added: "We came up with a great plan and I am confident it will be applauded 20, 30 years from now, when the bonds are taken care of and the finances are set and when there is no more liability for retiree health care or pension in Macomb County."

Under the county's plan, bonds would be sold to finance its estimated $260 million unfunded retiree health care liability.

A separate bond issue would be proposed to cover the downtown revitalization plan, which could cost an estimated $35 million, said Mark Deldin, deputy county executive.

The infrastructure improvements were recommended by Plante Moran CRESA planners as part of a five-year county capital plan in a study presented in fall 2013.

The downtown revitalization plan includes renovations to the Administration, Old County, Circuit Court and Talmer buildings and the Clemens Center.

The study suggests changes to the Administration Building, which has two floors dedicated to storage. The ever-growing Prosecutor's Office takes up two floors, while the finance department is in the Talmer Building. The study proposes dedicating one of those storage floors to the Prosecutor's Office and the other to the finance department.

The two-story Talmer Building would be home to the Register of Deeds and the planning department.

Friend of the Court and Juvenile Court would be moved out of the 16th Circuit Court and into the Old County Building. The Circuit Court building would then be dedicated strictly to courts.

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The study also addressed public parking. The county has a 100 percent employee-dedicated parking system, making it difficult for the public to find a spot near county departments. The study found that 300 parking spaces could be reallocated to the public.

Plante Moran CRESA planners also suggested the 37-year-old parking structure adjacent to the 16th Circuit Court be replaced since the county spends up to $300,000 a year maintaining the 600-vehicle structure. A new parking structure would cost up to $25 million and accommodate 700 vehicles. The structure would drive the cost of the downtown revitalization plan up to $60 million.

"Where we are at right now is the architects are completing the design and development phase and our construction manager and program manager from Plante Moran are in the process of estimating the cost for all of the design development," said Deldin. "We are refining all of those numbers now. We expect that will done at the end of January."

When completed, a full presentation and cost estimate will go before the Board of Commissioners.

Funding will come from a combination of the $9 million insurance settlement from the April 2013 electrical fire that closed the Old County Building, the capital project fund and the issuance of bonds, Deldin said.

Barb Dempsey, mayor of Mount Clemens, said capital improvements are not beneficial only to Macomb but to the county seat.

Dempsey, who is in support of demolishing the 37-year-old parking structure adjacent to the 16th Circuit Court, said replacing it with a city park would open up the downtown and draw more attention the Clinton River.

"It would be tremendous for the city," Dempsey said about a park. "It would become an economic tool. I think we can then do so many other things along the river. "

Stephen Saph Jr., Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority chairman, is excited about the county making a continued investment in the city.

"When they are talking about finishing the two floors of the new Administration Building that were not completed during the original construction, one can only assume that you will see more personnel, which means more traffic and the ringing of cash registers," said Saph.

Last June, Peter Provenzano, former county finance director, presented the proposal to sell bonds for health care costs to the Board of Commissioners. The amount was then an estimated $295 million. The county reduced the unfunded retiree health care liability by closing the retiree plan to new hires starting in 2016.

But the bond approval to cover the liability didn't come easily, as the County Executive's Office and the Board of Commissioners squared off over control of the Martha T. Berry Medical Care Facility.

The 217-bed long-term care facility is owned, operated and financially supported by the county. It is governed by the Board of Commissioners and overseen by an appointed Human Services Board.

Hackel wanted to end that arrangement, but in August, a Macomb County Circuit Court judge ruled against him. Hackel said either the county or the Human Services Board should run the facility, not the commissioners.

The commissioners' approval of the bond resolution in December came soon after Hackel sent a memo to board members pointing out that for every month of delay in selling bonds, the county's general fund has to contribute $2 million more from the fund balance.

"That letter woke them up," Hackel said.

He said the holdup in receiving board approval was Commission Chairman David Flynn's concern for the long-term financial viability of Martha T. Berry.

"He was holding hostage this issue," Hackel said. "Then the light bulbs went on with many of the commissioners. They forced him to put this on the agenda. Separate the issue and let's move forward with bonding. "

Flynn, for his part, said he has full confidence in the Human Services Board, in the administration and especially in the employees of Martha T. Berry.

"They have everything they need to become self-sufficient and I know that they will continue to run a top-notch medical care facility, ensuring residents receive the best of care," Flynn said. "As they move forward, they will remain county employees and we will keep our promises to them."

uwatson@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2613

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