Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Detroit fares poorly in ‘literate cities’ study

By YANAN CHEN

Capital News Service

LANSING–A new national study of America’s most literate cities ranked Detroit 56th among the 75 largest cities in 2010, down from 51st in 2009.

The rankings by Central Connecticut State University factored in educational attainment, Internet resources, periodical publishing resources, newspaper circulation, library resources and number of booksellers.

Newspaper circulation in Detroit ranked 19th among 75 cities, with little change since 2008. “The entire list has declined” because newspapers nationally lost circulation, said Professor Stephen Lacy, an expert on media economics at Michigan State University.

But Lacy added that “how many people are reading the newspapers online” is another factor that the study should consider in relation to the decline in circulation.

“The ability of people to read has never been as high as some people assumed,” Lacy said, “I think up to 25 percent of people in this country either cannot read or do not feel comfortable reading materials from newspapers. Many people choose to watch videos.”

Unlike Detroit’s relatively high rank in newspaper circulation, it placed only 71st in educational attainment, the percent of adults with at least a high school diploma and with a bachelor’s degree.

That was a drop from 67th in 2008. However, Jan Ellis, a communications expert in the Department of Education, said students’ reading ability is not decreasing. “This education subcategory is just an indicator, and it cannot directly relate to how the students are performing in school.”

“The basic level of students’ reading ability actually increased. We are currently making students more college and career-ready to meet basic skill levels and encouraging both teachers and students to reach higher goals,” Ellis said.

Andrew McCullough, an adult education expert at Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in Ann Arbor said, “I do agree that Americans are reading less in recent years. Before World War II students left high school with a vocabulary of 30,000 to 40,000 words. By the 1970s, high school graduates only had 20,000 word vocabularies. The level has gone down and down.

“More than 15 percent of students did not finish high school in Detroit,” said McCullough,. “Uneducated parents, separated or divorced parents, are the problems that lead to children either not ready to be educated or not supported by their parents to be educated.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009, only 24.6 percent of Michigan residents had earned bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to the 27.9 percent national average.

The number of bookstores in Detroit ranked 72nd in 2010, among the bottom five in the ranking. One factor is online companies like Amazon provide lower prices.

Library resources in Detroit also dropped from 37th in 2008 to 48.5th in 2010. That reflects the number of branches, volumes in the collection, circulation and professional staff.

The study by Professor John W. Miller, president of Central Connecticut State, found Washington was the most literate city and Stockton, Calif., was on the bottom.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

Universities recruit more to keep enrollment up

By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service

LANSING– With Michigan’s population decreasing, the state’s 15 public universities are battling to keep enrollments steady.

Migration out of Michigan, mainly due to a higher-than-national unemployment rate, has outpaced migration into the state.

According to enrollment reports by the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, four public universities saw a decrease in enrollment last fall: Michigan State, Wayne State, Northern Michigan and Michigan Technological Universities.

Penny Bundy, director of admissions at Western Michigan University, said that universities across the state were expecting a decline in number of high school students but failed to foresee the economic crisis.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the economic downturn. These two things combined for the perfect storm for declining enrollments,” Bundy said.

In reaction to the threat of declining enrollments, Bundy said Western has increased its visibility through marketing campaigns and a recruitment office in Royal Oak, giving the school a presence in Southeast Michigan.

Bundy also said Western features certain programs to recruit in neighboring states as well as reaching into far-away states like California and Texas.

Those actions helped boost the school’s enrollment nearly 2 percent since last year.

“We go to California because there is a proliferation of students not admitted into the California schools,” Bundy said. “We have some unique programs that they are not able to get, like aviation.”

The out-of-state proportion of Western’s incoming freshman class rose from 9.6 to 10.5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Much like Western, Ferris State University has seen enrollments rise after marketing campaigns and out-of-state recruitment, according to the dean of enrollment services, Kristen Salomonson.

While the number of freshmen has remained relatively unchanged over the past four years, Ferris has focused on attracting transfer students and nontraditional applicants such as adults looking to change career fields.

Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, said universities are starting to tap into different pools of potential students.

“You are going to see not only the traditional students coming out of high school, but many nontraditional adults re-entering college to reposition themselves in the workplace and the knowledge-based economy,” Boulus said.

Although under pressure to keep enrollments up, many admissions officers said they are unwilling to lower their standards to broaden the application pool.

Salomonson said once Ferris increased criteria for admission, it saw an increase in applicants.

“We have not lowered our admissions standards at all in order to increase enrollment,” Salomonson said. “There is no real pressure to do that and I think that’s the right choice for the institution.”

The admissions office at Western saw a similar pattern and has also refused to compromise its standards, Bundy said.

“We cannot work in the best interest of the students knowing they don’t have a certain level of preparedness,” Bundy said. “We are very careful in the review of applicants that they show this preparedness.”

Despite migration out of state and a declining number of high school students, many universities remain optimistic about enrollment.

“We’ve been able to post some strong numbers while maintaining and even growing in certain areas,” Salomonson said. “I don’t see that changing. But we do have to commit more time and resources and get very creative about the ways we are doing that.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Education

New auto trail expands bird watching near Saginaw Bay

By EMMA OGUTU
Capital News Service

LANSING– A multi million dollar project designed to boost wildlife tourism in Michigan is expected to open this spring.

Officials and planners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say a 7.5-mile auto trail through Saginaw County’s Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge will open in May, in time for visitors to view thousands of birds as they stop to refuel at the refuge.

(USFWS)

The $2 million project, funded by the service and the Federal Highway Administration, is part of a 2001 comprehensive federal conservation plan requiring all national wildlife refuges to develop programs to preserve their ecological values and maintain their wilderness characteristics.

But a wilderness uncertainty means no definite opening date is set yet, said Ed DeVries, assistant manager of the refuge.

“Everything will depend on a pair of eagles which built a nest just 50 feet off the road. It all depends if they start nesting early or late– it’s critical that we do not disturb them,” DeVries said.

The gravel trail, which was completed in November, will be the second of its kind in the state, after one in the Upper Peninsula’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge.

Along the trail are two new observation decks with spotting scopes to assist visitors in viewing more birds, DeVries said.  The refuge has also constructed a parking area to accommodate the anticipated larger amount of traffic and a new fishing and canoe access site along the Spaulding Drain.

“Previously we had only one day in September where tourists were allowed to drive in the refuge,” DeVries said.  “With the new trail, it’s going to be possible for more people to view a wider variety of birds and other wildlife throughout spring and summer seasons.”

The Shiawassee refuge was established in 1953 to protect and increase the breeding of migratory birds and other wildlife. The refuge includes marsh areas, swamps, bogs, grasslands and forests and has one of largest and most productive wetland ecosystems in the state, according to the service.

The U-shaped trail winds through forests, grasslands, marshes, open water pools and the Shiawassee River, with automatic gates at both openings.

Today, it provides habitat for threatened and endangered bird species like bald eagles, peregrine falcons and long- and short-eared owls and is home to nearly 280 species of birds, DeVries said.

The more than 9,500 acre refuge attracts about 50,000 visitors each year, but with the auto trail, officials project that number will increase by 60 percent.

Responding to recent media reports about the increasing mortality of certain bird species in Michigan due to vehicular and human disturbance, Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., said that an auto trail is least likely to disturb bird populations.  He urged nature lovers to visit the refuge often without fear of disturbing wildlife.

“It is very unlikely that an auto trail is going to disrupt the lives of the birds in the wildlife refuge,” he said.  “Birds are very adaptable and become easily conditioned to cars and people around them unless there is an aggressive attack on them like shooting or throwing stones.”

The speed limit along the auto trail is 15 miles per hour to keep disturbances at minimum.  That speed limit should keep drivers from hitting turtles and snakes that frequently cross the trail to get to the wetlands, according to Devries.

Officials at Michigan Travel, the state’s tourism promotion agency, are upbeat that the new developments at the refuge will boost tourism in the entire state.

“When you make nature more accessible to travel, you will most likely have more people touring the areas,” said Dave Lorenz, manager of industry and public relations at the agency.  “As long as we build that access and make people aware of it, they will want to visit the refuge.”

Lorenz said that although Michigan has millions of acres of land for outdoor recreation, much of it has been accessible mostly to hikers and skiers.  He said he’s confident that the trail will open doors for less physically active people who have an interest in nature and sightseeing.

Lorenz also said that it was imperative to have information about the auto trail and the opportunities it opens to tourists on Michigan.org, the state’s official travel and tourism site.

“Michigan.org has been the most visited site in the country in the last three years,” Lorenz said.  “Just last year, we had more than 13 million visitors on the site and we’re working on ways to increase these numbers.”

Once the trail is open for public use, Michigan Travel intends to work closely with the local convention and visitors bureau on promotion efforts to market the refuge, Lorenzo said.

The director of tourism at the Saginaw Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, Lori Amo, said that the auto trail will promote handicap accessibility and lure visitors who previously visited the refuge only during the once-a-year special openings for auto trailing.

She said that the bureau will work closely with its other partners to promote the refuge as a tourist destination.

And Lorenzo said that he is hopeful that the expected increase in visitors to the refuge will promote regional economic growth.

“The thing about tourism is that people spend even without intending to, especially if they enjoy the experience,” said Lorenz.  “People have to use gas stations, restaurants, hotels for overnight stays and other tourism-related services.  It’s called the cycle of tourism.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

State pumps money into groundwater protection

By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Twenty-seven communities including Clare, Gladwin, East Lansing and Meridian Township are sharing new state grants to protect public water supply systems from contamination.

The money comes from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) under its wellhead protection program.

Michigan has more private wells than any other state and nearly half of Michigan’s drinking water supply comes from groundwater. Michigan’s program was organized shortly after a 1986 federal safe drinking water law took effect.

According to DNRE environmental quality analyst Jason Berndt, the program is intended to aid local communities by targeting and reducing the possibility of contamination.

“What helps to reduce the threat is to delineate where the source water comes from that goes to the wells, and once they identify that area, they will do things to minimize pollution,” he said, such as plugging abandoned water wells and identifying potential sources of contamination.

“There is also a public education element,” he said.

The program has cited both the greater Lansing area and Davison for their exemplary work in community outreach.

Each year, the Tri County Regional Planning Commission in Lansing hosts a children’s water festival that attracts up to 1,500 4th and 5th grade students. Davison reaches 700 to 750 students a year through groundwater demonstrations and tours of the water department.

Wellhead programs that support such activities are funded through a 50-50 match grant.

This year the state approved  $298,000 in grants. Berndt said the amount is low because of the current economy and state budget problems.  In previous years, the program awarded as much as $1 million.

In 2008-2009, the state gave 43 communities grants, he said. This year, 34 applied and only 27 got funds.

The East Lansing-Meridian Water and Sewer Authority received $70,000, the most in the state. Clare was awarded $1,872.83 and Gladwin received $5,500.

According to Clare’s Water and Waste Water Treatment Superintendent John Holland, the city is approaching the final of seven stages that focuses on community education in its wellhead protection program.

He said that’s helped keep costs lower than in previous years.

The budget “is fairly low right now. It’s about $2,500 a year and most of that goes toward education,” Holland said.

“I try to concentrate on the youth of the city,” he said. For example, the city offers a free summer water camp at Shamrock Lake where children do water quality testing.

Clare’s wellhead protection zone of about one square mile is one Holland’s main priorities because of its impact on human health.

He said that the city’s initial involvement in the state program occurred when a few of the Clare’s wells became contaminated with trichloroethylene, a highly toxic liquid that is often used as an industrial solvent.

“As a result of having the wells contaminated, we clean the water before we use it now, and if there are any more impacted, they become unusable,” he said.

While Holland said the program has expanded the community’s knowledge about groundwater, Clare’s industrial past still leaves him on patrol for contaminants.

“I’ve been told that there were 42 gas stations in town at one time. So if each one had two underground storage tanks, that leads to 84 tanks that are potential sources of contamination that are high on my list for watching out for,” he said.

According to Gladwin City Administrator Bob Moffit, Gladwin began its wellhead protection program in 2007 because its drinking water, like Clare, is supplied solely by groundwater.

Gladwin’s program is newer than Clare’s and has a larger budget because it is not only concerned with community education but also wellhead protection area management.

The production of educational materials, advertisements for hazardous waste collection activities and staffing for a groundwater model are included in the budget. So are searches for abandoned wells and private septic systems.

In addition to the program, Moffit says that Gladwin incorporates funding from the Michigan Clean Sweep program to remove toxins from the environment by sponsoring a hazardous waste collection day. He said that 13,000 pounds of hazardous material were collected in Gladwin County last August.

 

“It’s all about trying to prevent contamination. We try to collect the pesticides and the old oil and the old gas so it doesn’t get dumped out somewhere,” he said.  Moffit identified agricultural byproducts such as oil, gasoline and weed killers as the

biggest threat to groundwater contamination in Gladwin.

Other recipients of the DNRE grants include Belding, Mason, Lansing, Plainwell, Lakeview, Potterville, Cassopolis and Coloma.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Bucks disappear Up North in more ways than one

By PAIGE LaBARGE
Capital News Service

Bucks Disappear Up North in more ways than one

LANSING—Deer hunting is a $1 billion-a-year industry in the state but last fall the bucks fell short.

That’s because both the number of hunting tourists and the amount of money they spent were down, experts said.

According to Russ Mason, chief of the Wildlife Division in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE), license sales dropped 4 percent in 2010 from previous years.

Mason also said a broader distribution of deer throughout the state has hurt rural areas’ hunting tourism.

“Rural Michigan depends on hunting for its main economic wealth, and less animals in the Upper Peninsula means less tourism for us,” Mason said.

Dave Lorenz, manager of public relations for Travel Michigan, the state’s official tourism promotion agency, also cited changes in the deer population.

“Previously deer could mostly be found in the Upper Peninsula, but now someone can find five of them in their back yard,” Lorenz said. “This is causing people to travel less to hunt.”

Under current economic conditions, some Michigan residents are working longer and hunting less. Thus traveling to hunt isn’t a priority for many families, Lorenz said.

As a result, many people are choosing to hunt locally.

Mason said DNRE is trying to focus on younger hunters who don’t have 9-to-5 jobs.

“We are beginning to fix how we recruit ages 20-to-40 now, which could possibly raise the amount of tourists during hunting season,” Mason said.

Together Travel Michigan and DNRE are trying to boost hunting tourism through advertising in the Pure Michigan campaign.

Through the campaign, organizations are targeting hunters by discounting license fees and also trying to attract more out-of-staters.

Mason said the ads are concentrating on bordering states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana.

Steve Yencich, president of the Michigan Hotel, Motel and Resort Association, also noted the decline in hunting tourism last fall and said that it can be improved by targeting non-hunters through other ways.

In addition to fewer hunting tourists, jobs in the industry have also dropped. Yencich said that tourism employment levels fell to 142,000 this hunting season compared to 200,000 in previous years.

He said college courses and the greater involvement by younger hunters can help reverse the trend.

“This is a huge business, and college students should be part of this industry, which will raise the number of jobs again and also bring more attention about hunting tourism to a younger generation,” Yencich said.

He said that idea is being put into action at Michigan State University through the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies, where students can focus on tourism and the economy.

Students can learn how to revitalize damaged economies through educational means and in turn improve the state’s hunting tourism, according to Yencich.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Environment

Health care access under scrutiny

By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service

LANSING—Access to affordable health care remains a problem in Michigan.

Advocacy groups are looking at ways to improve access to affordable health care and offer contrasting opinions on whether current laws are enough.

Gov. Rick Snyder briefly mentioned health care in his State of the State address, emphasizing wellness programs and preventive care.

“All of our citizens need access to preventive care from primary care providers,” Snyder said. “We will look to build a system that encourages all of us to have an annual physical to reduce obesity and encourage a healthier, active lifestyle in our state.”

Rob Fowler, Small Business Association of Michigan president, calls health care one of the biggest issues affecting small business owners and says the 2010 federal law fails to address a key problem for employers: “It doesn’t deal with the cost.”

According to Fowler, the law makes it more difficult for small businesses to purchase health insurance because it’s caused prices to rise.

Fowler said that another flaw in the federal law is that it may be cheaper for some employers to pay a penalty than to provide insurance coverage.

However, a recent report by the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan (PIRGIM) said repeal of the federal law would increase costs by 14 to 20 percent and that more than 125,000 small businesses in Michigan would lose tax credits that can cover up to 35 percent of their health care costs.

PIRGIM, which is based in Ann Arbor, recommended steps that Michigan could take “which the federal law failed to take to address our health care issues.”

Like SBAM, it suggested more electronic record keeping, saying, “Accelerating greater administrative streamlining and reducing health care paperwork can lower costs for consumers, providers and insurers.”

The report called for more state-level support for medical research and “limiting the worst marketing practices of the drug and medical device industries,” which it said would make medical treatments “more affordable.”

The Michigan League for Human Services, another advocacy group, said Michigan ranked first among the states in the number of people who lost employer-sponsored health care between 2000 and 2009 — more than 1 million people.

“Thousands of residents have gained new coverage or peace of mind from provisions of the law that have been implemented,” league President Gilda Jacobs said. “Hundreds of thousands more will gain coverage by 2014 when the federal law is fully implemented.”

Lary Wells, chief operating officer of the league, said that the organization would like Michigan to work with the federal government to expand access to health care.

“We would like to see a working system that includes the uninsured without forcing them to use a very expensive emergency room,” Wells said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Health Care

Business tax repeal sparks debates, concerns

By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING ­– Republican lawmakers and the governor have made repeal of the oft-criticized Michigan Business Tax one of their top priorities. Despite agreement across party lines that state business taxes are in dire need of change, sharp differences exist about how to do so.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed outright repeal of the tax, replacing it with a flat 6 percent tax on corporations. Snyder’s approval echoed a bill introduced by Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, that would eliminate the existing MBT.

Hildenbrand said the MBT needs to be repealed because it doesn’t meet the criteria for a good business tax. An ideal tax, he suggested, needs to be simple, at a low rate, and must treat all businesses fairly. By contrast, the complexity of the MBT creates too many difficulties.

“The MBT has been a huge hurdle for us to strengthen our state,” he said.

Estimates place taxes lost by repeal at around $2.2 billion per year, which raises concerns about compensating for the decline in revenues. A replacement would mitigate some of this cost, but Hildenbrand said he wasn’t prepared to endorse Snyder’s 6 percent proposal.

Hildenbrand said changes to the budget under the new administration could greatly reduce the amount of revenue the state needs to take in, but stressed the uncertainty of the budgeting process.

“If it looks like we need more revenue, we will look at the various proposals then,” he said.

But Judy Putnam, communications director for the Michigan League for Human Services, said her organization is concerned with cutting business taxes when the state can’t pay for existing services.

“We’re hoping that Gov. Snyder will recognize that people are caught up in all of these difficult changes,” she said.

The state shouldn’t cut services to vulnerable working families, just for the sake of a balanced budget while also cutting taxes for businesses, she said.

Michigan has a projected $1.8 billion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

However, Tricia Kinley, senior director of tax and regulatory reform at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, welcomed Republican moves as a step toward a fair tax system.

Kinley said she is encouraged by the early focus on revising the business tax structure. “Our members are willing to pay taxes, because they use services,” but the current business tax burden, approximately $2.2 billion, is too heavy and its members want a “fair tax” level.

While the chamber supports repeal, Kinley said it stopped short of endorsing Snyder’s proposed flat 6 percent corporate tax because “we haven’t seen anything on paper.”

In the House, Rep. Kenneth Horn, R-Frankenmuth, introduced a bill that would change the MBT without repealing it. Horn emphasized House Republicans’ desire to make Michigan’s business tax “modest and understandable,” but recognized that the costs of some proposals haven’t been worked out.

Horn’s proposal would remove many tax credits in the MBT, eliminate the gross receipts tax and increase the base business income tax from 4.5 percent to 6 percent.

A separate bill by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, would eliminate a controversial MBT surcharge on some businesses, retroactive to when it was implemented in 2008. Under his proposal, the state would refund an estimated $1.5 billion.

Republicans, Horn said, are “going to try and simplify it without being too invasive.”

“We’re not going to do this hastily,” he said. “We’re going to do this one right.”

Democrats, led by Rep. Mark Meadows of East Lansing, have proposed their own package, agreeing in principle that the existing tax is onerous and that the surcharge needs to go.

The difficulty, Meadows said, is finding a “measured way to promote business expansion,” while recognizing “changes from a goods-based to a service-based” economy.

Meadows said Republicans are “asking for a lot of faith” in proposing business tax cuts without a clear method of paying for them and called some measures, such as Heise’s retroactive repeal of the surcharge, “not fiscally responsible.” As an alternative, he proposes changing the way the MBT works without drastically altering its structure.

Meadows would remove the surcharge and cut the gross receipts tax in half. To make up for lost revenue, he would reduce tax exemptions, expand sales tax to most services — but cut the rate from 6 to 5 percent — and cut some tax breaks to corporations.

Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, said that although the MBT has some good points, the law is convoluted, makes Michigan uncompetitive in attracting business and undermines efforts to revive the state economy.

Companies must be able to easily compare the cost of doing business, he said, noting the differences between Michigan’s business tax structure and those of Illinois and Indiana.

And the chamber, Kinley said, hopes any replacement for the MBT will “make Michigan’s business tax climate more competitive.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Business

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