Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Benefits for state residents land Michigan in top ten


Capital News Service

LANSING — State residents receive $8,250 on average per person from government benefits, putting Michigan among the top 10 states, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau.

            The number includes a variety of local, state and federal benefits, including Medicare, Medicaid, social security, unemployment insurance benefits and college scholarships and loans.

            The average is calculated per resident, not just people who use a program.

            Michigan State University Economics Professor Charles Ballard estimates the amount is weighted more towards elderly people, with Medicare, Medicaid and social security accounting for the majority of the money.

            That pushes Michigan higher up in the rankings to ninth. In contrast, Utah, which received the lowest ranking, has a younger population, he said.

“Our population has aged more than others. We’ve had a shrinking population,” he said.

AARP Michigan’s communications director Mark Hornbeck said due to issues facing the state’s population, its residents should not receive less federal aid.

“In terms of social security, Medicaid and Medicare, Michigan doesn’t receive any more than its fair share,” he said.

In terms of state benefits, the “degree of generosity towards residents makes an effect,” he said.

“What you’ve got is a complicated set of factors. If you looked at federal versus state and local, I think you’d find a lot of variation,” he said.

Another large component of the average is unemployment insurance benefits because in 2010, the state had a high unemployment rate.

In 2000, state residents received $4,850 per capita. That was “a peak year for our economy, so we had relatively less people receiving unemployment benefits,” Hornbeck said.

“Many of the programs don’t have a huge effect on people’s work effort,” he said.

For example, some injured people don’t recover enough to return to their jobs, he said.

“For an awful lot of people in that situation, the alternative would be poverty on top of your injury. I certainly wouldn’t claim all government transfer programs work.”

But, he continued “on balance, I think the country works better with them than without them.”



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Resurgence of native fish welcomed


Capital News Service

LANSING — Thought to have been a lost genetic strain of native fish, the reef cisco has reappeared in Lake Michigan in increasing numbers after 20 to 30 years out of biologists’ view.

            The reef cisco was first seen again by chance in 2004 when 10 adult spawners were detected in Lake Michigan. Since then, the numbers have doubled annually, with 140 found last year, said Randy Claramunt, a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologist in Charlevoix.

            Its reappearance is important from the standpoint of restoring a strain of a native species, he said.

“If you look at Lake Michigan fish management goals, it’s to provide a diverse fishery. And many people think reef cisco will be a key component in the diversification and stabilization of the fishery,” he said.

Amid troubles with invasive species in the Great Lakes, the increase of reef cisco is welcome news, said Pat Rusz, the director of wildlife programs at the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath.

“We mostly get bad news with fish populations. This is a case where a native strain of cisco that is thought to have been gone because of the impact of exotic species like smelt has, in fact, bounced back,” he said.

“Invasive species are a number-one problem. Biological pollution caused by exotic species is probably more harmful to the environment than chemical pollution that everyone thinks about,” Rusz said.

The reef cisco, which are concentrated in East Grand Traverse Bay, primarily eat smelt and have increased enough to establish themselves in the ecosystem, he said.

Limited amounts of smelt, however, may be a deciding factor in whether the reef cisco prospers, he said.

Commercial anglers in the lower Great Lakes must throw reef cisco back into the water. Recreational fishers, however, are allowed to keep 12 a day, which is the same limit as other forms of the species, said DNR’s Marquette communications representative, Debbie Munson Badini.

Another obstacle to their survival lies with the fish’s reproduction grounds – reefs — that could be in danger from human activity, he said.

“From time to time there are proposals to modify the shoreline,” which affects the flow of lake currents and shifts sand, which could plug the reefs, Rusz said.

 On average, a reef cisco can grow to more than 6 pounds. Other cisco are substantially smaller.

 “When you have genetic behavioral differences, you have better chances for the species to survive long-term. It’s encouraging that as we’ve seen many kinds of diversity diminish over the years, here’s an example of a form hanging on,” Rusz said.

Even so, the species is likely to remain unfamiliar to the public.

“A lot of people in Michigan will never see a reef cisco. Many of the kids growing up in Michigan will eventually grow old and they still will not ever see one, but it’s good to know that nature and evolution is still at work,” he said.








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Tree cities blooming across the state


Capital News Service

LANSING – More than 100 Michigan communities have been honored under the Tree City USA program that promotes the economic, health and aesthetic benefits of trees on public property.

            Some benefits of trees, such as energy conservation and savings on heating and cooling costs, are important economic factors, said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) urban forestry program coordinator Kevin Sayers.

“Properly planted trees in areas that might shade a building or shade an air conditioning unit are seen to help a lot in energy savings. They can block cold winter winds and minimize heating costs during winter,” he said.

Trees can also affect the price of homes, he said.

“Real estate studies show that properties which have well-maintained landscapes and mature trees are worth more,” he said.

            Alpena received its 12th Tree City USA designation this year, city engineer Rich Sullenger said.

            It’s among 119 communities in the program this year. Others include Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Allegan, Brighton, Charlevoix, Big Rapids, Ionia and Rockford.

            “There’s nothing prettier than looking down a tree-lined street in the summer. That’s a huge benefit to the community. Anytime I personally I see a tree, it’s a lot more pleasing than seeing a barren section of property,” Sullenger said.

            Rockford, which was one of two new Michigan honorees this year, has had a longstanding comprehensive tree program which included planting 100 trees a year, city manager Michael Young said. The other is Clio.

            Rockford is an older community that has expanded in recent years and has many mature trees, but citizens like greenery in newer developments as well, he said.

            “It’s really important to blend our newer parts with the old parts, and trees are that common thread,” he said.

            One program the city will start this year is purchasing and planting a tree for each baby born in Rockford, he said.

            The tree most planted is the maple, which residents appreciate because of the different colors its leaves turn, Young said.

One of the chronic problems DNR deals with about the program is convincing communities to diversify their tree selections from maple.

            Sayers said uniformity can cause diseases to spread more easily.

“I don’t promote planting any particular one. I encourage diversifying and planting the tree that’s right for the location,” he said.

Competition among neighboring communities and citizens’ grassroots efforts have helped the program grow in Michigan in the last 10 years, he said.

“There’s a growing sense of responsibility to do something in terms of environmental initiatives. Local citizens are working with the city to get this designation,” he said.

Tree City USA operated by the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit group in Nebraska.

The program requires no application fee. The only condition is that communities spend $2 per resident on anything related to trees. That could include planting, annual leaf pickup, purchasing equipment and other care and management, he said. 

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ACLU claims State Police should release documents


Capital News Service

LANSING – More than 70 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the American Civil Liberties Union for State Police documents related to cell phone privacy were denied over the course of three years, the ACLU says.

To receive copies of the documents, ACLU said the State Police wanted a $544,680 fee.

“Until you can explain to me and satisfy me to justify paying that much, then it’s wrong for them to demand that,” ACLU Michigan racial justice staff attorney Mark Fancher said.

However, State Police public affairs officer Tiffany Brown said the cost of complying with the request reflected the amount of labor required to compile the documents.

“The request that was submitted was broad in scope and would require State Police to look back at five years of information. It would take several employees working fulltime hundreds of hours to assemble,” she said.

When the ACLU asked for documents pertaining to different periods of time, the State Police have responded that the requests were either too wide in scope or that the devices were not used in that narrow a time period inquired about, he said.

“In conversations with them we’ve been convinced that there hasn’t been much cooperation on their part,” he said.

The State Police said the department first acquired devices able to extract text messages, contacts and other data, including previously deleted information, from cell phones and smartphones in 2006.

“According to the manufacturer, these devices are capable of giving you a printout of instances of usage. It’s not that they have to go through stacks and stacks of files. They can just go to the devices and print it out. It shouldn’t be a major project, and if it is, then they need to explain it,” he said.

The State Police has made it difficult for ACLU to acquire the information, Fancher said. “I don’t think that’s what FOIA was intended to be about.”

FOIA expert Dawn Hertz, an Ann Arbor lawyer, said that in her 30-year experience, the department has a “reputation of being difficult when it comes to responding to FOIA requests.

But, she continued, “In their defense, the State Police gets and inordinate number of requests.”

Hertz said the FOIA exempts from disclosure documents that interfere with a criminal investigation, but she is unsure whether that exemption would apply to the ACLU’s requests.

FOIA also requires public agencies to keep information in a form that allows easy responses, she said.

“If they’re asking for over $500,000, then they’re not keeping them in a form that would be easily FOIAed. The ACLU is a responsible entity that knows what the law is. It’s unfortunate that State Police doesn’t seem to want to work them,” she said.

“What disturbs me about this particular situation is that the first thing FOIA tells State Police to do is look at the public interest. And if there’s a public interest, then they’re not supposed to charge a fee,” she said.

Fancher said one thing the ACLU wants to examine in the documents is the proportion of times the devices have been used to extract data from cell phones and smartphones belonging to racial minorities.

“Frequency of contact with people of color versus whites is higher historically. If there’s disproportionate contact with them, then there’s a higher possibility that they will be searched,” he said.

The ACLU says law enforcement officers can use the devices to extract data without owners of phones knowing. Thus, the devices could be abused during routine stops, the group says.

But the State Police deny that practice, saying its troopers use them only after a search warrant is obtained and that the devices can’t be used in the way the ACLU claims.

“They very well might be legitimate law enforcement tools. Our interest is only to confirm through documents that they’re using them in a lawful way,” Fancher said.

Brown of the State Police said, “We’ve had these devices since 2006, and we’ve never been accused of any wrongdoing. We don’t have any citizen complaints and we’ve never been involved in a lawsuit with these devices.”

Fancher said the ACLU would like to determine whether law enforcement officials are violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unlawful search and seizures, he said.

“Pretty much anything in a cell phone is out of the public’s view. People store all types of things in there — passwords for accounts, social security numbers and all types of data they don’t want people to see,” he said.

In a recent House Committee hearing on the devices, State Police officials said they were being used only in high-level crimes and that its devices are primarily used in office settings.

The officials agreed with representatives that it’s necessary to have a standard procedure for using the devices.

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

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Bats or squirrels in the attic? These folks know what to do


Capital News Service

LANSING — The Michigan Animal Damage Control Association is looking to expand its mission to be a political and educational organization that will support regulations and connect with other groups on the state and national level.

Association members deal with nuisance wildlife and are now educationally reaching out to do more than just catch animals, according to Kevin Baker, its secretary.

“We deal with infestations, bats in the attic and things people normally don’t like, but recently we’re trying to work on a national and statewide level,” Baker said. “Our services extend throughout the state, but areas like Manistee and Muskegon have a large number of certified employees.”

According to Baker, the organization is focusing on a certification test the National Wildlife Control Operator Association and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are developing.

“The organization is combining with the national level to work with the DNR and enact a certification test for people in the wildlife control services,” Baker said. “The test must be passed in order for anyone to work for us.”

Baker said it is extending educational services as well as public meetings.

“We hold annual seminars where we bring in speakers and offer workshops to discuss what were doing and how we can help as an organization,” Baker said.

The association holds a mini-seminar in September or October that concentrates on the careers in damage control.

“We usually hold this in varied locations in town halls but this seminar is very intimate and hands-on,” Baker said. “We teach people how to work in this industry and give them career chances.”

The association is using social media aspects to reach out to the public as well, Baker said.

“We’re working on updating the website and a current online newsletter that will concentrate on networking with vendors and customers,” Baker said.

Richard Smith, the association’s public relations officer, says it is focusing on community outreach.

“We go to communities and hold these meetings to talk about animal diseases, infestation and how to handle it,” Smith said. “We want to make sure people know of us as a helping organization and a part of the community.”

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

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Green campuses get spot in national honor roll

Capital News Service

LANSING— Several Michigan colleges and universities have made a national list of 311 green campuses.

The list includes Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University, Aquinas College, University of Michigan and Kalamazoo College.

And according to the guide, when students chose colleges or universities, they look not only into academic levels but also consider whether the schools are committed to going green.

The roster was compiled by Princeton Review, an American-based standardized test preparation and admissions consulting company. The guide was based on factors such as whether students have a campus quality of life that is healthy and sustainable, how well a school is preparing students for employment in the economy and how environmentally responsible a school’s policies are.

Each institution has its own ways to keep its campus green and sustainable.

For example, Grand Valley State University implemented a composting program intended to take care of all its food waste, including the waste generated during the preparation process and after meals.

The university has two kinds of bins in each dining hall. One is named “landfill” and the other “compost” with images on them so it’s easy for students to know what type of items can be composted.

The program started at 2009 and the campus generates 20,000 pounds of compostable waste per week.

Students and alumnus also take efforts to advocate green campus. Tony Rotman, a psychology alumnus in GVSU is a big support of the usage of green furniture, which is produced by materials from sustainable forests and has low toxic material levels.

He said he wants to reduce fuel and energy consumption by advocating green furniture on campus.

Western Michigan University has a water conservation program to contain storm water runoff, provide a natural, pleasing environment for the people who use it.

Its program includes irrigation control, low-flow showers and faucets, chemical free water treatment and other water conservation methods.

In Grand Rapids, Aquinas College has integrated sustainability topics into the curriculum and introduced the first undergraduate program in sustainable business in the United States.

Sustainable business builds profitability and economic stability, restores the health of natural systems and promotes prosperous communities, according to Deborah Steketee, associate professor of sustainable business.

The University of Michigan has “Planet Blue” operations teams which lead an environmental conservation campaign of technology reform to reduce energy use. The team have reduced energy use in 44 campus building by 12 percent and saved $3.5 million annually.

Anuja Mudali, the communication specialist at the U-M, introduced that the aim of this team is to conserve utilities and increase recycling to save money and benefit the environment.

The team has a three-year project designed to engage building occupants in energy efficiency and environmental awareness in 90 building.

Mudali also said from 2004 to 2008, energy use decreased 4 percent and space increased 10 percent in campus.

Kalamazoo College’s Farms to College program aims to build relationships between the College and local farmers to increase the amount of locally-grown food served in the cafeteria and support the local food system.

It also helps students to understand that choosing to buy and eat locally-grown foods is healthier for their bodies as well as the environment for eating locally uses less fossil fuel for food production and transportation.

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

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Senator would offer aid only after a year in state

Capital News Service

LANSING – A new proposal would require public benefits applicants to prove they’ve lived in the state for at least a year before receiving assistance.

Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, said the legislation would apply to medical assistance and Family Independence Program (FIP), or cash assistance, benefits.

Rebecca DeVooght, Shuitmaker’s legislative assistant, said Schuitmaker is aware of people moving to Kalamazoo to collect benefits and many other cases have come to her attention since the bill was introduced.

DeVooght said, “We want people coming to Michigan for jobs, not to abuse public assistance.”

Under the change, FIP recipients would need a driver’s license or other acceptable ID.

An applicant could only be considered a resident if he or she has lived in the state one year prior to applying.

For medical care, the new bill would only provide coverage to those 19 years and older who have lived in the state for at least one year before applying for aid.

According to the Department of Human Services, the number of people enrolled for FIP has increased 26,401 from 2009 to 2010.

In 2009, the monthly average for FIP recipients was 202,693. The 2011 monthly average is 233,222.

Wayne County has 8,258 more recipients and Macomb has 3,165 more than in 2009. On the other hand, Keweenaw County went from one FIP recipient to nine in the last couple of years.

Judy Putnam, the communications director at the Michigan League for Human Services, said she has not heard of a problem with people flocking to Michigan to take advantage of FIP.

The benefits are designed to help low-income families with children.

“When families move here who are in need, a year is a very long time to wait for shoes, clothing and necessities,” Putnam said.

She said there has been an increase in cases for cash assistance in the past few years, most likely because of the long recession.

Another reason families apply is because they have used up unemployment benefits and haven’t found a job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates directly correlate to FIP cases. When unemployment was up to 14 percent in 2010, FIP cases increased by 1,000.

The bill is pending in the Senate Education Committee.

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

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Green tax exemption proposed for homes

Capital News Service

LANSING – New legislation may encourage the use of small-scale clean-energy devices, such as solar panels and small wind turbines, by exempting them from property taxes.

The goal is to make such devices more affordable, said Fred Schaible, legislative director for Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Grand Rapids, one of the main sponsors.

The other main sponsor is Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor.

“More people are installing these small-scale devices in residential settings and are getting hit with large property taxes because their property value rises,” Schaible said.

Schaible said property tax increases discourage homeowners from putting in clean-energy devices, which in turn hurts the economy.

“An individual will spend upwards of $1,000 to install these devices on their property, but when the property is re-assessed, they find themselves paying even more. It isn’t encouraging for the future of clean energy,” Schaible said.

He said property tax rates vary by municipality, and millage rates in rural areas may be lower than in urban areas.

He said the tax breaks would advance the clean-energy industry in Michigan.

“We want to help fuel this growing segment of the economy. Even if the device isn’t built in Michigan, local contractors would still be hired to install them,” Schaible said.

Samantha Harkins, legislative associate at the Michigan Municipal League, an Ann Arbor-based advocacy group that represents cities and villages, said the organization hasn’t adopted an official position on the legislation but its stance would depend on the bill’s impact.

“Generally, we don’t support tax cuts like these. Property tax revenue is important to cities and municipalities, especially with the limited means of revenue they have these days,” Harkins said.

However, Harkins said clean energy is an initiative it supports.

“Sustainability and clean energy is important to all of our members and good for the growth of our state’s economy. Whether we would be in favor of cutting property taxes to do it depends on how much revenue it would cost cities,” Harkins said.

Both bills are in the Senate Energy and Technology Committee.

Co-sponsors include Sens. John Proos, R-St. Joseph; James Marleau, R-Lake Orion; Coleman Young II, D-Detroit; Mike Nofs, R-Jackson; and Steve Bieda, D-Warren.

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

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Interest grows in native wildflowers

Capital News Service

LANSING – Many people are looking to wildflowers and native plants for environmental and economic reasons.

Jean Weirich, treasurer of the Wildflower Association of Michigan, said education about wildflower planting and seeding has recently become popular.

She said insects are more attracted to native plants for nutrients they need. When insects consume those nutrients, birds feed on them for protein.

For example, 600 types of insects feed on oaks while non-native trees attract only three types.

Another important thing for gardeners to know is that insects cannot adapt to plants, Weirich said. Insects and plants have already adapted to their environment.

With native wildflowers, there is no need to constantly water the plants. And prairie grass provides better habitat protection for animals, unlike weeds that flatten in winter weather, she said.

Esther Derwald, owner of the Michigan Wildflower Farm in Portland, said important native plants are disappearing and should to be reintroduced to keep the environment healthy.

She said animals need native plants for nectar, cover and food not available from non-native species.

Weirich said starting a wildflower garden is an investment, but in the long run, saves money on maintenance, lawn mowing, fertilizer and time.

Specialty sources for seeds and plants have developed in Michigan and promote the importance native plants.

The back-to-native-plants movement in Michigan began in Ann Arbor and expanded elsewhere in the Southern Lower Peninsula, she said.

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

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Got time, skills? Open time bank account


Capital News Service

LANSING — Technological advances combined with the current dreary economic climate have created an environment for a new kind of bank.

These banks never see money. Instead they rely on a medium of exchange called “time dollars.”

A time bank is a community exchange system where members provide services to each other in exchange for time dollars.

According to Kim Hodge, founder of the Michigan Alliance of Timebanks in Lathrup Village, they are unique because everyone’s time is treated equally, whether a 6-year-old or an attorney. And if someone does something for someone else, there’s no expectation for the service to be repaid.

“It’s more like a pay-it-forward system,” she said.

Hodge founded the state’s first one, the Lathrup Village Timebank, in 2008.

Users connect through a computer database that lets them post skills and needs. That’s why Hodge said technology has aided the time banking process.

She said technology contributes to the appeal of a crucial feature of time banks: community.

“The more we get into technology and televisions and the Internet and phones and texting, the less we are able to communicate with each other in person. Time banks provide a way for us to be able to,” she said.

There are eight time banks in Michigan with around 300 participants, she said.

Some are in Royal Oak, Southfield, Ferndale, Detroit and Grand Rapids. Residents of Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Grand Blanc, Lansing and Holland have expressed interest as well, she said.

With 33 members, Timebank Grand Rapids is one of the smaller ones.

Oakdale Neighbors director Tom Bulten said that growth has been slow because getting people interested in sharing services is a challenge. Oakdale Neighbors is a nonprofit community development organization that hosts the time bank.

Regardless of size, Bulten said Timebank Grand Rapids makes a difference.

“One woman was having a problem with her computer and asked another member to repair it, and she was really grateful. Others have appreciated the interaction. For a group project that we did, four of us raked the leaves for another member, and that was just a positive experience,” he said.

With listed skills such as tennis and sports lessons, good conversation, transportation, childcare and euchre lessons, Hodge is a prime example of an active time-banker.

This year another member did her taxes. In the past, she learned to use Facebook, had her wedding planned, got a massage, learned how to garden and took photography lessons from fellow members.

She said that while community interaction is an attractive aspect of time banks, the economy also prompts people to join.

“People don’t have the same kind of money that they have had before, and so being able to connect with people who can provide services is a real value,” she said.

Tawni Ferrarini, associate professor of economics at Northern Michigan University, said unemployment is a factor in the popularity of time banks.

“One of the reasons you see time banks growing during recessions is because unemployment is up. People aren’t working 40 hours to 50 hours a week, so they have more time on their hands and a productive person is a productive person,” she said.

Ferrarini, however, said she doubts that the current momentum behind time banks will sustain itself once employment increases.

“There’s only so many hours in a day, and you have family, recreation and health issues to balance in unison with your commitment to the time bank. I would think that as the economy starts to pick up, you’re going to see the time bank hours decrease,” she said.

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