Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Arts funding down in state despite income possibilities


LANSING — When the state’s economy is suffering, cutting support for industries that generate substantial employment and tax revenue seems illogical— yet that’s happening in the arts and culture realm, an advocacy group says.

According to ArtServe, a Wixom-based advocacy group, public funding for the arts and culture has decreased by more than 93 percent in the past eight years in Michigan.

John Bracey, executive director of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), the principal state agency working with such nonprofit organizations, said that funding this year increased slightly to $2.3 million from $2.1 million in 2010.

In 1995, Michigan’s investment in arts and culture hit a high of $30.8 million, according to ArtServe.

Bracey said that while the council received a little more money than in 2010 because of a slight increase in state funding and a larger grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, funding may reach a new low next year.

He said that the council could be disappearing next year, primarily because of lost federal grant aid.

Mike Latvis, director of public policy at ArtServe, said the state receives about $800,000 to $900,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, and that amount could drop by 10 to 12 percent due to funding cuts.

Despite efforts to completely defund the endowment, he said he’s confident that there will be a fight at to keep the same level of funding.

At the same time, he predicts no state funding increase in the near future.

“We’re probably about another year and half, two years away from the Legislature being in a position to increase arts funding. We’re hopeful that once things kinds come back around, support for the arts will come back as well,” he said.

Regardless of funding cuts, economic contributions from arts organizations remain substantial, especially in tourism, he said.

According to ArtServe, In Michigan there are more than 21,059 arts-related businesses with more than 75,000 employees. These businesses contribute to the $1.8 billion annually in revenue from arts and cultural tourism and $1.5 billion in personal income taxes.

Bracey said those numbers aren’t as high as they could be because of decreases in funding.

“If you were to look at our 2002 numbers, you would see that our clients — not the entire sector — probably had around 14,000 to 15,000 full-time employees. This year, there were less than 9,000 full-time employees,” he said.

He said that programs that don’t generate revenue, like arts education programs, also have been cut significantly.

Programs that are facility-based, like museums, have also been hurt, as well as performing organizations, he said.

According to Bracey, the number of days and hours that such places are open and the number of performances by such organizations have been greatly reduced.

“What these organizations offer to citizens in terms of concerts or plays to see — my guess is that there’s a lot less experimenting going on,” he said.

He said that these organizations now present shows they know can fill seats.

While focusing solely on filling seats may not be the best artistic choice, according Bracey, it helps the economy and tourism.

Dave Lorenz, managing director of Travel Michigan, said recognition of the arts as a draw for tourists is a recent trend. He said that less funding for the arts may not necessarily mean fewer tourists.

Travel Michigan is the state’s official tourism promotion agency.

“I’m pretty sure that the Pure Michigan campaign will help offset any negative impact that a lack of funding might bring about,” he said.

He said that there are areas where cultural tourism is becoming a more critical part of the local economy, like in West Michigan.

Last year, Grand Rapids’ citywide art competition, Art Prize, drew more than 200,000 visitors, 50 percent from out state.

Lorenz said other programs combine art, tourism, and economic development.

For example, Grand Haven has an art walk that is a direct spinoff from Art Prize.

He said that Travel Michigan is bringing more attention to Michigan as a unique arts-and-crafts destination by inviting prominent arts and cultural writers to the state for media tours.

“We’re a very culturally rich state, much more so than people would think — great places like the Detroit Institute of Arts are helping to bring in new awareness of the quality of the artist and artwork in the state,” he said.

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


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Senators would restrict state to federal standards


Capital News Service

LANSING – A package of Senate bills would prohibit state departments from exceeding federal regulations when setting their own standards.

While the legislation wouldn’t be retroactive, such a law would factor into future regulations, said Shelly Edgerton, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) director of policy and legislative affairs.

Edgerton said it could also affect an ongoing review of state regulations in LARA’s Office of Regulatory Reinvention.

State standards exceed federal in some environmental regulations made with protection of the Great Lakes in mind and some worker rights.

The proposal would allow the Legislature to pass regulations that exceed federal standards – while barring administrative agencies from doing the same.

The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) thinks this could harm environmental protection efforts.

Hugh McDiarmid, communications director for the MEC, said flexibility for agencies to act more stringently than the federal government was paramount in allowing Michigan to take a leadership role on invasive species prevention efforts.

“It’s baffling why we would think Washington D.C.’s one-size-fits-all laws would best suit Michigan’s water protection efforts,” he said.

However, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce would welcome such a policy.

Jason Geer, a small business advocate and chamber partnership manager for the group, said federal standards should apply across state lines for the sake of consistency.

“Learning changes in law between different states is difficult,” Geer said. “Uniform standards, where it’s the same whether you’re in Ohio or California, are easier to comply with.”

However, Geer said there were instances where it would make sense for state regulations to exceed the federal government’s.

“There are special issues that we need to take a look at,” Geer said, “and we can address those separately.”

Edgerton said similar legislation last session predates the existence of LARA, which was the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth prior to April 25.

LARA Deputy Director Rob Nederhood said many provisions in the bills echo LARA initiatives. They include requirements for agencies to present regulatory impact statements prior to implementing new rules and to examine ways to minimize adverse impacts on small businesses.

Nederhood said small businesses should be considered when crafting regulations and LARA is already taking such steps.

Edgerton said LARA will be heavily involved in pursuing its recommendations for regulation-related bills in the Legislature.

“We will have discussions going forward,” she said. “We just have a lot to handle at the moment.”

Sponsors include Sens. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake; Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township; David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc; Jim Marleau, R-Lake Orion; and Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton.

The legislation is pending in the Committee on Economic Development.

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Loss of tax credits could derail historic preservation projects

Capital News Service

LANSING — Eliminating the state’s historic preservation tax credits could endanger sustainable development efforts, historic preservation experts say.

Nancy Finegood, executive director at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, predicted that if the credit gets cut, the number of historical commercial rehabilitation projects will decrease.

That’s because the credit fills the financial gap that many developers face.

The credit is equal to up to 25 percent of a project’s qualified expenditures, according to the State Historic Preservation Office.

Diane Van Buren, sustainable planning consultant at Zachary and Associates Inc., a Detroit-based economic development firm, specializes in urban revitalization and has worked on several historic commercial rehabilitation projects in the city.

She said rehabilitating historic buildings and green development go hand in hand.

“If the majority of the building is built, why would you disregard that? My whole focus in preservation and in green buildings is exactly that — putting those two together.

“Building a new building that’s green to me flies in the face of being green when you have a city and a state full of resources that are empty right now,” Van Buren said.

“To say I have a brand-new green building is an oxymoron because it’s not a green building if you had to cut down trees and take the energy to transport all of those materials and produce all of that glass and start over again when those materials exist,” she said.

On top of preserving and recycling resources, she said historic buildings are some of the most energy-efficient. Their solid structures and architectural designs reflected the fact that air conditioning didn’t exist in the early twentieth century.

Besides the inherent sustainable aspect of historic buildings, historical buildings can be made greener, said Jessica Williams, weatherization project review specialist for the State Historic Preservation Office.

“There’s this misconception that people assume that older buildings can’t be made energy-efficient and you need to build a new building green. You can make historic buildings green, you can adapt them with modern technologies, just as with new construction or a relatively newly constructed building,” she said.

One of Van Buren’s recently completed projects illustrates that.

“We just finished 71 Garfield. It has a geothermal heating and cooling system which runs at about a third of the cost of a gas furnace for a building of comparable size,” she said.

The building also features solar panels, a rooftop water collection system and a white reflective roof.

Van Buren said that the project was partly financed by both state and federal tax credits.

She said that if the state tax credit is cut, there will still be a federal tax credit. But given the unpredictability of historic buildings, that may not be enough.

She said she is working on a multimillion-dollar project that is short $100,000 because of unexpected roof damage.

“When it comes right down to that last push, the amount of money that you can borrow is pretty limited. The state tax credits help fill that gap,

“They help save our buildings, help put people in communities and help create more jobs because your local labor market is used more in a historic building,” she said.

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

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Statewide standards proposed for juvenile competency in court

Capital News Service

LANSING – Juveniles in legal trouble face uncertainty in the courtroom, with legal standards that vary widely from county to county in determining whether they are competent to stand trial, says an Oakland County lawmaker.
Pending legislation would create a statewide standard for juvenile competency.
Among other things, it would establish the presumption that juveniles 10 or older are competent to stand trial.
Competency means the defendant has both the ability to understand what is going on and is capable of assisting in his or her defense, said Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, who introduced the bill in the House.
In addition to determining that children under 10 are too young to understand the nature of a courtroom trial, the bill would allow those older than 10 to challenge their competency and for a psychiatrist or other licensed professional to examine a defendant.
Lipton said, “We don’t currently have a statewide system in place for juveniles in the criminal justice system. This bill creates that standard for whether or not a minor is able to be adjudicated.”
The bill sets the age of 10 as the divider between presumed competency and incompetence as a compromise among the groups crafting the legislation, Lipton said.
Many prosecutors advocated a cut-off at a lower age, but mental health professionals pushed for a 12-year-old cutoff, she said.
Among the groups involved was the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Michelle Weemhoff, the council’s senior policy associate, said the process included judges, prosecutors, mental health professionals, criminal defense attorneys and child advocacy groups.
“This has been a high priority of ours for a number of years,” Weemhoff said.
That meant reshaping the definition of competency for minors, separate from the rule for adults.
Studies show youth begin to understand the court system around ages 11-13. Below that, children have more difficulty understanding the adversarial nature of courts. If children don’t understand what’s going on, treating them as competent would be unconstitutional, she said.
Both Weemhoff and Lipton said there is no hard-and-fast line determining when an individual is capable of understanding the process, but one is necessary to make the law workable, both politically and in practice.
The issue of competency can still be raised by those older than 10, Weemhoff said.
If the issue is raised, the presiding judge would order the defendant tested for competency. Regardless of the test result, the judge would have the final say, she said.
The bill also addresses how to handle children who are deemed incompetent to proceed.
The cases of minors deemed incompetent and who aren’t seriously emotionally disturbed would be removed from the court system. Those who are seriously emotionally disturbed could be ordered to receive treatment in a community mental health system, Weemhoff said.
The Senate legislation is sponsored by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. The House bill’s sponsors include Reps. Leisa Liss, D-Warren; Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake; Harvey Santana, D-Detroit; Joan Bauer, D-Lansing; Hugh Crawford, R-Novi; and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. The bills are pending in the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

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Teens could get firefighting training under new proposal

Capital News Service

LANSING – With operating budgets for fire departments shrinking, the need for volunteer and paid on-call firefighters is rising, some fire chiefs say.

A bill by Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, would allow introductory firefighter training programs to be taught to 16- and 17-year olds in school, and by fire departments themselves.

Currently, only the Boy Scouts of America and some community colleges offer such training.

The bill would increase awareness of the programs and attract younger individuals to the profession, according to Kahn.

Kahn said either the local fire department or the student taking the course would pay the cost.

The co-sponsors include Sens. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; James Marleau, R-Lake Orion; and John Proos, R-St. Joseph.

Doug Halstead, chief of the city of Burton Fire and Rescue, said there’s a need for more firefighters.

Burton normally carries 65 on-call firefighters, but currently has only 52.

Many on-call firefighters, who get paid by the call, have left the state in search of steadier employment, according to Halstead.

The state could use 2,000 more firefighters, Halstead said.

Halstead, who is president of the Michigan Associations of Fire Chiefs, said that getting young people involved in fire services earlier would increase their commitment to the job.

“The ones who become certified from this program are definitely going to have the desire to be here,” Halstead said. “You’ll have people who are inspired, that would do anything they could to get on a fire department.”

Halstead said that exposing younger people to firefighting would provide time to make sure the occupation is for right them while allowing them to master the job.

“Their minds are fresher, more receptive and less encumbered as a young person,” Halstead said.

“We do so much more than we used to. It’s become much more of a finely tuned profession. We don’t just rush in with a hose and water anymore.”

Bill Deckett, chief of the East Tawas Fire Department, said the bill could help since many departments in northern Michigan depend on on-call personnel.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” Deckett said. “If they could come out of high school with a certificate, that would help our pool.”

Deckett, a director of the fire chiefs group, said that it is important to attract people to fire services because it’s a basic need for communities.

“We are lucky here to have a full roster, but there are places that when the pager goes off, only two or three people show up,” Deckett said.

However, Deckett said the legislation wouldn’t help unless “the economy changes.”

That’s because like Burton, East Tawas has seen many members leave the department for other jobs since firefighting is only part-time, Deckett said.

According to Deckett, his department has seen enormous turnover in the last five years because “people have to move on and look for a livelihood.”

The bill is pending in the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.

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

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Some schools beat odds despite big obstacles

Capital News Service

LANSING – Despite substantial barriers to academic achievement, some public schools are finding success and exceeding expectations.

Schools in areas including Cadillac, Three Rivers, Traverse City and Ann Arbor were identified in two Department of Education studies as schools that exceed expectations despite obstacles like student economic status, lack of English proficiency or inadequate funding.

One study listed 63 schools that were “Beating the Odds” or performing above predicted levels. The second found 72 schools that were performing better than others with similar demographics.

“These are schools doing remarkable things to help their students achieve, despite the odds being stacked against them,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan said.

The “Beating the Odds” study predicted a level of performance for each school on based on standardized tests, including the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, as well as the percent of their students who are economically disadvantaged, disabled and have limited English proficiency.

Those outperforming comparable institutions were measured against 30 schools with similar locations and grade configurations. Other similarities, including percentage of economically disadvantaged or minority group students, were also taken into account.

Andrews Elementary School, in Three Rivers, is among those outperforming comparable schools.

Principal Cheryl Riley said that its staff makes the difference, especially in a district with more than 70 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged.

Riley said that her teachers are constantly improving through research into teaching practices and professional development.

Setting expectations high for all 360 students at Andrews and recognizing their achievements is also important to success, according to Riley.

And Riley said parents and the community are heavily involved in the school.

“Families and parents support us, and it’s not always easy,” Riley said. “Many of our parents face problems like having enough gas money to get to school, but they find a way.”

Joy Beth Hicks, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Cadillac, agreed that community involvement is crucial.

Franklin, which performed better than predicted levels in the Education Department study, has a community-based mentor program with a positive effect on students.

Students, including those with behavioral problems, are matched with volunteer mentors who meet them weekly.

“We have seen less behavioral problems since the program started,” Hicks said. “Once they realize their mentor is a stable person in their life, there is a big turn-around, not only behaviorally but academically.”

Hicks said communication with parents and a high-quality team of educators are also factors in her school’s success.

However, Hicks said she’s concerned with proposed state aid cuts and how they will hurt her school.

Franklin’s junior kindergarten class may increase from 19 to 30 students if budget cuts go through as proposed.

“It’s going to make a big difference,” Hicks said, “The personal time with the teacher working one-on-one with the child is going to be depleted quickly.”

Programs that help Franklin perform at higher-than-predicted levels may be cut, like the Response to Intervention Program, Hicks said.

The program provides personalized instruction to students, especially those struggling in early education.

To implement the program “does take bodies and it does take materials, and when you cut funds they’re both going to be affected,” Hicks said.

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

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Computer privacy proposal prompts concerns

Capital News Service

LANSING – Proposed legislation could make it legal to look at spouses’ or children’s computers and email without their permission.

Under current law, it’s a felony to access anyone else’s computer without their permission.

The bills’ sponsor is Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills.

It comes after Leon Walker, of Rochester Hills, was charged with felony computer misuse in December for accessing his then-wife’s email account without permission.  He discovered she was cheating on him.

Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor at Wayne State University, said legalizing such access, without the possibility of punishment, is the wrong way to go.

“I am not a huge fan of this proposal.  It would either make unauthorized access completely legal or a felony,” Weinberg said.

He said the bill would allow a person to access his or her spouse’s or child’s email and computer under any circumstances, but such behavior against anyone else would remain a felony.

According to Weinberg, the state should follow federal law, which makes unauthorized access a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.

“There needs to be a step between legal and felony.  The federal law has a gradation of charges that depend on the seriousness of the crime.  Saying that it’s illegal to do this to a friend but legal to do it to your wife or husband just doesn’t make sense,” Weinberg said.

He said a spouse or child still has privacy rights that could be undermined by the proposal.

Shelli Weisberg, legislative director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said everyone has a right to privacy and McMillin’s proposal could lead to violations of that right.

“If a couple is going through a divorce or a domestic dispute, one spouse could access the other’s email or computer with the intention of doing harm.  If one spouse gets information meant to be private, without the other’s consent, this law would make it legal,” Weisberg said.

She said being married shouldn’t require sacrificing privacy rights.

“Just because you’re married or someone’s child shouldn’t mean that you have to give up your privacy,” Weisberg said.

Weisberg said there are many situations where unauthorized access to a spouse’s or child’s computer would be a problem, and the bill wouldn’t cover them.

She said the Walker case highlights flaws in the current law, but the ACLU doesn’t think McMillin’s legislation is the proper response.

“That man being charged with a felony is prosecutorial abuse more than a problem with the law.  I’m not sure this proposal would be a remedy,” Weisberg said.

She said that she was in contact with McMillin about the proposal but isn’t happy with his bill.

“You can’t write all possible situations into law.  It needs to be done on a case-to-case basis,” Weisberg said.

The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

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

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Morels Draw More Enthusiasts

Capital News Service

LANSING— Morels are popping up, attracting tourists who taste, hunt and participate in mushroom festivals.

Morels grow in various areas but they’re most plentiful in Northern Michigan, said Phil Tedeschi, president of the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club in Southeast Michigan.

“They are found in the spring, which is the major hunting season, and everyone gets involved,” Tedeschi said. “Restaurants offer recipes, communities plan festivals and it’s a great way to show off the state’s locally grown food.”

According to Tedeschi, many people come to Michigan to hunt for the mushroom because of its unique taste and ability to be combined in many of prepared dishes.

“It has a distinct, delicate flavor and is a very easy mushroom to identify,” Tedeschi said. “The colors of the mushroom change throughout the season. They are black and gray the majority of the time, but turn into yellow toward the end.”

Safety is an important issue when hunting, and the morels pose less risk since it’s easy to identify and there are fewer species in the spring, Tedeschi said.

The mushrooms grow better in damp, wooded areas, Tedeschi said.

During the festivals, people hunt morels, and there is an award for whoever finds the most. Local restaurants set up stands to teach people new dishes that include the mushroom, Tedeschi said.

Tedeschi said festivals boost tourism in the state.

“We have about 150 members in our club and also see a large amount of Indiana and Ohio residents at the hunts,” Tedeschi said. “All these people traveling stay at hotels during the hunting season.”

The 51st annual Boyne City Morel Mushroom Festival will take place on May 13-15, according to Peter Fitzsimons, executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau.

“Hundreds attend the festival to experience the different activities involving morels,” Fitzsimon said.

According to Fitzsimon, the event includes the Boyne Valley Lion’s National Morel Mushroom Hunt and the Taste of Morels, where people search for mushrooms and learn recipes.

“People hunt in public land in the area, like Chandler Hills, and are rewarded for how many they find,” Fitzsimon said.

“This season is certainly helping the economy because the festivals and hunts are getting bigger every year by offering tasting tests, music and cooking ideas,” Fitzsimon said. “It is really helping local restaurants sell food and also hotels book rooms.”

Mike Norton, media relations officer of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Traverse City area is also known for its morels.

“The area has many wooded slopes for hunting, and residents refer to the fungi as the truffle of the North.

“They create new dishes and feature the tasty fungi in them. Some also feature wine from vineyards in Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas that pair well with the mushroom,” Norton said.

There’s also an annual Mesick Mushroom Festival scheduled for the area.

“It has been going on for 52 years and is a three-day event in May 6-8 to celebrate the morel bloom,” Norton said.

Sandy Sheine, of the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, said the club does more hunts than any other club and it has members from Michigan and out-of-state.

“People have been hunting these for years, and with the world becoming more environmentally conscious now, more people want to get involved in fresh food,” Sheine said. “Especially now, younger people are interested in locally grown food and we see them at more and more of these types of activities.”

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

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Cities shed light on streetlight energy use

Capital News Service

LANSING — Municipalities throughout Michigan are focusing on street lighting to save money and reduce energy consumption.

In Jackson, for example, officials are waiting for a price quote for newer lighting systems. They know the cost of the equipment but not the hourly operating rate

In Lapeer, the amount of time streetlights are lit is being reduced in some areas.

And in Adrian, a city parking lot was upgraded to test the success of newer lighting systems.

In each case, however, the cost of switching to newer lighting systems is the main obstacle, officials say.

“The biggest problem with converting to more efficient lights is that the people selling us electricity haven’t given us a rate based on more efficient lighting concepts,” said Jackson City Manager Warren Renando. “We would like to convert to higher-efficiency lights, but in order to do that, what we need is to figure out the cost.”

Until Consumers Energy develops a new rate for lower-wattage technology like light-emitting diode (LED) streetlights, Renando said that the city won’t be converting its streetlights.

“We will go to the most efficient level of lighting that we possibly can, as quickly as we can, as soon as we figure out what the payback is,” said Renando. “It’s hard to figure out the energy savings when you don’t know the rate you’re going to be charged.”

Other communities have already taken steps to reduce their energy output and embrace newer, greener streetlight practices.

“We did a cityscape a number of years ago and switched the streetlights throughout the downtown area to high-pressure sodium vapor lamps,” said Adrian City Engineer Kristin Bauer. “I’d be interested in upgrading to LEDs, but we have been slow to do so because of the cost.”

Bauer said Adrian upgraded one of its municipal parking lots last year and installed LED lighting during the reconstruction. Additional light poles had to be purchased but the new system saves close to 1,000 watts every month compared to the previous setup.

Bauer said that she would like to convert the rest of the city streetlights to LEDs, but the initial cost of the conversion is the only barrier.

“I like it a lot, but it tends to be slightly cost-prohibitive, and we’re like every other city and squeezed for every penny,” said Bauer. “If I had some grants, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

The city of Lapeer has also tried different methods to save energy, and in turn, money.

“A number of years ago we did an intense citywide analysis of all of our facilities, and then we implemented the energy-saving steps that would save us money in an average three-to-five year payback,” said City Manager Dale Kerbyson. “The activities we do, like turning off streetlights in some areas at certain times, have reduced our energy costs.”

Kerbyson said that Lapeer had previously considered converting streetlights to LED technology, but refrained because the project was cost-prohibitive.

However, Kerbyson also said that Lapeer will revisit the question in the near future after learning that the cost for the necessary components has dropped drastically since it was last considered.

“We may be proposing to the city commission that they consider a street lighting millage, or we will ask the citizens to put it on the ballot to pull that out of our budget and get special funding for it,” said Kerbyson. “Right now, it’s just part of the everyday millage that the city charges, but we have a very low-capped millage because we have an income tax. We may ask for a mill or three-quarters of a mill to cover the cost of street lighting in the near future.”

In Mason, city staff will work with Consumers Energy on a streetlight inventory that will list the number and types of lights and poles, as well as how they are billed. That will allow for more accurate calculations of the cost.

Dennis Berkebile, Consumers Energy’s area manager for Southwest Michigan, said, “Even though the streetlight program says that the customers will have a share in the replacement cost, the corporation made the decision that they will make the replacements to mercury vapor lights at no cost to the local cities. It was a corporate decision to do that.”

The costs to citizens, as well as rising rates for electricity, are city officials’ main concerns and staff members are considering suggestions to reduce the hours that streetlights are used, as in Lapeer — as well as the possibility of removing all streetlights throughout the city.

Marty Colburn, the city administrator, argues that may not be as drastic as it seems.

“If you are doing something that is energy-saving, there’s basically a `no-harm’ clause to them,” Colburn said, referring to Consumers Energy, “which means there is not a direct correlation of best practices and it impacting your rates.

“We want everybody to do good practices. But ultimately, if we still do it and then they just charge us more because we’re using less so they can keep running their operation, what is the public good in that sense?” Colburn asked. “Yes, we may see some savings, but not a direct correlation to the use of the kilowatts versus a direct correlation to the constant savings, and that’s frustrating.”

It is unclear how removing all streetlights would affect the city and its residents.

“If they take the streetlights out of the city, that would certainly be a concern for me,” Mason resident Ingrid Nova said. “But, overall, I think it’s great that the city and Consumers Energy are taking the initiative to try to look toward the environment and think ahead to what would be best down the road.”

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

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Upcoming fertilizer restrictions intended to protect water quality


Capital News Service

LANSING — Phosphorous fertilizers will soon be restricted as the state addresses one way that the nutrient infiltrates waters and spurs the creation of zones of low oxygen that harm aquatic life.

The ban begins next January. Exempt are new lawns and those that test low for phosphorous, as well as farmers and golf courses where management has taken a state-approved fertilizer training.

Michigan is one of five Great Lakes states with limits on the nutrient that promotes algae and weed growth in water. When the weeds die, the bacteria that feasts on them sucks up the oxygen in the water and creates dead zones that kill fish and other aquatic species.

Minnesota and Illinois already had similar limits in place while New York’s restrictions will take effect next January. Wisconsin is reviewing existing restrictions.

Experts say the goal is to keep phosphorous from settling into lakes and streams, noting that fertilizer that gets onto pavement, frozen ground or compacted soil often runs off into waterways.

Michigan recently banned phosphorous in dishwashing detergents after previously outlawing phosphorous-heavy laundry detergents.

Although a naturally occurring element, the near-shore areas of the Great Lakes have had consistently elevated levels of phosphorous due to human use. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, four of the five Great Lakes had elevated levels in the near-shore areas in 2009.

“This creates problems outside of threats to ecosystems,” said John Nevin, public affairs advisor of the International Joint Commission, an agency that advises the U.S. and Canada on water issues. “This affects the quality of drinking water, causes illness in swimmers, disrupts fisheries and leads to beach closures.”

Fertilizer isn’t the only culprit. Agricultural run-off, inadequate municipal wastewater and residential septic systems, industrial livestock, ecosystem changes from invasive mussels, and climate change impact are all likely factors, according to a recent commission report.

Michigan’s ban only applies to commercial and residential lawns. Farm restrictions don’t seem to be on the horizon, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Farmers routinely check their soil and are very aware of nutrient levels,” said Robin Rosenbaum, plant industry section manager at the department. “They typically don’t use any more fertilizer than they need to.”

Groups lobbying for the new ban recognize agricultural use as a significant part of the problem, but, nonetheless, credit the law for taking a step in the right direction.

Farm use “is certainly a contributor, but at this point it is not reasonable to ban phosphorous in agricultural applications,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., the communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “But we do need to continue efforts to educate both farmers and those at golf courses on responsible fertilizer use.”

A uniform ban across the state makes it easier for everyone, including fertilizer manufacturers, McDiarmid said.

Rosenbaum said statewide restrictions had been discussed since 2003, adding that opposition to the new law was light.

Jeff Fedorchak is vice president of government affairs at ServiceMaster, a large fertilizer company based in Memphis, Tenn., with brands that include Trugreen and Terminix.

Fedorchak called the new law “a common-sense approach agreed to by multiple stakeholders, and it enjoyed strong bipartisan support with legislators as a result.”

ServiceMaster partnered with the Michigan Environmental Council to support the legislation.

Several counties and cities had bans in place before the state law passed, making it difficult for fertilizer companies. Existing phosphorous restrictions will stay in effect, but the new law trumps any future restrictions by local governments.

The success of local restrictions helped push the state law through, said Executive Director Laura Rubin of the Ann Arbor-based Huron River Watershed Council. In 1997, Ann Arbor adopted a ban that exempts agricultural uses. The city council found a 36 percent decrease in phosphorous levels at urban-area creeks between 2003 and 2008, according to a 2009 report.

“We have seen a definite trend of reductions in phosphorous since the fertilizer restrictions,” Rubin said. “The greater reductions in urban areas speak to the effectiveness of the ordinances.”

Rosenbaum said Agriculture and Rural Development will enforce the ban through periodic testing of lawns treated by fertilizer companies. Enforcement will largely be “complaint- based,” but the department will check regularly with companies that apply fertilizers.

The International Joint Commission’s Nevin said that while the restrictions address part of the problem, scientists still aren’t sure of the sources for all the phosphorous in the Great Lakes.

“What we need is more monitoring and a regular review of inputs into the lakes. Before we can stop it, we need to answer the question – where is it coming from?”

Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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

Filed under: Agriculture

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