- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2016

The Detroit News. August 17, 2016

Union seeks to squash regional cooperation

A few weeks ago, suburban leaders were roundly chastised for impeding regional cooperation by delaying approval for placing a millage on the November ballot to fund a new Regional Transit Authority. Some even suggested those Oakland and Macomb officials might be motivated by racial preferences.

A deal was eventually worked out that addressed the suburban concerns, and voters in southeast Michigan will get to vote on the 1.2 mill tax levy this fall.

But now look who’s raising an objection to the RTA - a labor union contends that spending significant money on bus service in the suburbs is discriminatory because the suburbs are largely white, and white people don’t ride buses, according to the complaint by the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Among other things, the union says funds to create new service lines to serve the suburbs are a waste of money that could be spent improving transportation service for the poor and car-less in Detroit.

“This amounts to the creation of unneeded service to appeal to majority white voters who do not even use public transportation, at the expense of the actual ridership, which is heavily minority and depends on bus service in their daily lives,” the complaint to the RTA reads.

There is no denying that poor and minority Detroiters make up the bulk of current bus riders in Metro Detroit.

But the goal of the RTA is not simply to improve service for current users, although if the plan is carried out as designed, it should. The objective is to make buses a viable option for all commuters, regardless of income and whether they own a vehicle.

Metro Detroit’s roadways are becoming too congested. Parking spaces in downtown Detroit are becoming a rarity. And a new generation of workers is demanding effective mass transit as a condition of living and working in the region.

So RTA was created to meet those demands and to move people out of individual vehicles and into buses.

The union is right that the current proposal is designed in part to appeal to suburban voters. Those residents have to see a benefit to themselves and their communities before they will take on another big transit tax - they already pay a millage to support the SMART bus system.

The RTA funding formula recognizes the disparate needs of city and suburban residents. That’s why more than half of all regional transit funds, including those raised by the new millage, will be spent in Detroit, whose population makes up under 20 percent of the region’s total.

As the RTA board notes, Detroit’s return on its transit tax dollars over the next 20 years will be 371.4 percent, and when federal and state grants are included, 820 percent. That’s not bad.

Labor has consistently battled regional transit, first fighting SMART’s entry into Detroit in the 1990s, and then successfully suing a decade later to kill the second version of the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority.

Bus routes go both ways. Coaches that bring suburban riders into the city will also carry Detroit riders to jobs, shopping and services in the suburbs.

The union wants a Detroit-centric bus system because it wants to keep the maximum amount of transportation dollars in the city, and thus in pockets of its members. That’s understandable. But it doesn’t foster an effective regional transit system, something that Metro Detroit has too long lived without.


Port Huron Times Herald. August 19, 2016

Drop appeal; Michigan likes straight ticket vote

In March, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was in town reading to elementary school children for March is Reading Month. After sharing “The Three Little Javelinas” with second-graders at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, he stopped by to chat with the Times Herald Editorial Board.

While he was here, the conversation strayed beyond Reading Month and included the state’s ongoing difficulties understanding its medical marijuana statutes and whether legalization of recreational use was in Michigan’s future. On the first topic, Schuette said it was not his place to show the Legislature how to clean up the medical marijuana mess. On the second, he said his office would abide by whatever the people of Michigan decided about marijuana.

In 2002, 60 percent of Michigan voters said they wanted to keep the option of straight-ticket voting. That referendum followed perennial efforts by Michigan Republicans to outlaw the practice. The Republican Party believes it gives Democratic candidates an advantage, particularly in urban areas, which may be true.

That isn’t to say that only Democrats straight ticket. A 2000 study, for instance, found that Sanilac Republicans were twice as likely to vote straight ticket as their Democrat-leaning neighbors.

Republican lawmakers, less willing to abide the will of the people than Schuette claims to be, reinstated the ban in 2015, and used a legislative trick to this time make it referendum-proof - another slap at the people.

Federal judges have now declared the straight-ticket ban an unconstitutional burden on voting rights and have ordered that it be an option for voters in November. Federal courts have been on a democratic tear lately, striking down other Republican-led efforts in a number of states that are designed to make voting more difficult. Apparently the GOP believes that participating in democracy is bad for the fate of its candidates.

Michigan voters have said they want straight ticket voting. Federal judges say Republicans have no good reason to prohibit it.

And Schuette, that champion of the people’s will? He vows to continue fighting for the ban. We would think his office has more productive things to do, such as figure out why gasoline prices always rise on Thursdays.

If he can’t do that, the least he could do is what we asked in 2002.


Lansing State Journal. August 19, 2016

GM sites ready to redevelop

A potential developer withdrawing from negotiations is a setback; however, remediation efforts continue as planned at four sites of former General Motors plants in Greater Lansing.

More importantly, Joe Rogers from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality confirms there are no safety concerns from soil or groundwater pollution at the sites. The property in Delta Township, on Canal Road, is already acceptable for redevelopment and requires no further monitoring, he said.

The Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust - the organization tasked with cleanup of former GM sites - and the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, are actively marketing the properties for industrial redevelopment projects and continue to be optimistic.

For the community, confirmation from the DEQ is great news.

Both the RACER Trust and DEQ have plans to monitor the other three - two in Lansing Township on Saginaw Street, one in Lansing on Verlinden Street - where trapped contaminants will have to be removed from bedrock over the course of a few years.

Plans to redevelop are moving forward at all four sites. RACER and LEAP must keep seeking projects that will bring jobs and revitalize the unused sites. Ultimately, that will be good for the region.

In the mid-1990s, times were tough. But when General Motors considered pulling resources out of the Greater Lansing region, a committee formed - including business leaders, local government officials and education professionals - to entice the Fortune 500 company to not only stay, but reinvest.

Greater Lansing residents are still reaping the benefits.

The inside story of the ‘Keep GM’ movement is now something everyone can read, thanks to former Lansing Mayor David Hollister and others.

The new book, “Second Shift,” will hit bookstores Aug. 26. It provides background and details about the model of leadership that underscored the effort; the book was written with DeWitt resident and former committee member Ray Tadgerson, as well as MSU professors Tomas Hult and David Closs.

This is not only a story about regional cooperation, but an example of the significant impact a success can have. It also provides a framework to follow for leaders throughout the region moving forward.


Petoskey News-Review. August 19, 2016

Pensions status not a reason for panic or complacency

News reports occasionally tell of employee pension shortfalls reaching crisis levels for scattered local governments.

Neither Emmet nor Charlevoix counties, nor the five cities within their boundaries, face that level of severity when it comes to shortfalls in their retirement liabilities. At the same time, none of those seven local units look poised to rest on their laurels.

When it comes to the percentages of their pension liabilities that are funded, the News-Review recently reported that the area’s city and county governments ranged from the upper 60s to the upper 70s. These figures, based on a 2014 actuarial report from the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System of Michigan (MERS) and financial audit data, reflect obligations to current as well as future retirees.

Like a majority of Michigan’s 700-plus local units that use nonprofit MERS for their pension administration, all of the area governments fall short of the 80-percent-funded-and-up range which experts often refer to as healthy.

Officials with the local units point to a variety of factors which weigh down their funding levels - from the tough investment climate which one relatively new pension program faced in its early years to a spike in long-time employee retirements from a small staff.

As MERS points out, gauging a pension program’s health should include a look at its plans for closing funding gaps. Looking to the future, the municipal retirement system sees factors - such as a downward trend in pension programs’ investment returns, and longer life expectancies for retirees - potentially pushing pension expenses upward. The retirement administrator is directing many local governments to step up payments in the next few years as part of their formula for moving toward full funding.

For some local units, this could mean six-figure increases in yearly pension obligations between now and the end of the decade - at a time when many municipalities only beginning to recover from the tax revenue losses they suffered in the last recession.

If the trends continue for long, some could find it increasingly challenging to budget for expected services alongside the payments needed to meet retiree obligations.

To their credit, many of the area units have at least some cost-control measures in place with their pension programs. Harbor Springs, for example, is among those that requires employees to contribute from their paychecks - and places caps on city contribution rates. For new hires, Boyne City has transitioned to a defined-contribution retirement benefit - a type of savings program in which earnings are more directly pegged to investment performance than with pensions, and which has become the norm at many private-sector employers. As part of Petoskey’s new labor contract with Teamsters-represented employees in the public works department, the city will switch to defined-contribution accounts for new hires covered by the agreement, and reduce the multiplier used in calculating pension benefits going forward.

Elsewhere around the state, examples occasionally surface of the financial challenges governments face when pensions shortfalls mount substantially. One Northern Michigan case involves Grand Traverse County, where dipped a bit below the 50 percent level for funding in recent years - the lowest among Michigan counties using the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System. Mounting payment obligations to close the gap have led to questions about the county’s financial stability going forward.

With such cases in mind, the present seems an appropriate time for local units to keep a close eye on their retirement programs’ long-term outlooks, and for them - as well as employee groups— to ensure that they remain on sustainable paths.


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