- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

The Detroit News. May 13, 2016

Shine light on blight removal.

When Mayor Mike Duggan took office, ridding Detroit of blighted housing was rightly one of his top priorities. But two years, 8,000 torn down homes and hundreds of millions dollars later, there must be more transparency in the process for removing the city’s abandoned homes.

The FBI confirmed this week that it is investigating the city’s demolitions, adding an intense new level of scrutiny to the blight removal program, which has already come under investigation for its bidding practices and protocols.

Last month, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program sent the city a federal subpoena for records.

Those records will come from the Detroit Auditor General’s Office, which has also been investigating the Detroit Building Authority. The Auditor General found the city violated terms of a joint property management agreement, as well as state law, “by creating and allowing a conflict of interest” in executive leadership. Detroit’s general counsel says the claims are inaccurate.

Federal lawmakers have provided Michigan $264 million from the Hardest Hit Fund to tear down dangerous abandoned buildings throughout the state. Much of that, $172 million, has already been spent to remove blight in Detroit.

The feds want to know why, under Duggan’s administration, the cost to tear down individual homes increased substantially. In 2014, the cost of demolition was about $14,000 per home. By 2015, that cost was almost $16,500 per home.

Duggan argues the cost increase was due to stricter environmental standards for tearing demolitions - services like bringing in new dirt so as not to contaminate neighborhood grounds with dangerous byproducts from the demolished homes.

He also attributed higher costs were to sidewalk repairs, topsoil and grass replacements, as well as higher construction costs.

Changes in the process has brought the per-home cost of demolitions down to $13,600.

Reports have suggested the city’s building officials improperly met with contractors in 2014 and set prices for large swaths of demolitions before requests for bids went out.

Ultimately, three of the four contractors involved in the discussions were the only bidders on the project, even after it was publicly offered. The three firms received about 74 percent of the contracts awarded from March 2014 to January 2015, and got breaks on bonding requirements not offered to other firms.

The companies also convinced city officials mid-job to pay extra for asbestos removal, even though it was predetermined that would be included in the original price.

The federal funds are still coming. The U.S. Treasury just approved another $42 million for Detroit’s blight removal, and it could potentially be awarded up to $188 million more in coming weeks.

Those funds should be spent efficiently and transparently. Detroit doesn’t need to be haunted again by allegations of corruption at City Hall.___

Detroit Free Press. May 11, 2016

Detroit Public Schools can’t afford reckoning of Lansing mismanagement.

In addition to assurances that they will be paid for the work they’ve already done, Detroit’s embattled teachers want a forensic audit to determine exactly how the district’s operating deficit went from bad to worse on the state’s watch.

Republican state legislators say nothing doing. This is chiefly because:

A) Lawmakers are wary of what such scrutiny would reveal about the state’s culpability for DPS’s sorry plight;

B) Discovering who is responsible for whatever mismanagement and fraud took place under a succession of state-appointed financial managers is less important than charting a sustainable path forward; or

C) DPS has no money to spare for such a costly audit.

The correct answer, of course, is D) All of the above. The real question is not what such an audit would cost (a lot) or whether it would generate immediate benefits for DPS students (unlikely), but what conclusions the public can reasonably draw in the absence of such a rigorous examination.

The story of DPS’s fiscal and educational decline is long and complex. But there can be no doubt who bears culpability for the district’s accelerated deterioration in the years after 1999, when then-Gov. John Engler first wrested political authority from the elected school board. The state has been firmly in the driver’s seat for all but three of the 17 years since.

Where each of the five appointees who have led DPS in the emergency manager era belong on the continuum of incompetence that ranges from well-meaning impotence to malign neglect is an argument the district lacks the resources to resolve definitively. But the state’s legal and moral responsibility for what took place in the 17 years it exercised almost uninterrupted political authority over DPS could scarcely be clearer.

It would doubtless be useful to know with more precision which of the state’s policy decisions did most to hasten the district’s near-complete collapse, especially if you subscribe to the belief that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But Detroit teachers are naive to suggest a comprehensive forensic audit - that is, an audit that fixed civil or criminal liability for DPS’s fiscal woes - can be accomplished for $500,000. And emergency manager Steven Rhodes is surely correct when he asserts that such an audit is beyond the district’s current means. Reckoning by any sane calculus, Rhodes and others focused on the needs of Detroit students simply have bigger fish to fry.

But Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican lawmakers who have perpetuated the state’s exclusive political authority over DPS should pay a reasonable price for avoiding the closer scrutiny they deserve. In declining to bankroll a forensic audit, they’ve forfeited the presumption of innocence policymakers confronting such a rigorous exam might otherwise claim.

Their determination to move forward with nary a backward glance at how the state’s stewardship exacerbated DPS’s troubles is the equivalent of a no contest plea. Many large financial institutions have invoked the same strategy to abbreviate regulatory unpleasantness, but they typically pay a hefty price to avoid a detailed airing of their failures. Lansing, too, should be prepared to pay such a price.

Coalescing behind the bipartisan Senate plan to free DPS from its insupportable debt load and provide a streamlined public school system with the minimal resources for a fresh start would be a good place for House Republicans to start. Many of those lawmakers have conspired for years in the plot to deprive Detroit schoolchildren of their right to a decent education. Stonewalling a forensic audit may allow them to evade a full reckoning, but it doesn’t diminish their responsibility to clean up the mess they helped create.___

Battle Creek Enquirer. May 12, 2016

Paper or plastic? Let locals decide.

Most people understand intuitively that the best government is one closest to the people, but a lot of legislators seem to have forgotten that simple tenet.

Lawmaking designed to strip local governments of regulatory authority has become commonplace in many state legislatures, including our own. It’s called preemptive legislation, and while the tactic is most commonly used at the behest of industry lobbyists to protect profits, it’s also employed in ideological crusades - the infamous bathroom bill in North Carolina comes to mind.

In Michigan, lawmakers have only threatened such a bill, but the GOP majority has used the tactic to prevent cities from regulating everything from wages to guns to factory farms.

The latest target? Plastic grocery bags.

This week, the Senate passed a bill mostly along party lines that would prohibit local governments from regulating the sale of plastic bags and food containers. SB 0853 now goes to the House Commerce and Trade Committee.

With the state’s largest school district on the verge of collapse and our roads and bridges crumbling around us, it would be fair to ask why lawmakers are wasting the people’s time with this issue.

The answer seems to be that lawmakers, particularly Republicans, in the Statehouse don’t see it as the people’s time, and they apparently don’t care about the people’s priorities.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Midland Republican Jim Stamas, won’t say which businesses have sought his assistance in pushing the legislation, but he’s unabashed in his rationale.

“This legislation would allow any of the corporations or businesses to make that type of decision on their own to do that,” Stamas said in an interview on Michigan Radio. “But it doesn’t put in place different standards in local areas across the state.”

While we see the value in regulatory consistency across jurisdictions, Stamas’ argument rings hollow when weighed against residents’ desires to regulate the quality of life in their own communities.

In Michigan, no community bans plastic bags, but several, including Muskegon and Washtenaw counties, are considering restrictions. The environmental benefits of such bans are debatable - according to the sustainability website treehugger.com, making a paper bag consumes about four times more energy than a plastic bag, and produces about four times more waste if it’s not recycled.

There’s no debating, however, that the plastic bags that litter our streets, roads, streams and trees are an eyesore and a nuisance. They can be dangerous to wildlife, too.

Those seem like pretty good reasons for local residents to consider a ban, and we haven’t heard any justification for the Legislature to stand in their way.___

The Alpena News. May 14, 2016

Number of chickenpox cases is alarming.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released what we view as a very disturbing statistic this week - chickenpox cases are on the rise in the state.

Health officials stressed the numbers still are preliminary, but it appears the number of cases from Jan. 1 through the end of April this year, compared to last, is up by 57 percent. This year through the end of April officials said there had been 239 cases statewide.

Given the fact that vaccines are available for children to prevent chickenpox, or at least minimize its effects, we find the number very concerning. Worse, health officials went on to say that in most every instance, the chickenpox case was to a child who had not been vaccinated.

Parents of children need to understand that chickenpox can be very serious to a young child. Depending on how severe the outbreak is, it could require hospitalization of the child and cause serious side effects and health complications for children.

We understand that some parents do not believe in vaccinations and are not having their children inoculated.

However, when statistics start showing an increase again in diseases that were all but eliminated decades ago because of vaccinations, it is cause for worry.

We would urge parents who have resisted vaccinating their children to at least reconsider their decision in light of this new information.___

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