- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

The Detroit News. January 5, 2017

State can’t shrink pension reform

Flint is facing another crisis - but this one doesn’t involve its drinking water. The city’s pension system is severely underfunded and getting worse, and that leaves the future viability of the city uncertain, no matter what happens with its water lines.

Flint’s defined benefit pension fund has just 38 percent of the money it needs to pay promised benefits to future retirees. The fund has an unfunded liability of $345 million, which is up $60 million from last year, according to Flint’s 2016 audit report.

If the shortfall is not addressed soon, and in a sustainable way, Flint will face additional cuts in government services, something it has already been doing for nearly a decade. Since 2008, Flint has lost roughly 160 police officers and 50 water maintenance employees, part of a reduction that has seen its workforce fall to 470 employees from 1,156 in just eight years.

The basic problem is that promised benefits can’t be met with current municipal revenues, unless there are drastic changes to retirement packages. The state Legislature tried and failed to make those changes in last year’s lame-duck session. It must try again.

Defined benefit pensions, which are most common at the local government level, guarantee a specific amount of income after retirement and requires the government to save money to make those future payments.

An unfunded liability occurs when the government is not saving enough.

Sometimes the communities divert money to today’s spending needs. And sometimes they simply err in estimating life expectancy, the rate of return on investment and payroll growth.

The problem goes beyond Flint. Only a handful of Michigan’s cities and counties have adequately saved for their employees’ retirement benefits, according to a study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Just 20 of Michigan’s 100 largest cities have enough money to meet pension obligations. Of Michigan’s 83 counties, two are fully funded - Bay and Kalamazoo.

The statewide pension system has big problems, too. The Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System has the largest unfunded liability in the state at $26.7 billion. MPSERS has not met its “annual required contribution” since 2009.

When the contributions are not fully paid, unfunded liabilities grow at a faster rate. In 2010, MPSERS’ required annual contribution was $1 billion. After 5 years of failing to save enough, the requirement is now more than $2.2 billion. The reason: Money is now going directly from the paychecks of current employees to pay for benefits of today’s retiring, instead of being invested in an interest-bearing fund that will grow to pay future pensions.

Today, only about 10 percent of money that Michigan teachers contribute is being invested for them.

The first solution is to force governments to pay required contributions. This will be tough for many struggling communities. But if they don’t pay now, they’ll have to pay much more later, or face insolvency.

The second step is to close pensions to new hires. A system that can’t support its current obligations should not be adding more.

The Legislature should pass a bill that puts all newly hired public employees into 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plans. These are private accounts that can’t accumulate unfunded liabilities.

These are reforms that can’t be avoided. If steps aren’t taken now, Flint and other financially strapped communities will be out of business.


Lansing State Journal. January 5, 2017

Gateway station an asset, but keep parking fees reasonable

The development of an old shack and gravel parking lot into the Capital Area Multimodal Gateway is a step forward for the City of East Lansing and the region.

While critics lament the loss of free parking - the lot now costs $10 per day or $50 per week - proponents point to the benefits of easier travel in and out of the region.

The gateway station connects local Capital Area Transportation Authority bus routes 20, 35 and 39 to regional bus service - including Greyhound and Indian Trails buses - as well as daily Amtrak train service. Other features include canopied drop off and pickup, temperature-controlled waiting areas and concessions.

And there are 150 new pay-by-plate spaces in a well-lit lot where the old shack was razed and the free gravel parking lot was paved over. It is reasonable to have fees for these parking spaces, provided fees are reasonable.

Putnam: Taking Amtrak from East Lansing? Parking will cost you

The transportation hub’s proximity to Michigan State University’s campus creates a particular concern because parking on and near campus always is at a premium. Fees at the station lot will serve to deter students and visitors from parking and walking to campus.

That makes sense. People are willing to pay for the convenience of parking. The number of spaces tripled from the previous parking lot.

However, the East Lansing station now has the most expensive parking on Amtrak’s Blue Water line.

CATA’s spokeswoman has said the fee is on par with other parking fees in the area, including East Lansing lots and MSU campus parking.

Again, that makes sense. Unless it deters people from using the gateway station for train and bus service.

CATA should take the pulse of its ridership and seek alternatives to the current fees. Perhaps a voucher system could be established that provides discounted parking for passengers with train and regional bus tickets.

Putnam: Passengers give slippery seats at new Gateway station thumbs down

Travelers should take note of CATA’s vast network of bus routes throughout the region - many with free parking at various points along the way. There are also many options for getting to the gateway station, even for those who don’t own a car.

The gateway station is a huge improvement from its predecessor and promises easier travel to various regional destinations, including Chicago. It is an asset for a community that consistently is working to improve its transportation connectivity.


Times Herald (Port Huron). January 5, 2017

New speeds will require all of us to drive better

After they narrowly passing the Legislature in December, Gov. Rick Snyder has signed the bills to raise speed limits on certain Michigan highways. His spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press that the governor’s office wanted to review which roadways would be affected before deciding whether to sign it.

The law will raise the speed limit on at least 600 miles of rural limited access freeway would to 75 mph and the speed limit on 900 miles of trunk line highway to 65 mph. Authorities would be required to complete speed studies on affected highways before speed limits could be changed.

The bills also include provisions that could lower speed limits on certain rural, gravel roads and in school zones when local officials request them.

We regret that Snyder signed the bills. We don’t believe raising speed limits on freeways or on state trunk highways will promote anything except more death and destruction.

Reversing decades of declining deaths and injuries on our highways, Michigan has had an uptick in driving fatalities the past couple of years. Raising speed limits can only accelerate that tragic trend. Certainly, speeds are not the only issue behind the increased mortality. But combining higher speeds with our other failings as drivers - texting and other distractions, aggressive and inconsiderate behaviors, disregard for the law - can only make things worse.

Police issued another warning this week, though, that dangerous speeds and risky behaviors will not be tolerated. The Livingston County Sheriff Department expects to charge the driver who caused the fatal 53-car pileup on I-96 in December with reckless driving or a moving violation causing death.

The moving violation deputies say he committed is violating Michigan’s basic speed law. The law requires motorists to drive at a careful and prudent speed that allows them to maintain control and stop safely in all driving conditions. The I-96 driver went too fast in icy, snowy conditions, lost control and killed three people.

Likewise, Michigan State Police troopers surprise motorists winched out of roadside snow banks with speeding tickets to complement their towing bills - because they wouldn’t have ended up there if they had been driving at a careful and prudent speed.


Petoskey News-Review. January 5, 2017

Online commenters blend fact with fiction

There’s a section in the nearly 600-page 2016 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook - a journalist’s bible to all things writing and reporting - that warns against mistaking the internet for an encyclopedia.

The excerpt reads:

“The internet is a sprawling information repository. Anything you find should be assessed and vetted with the same care that you use for everything else … Be especially careful about websites and social networks that allow anyone to contribute text, photos and other information.”

We encourage - better yet, challenge - you to employ the same pause in thinking in your daily life.

In the world of social media and online commenting, fiction and fact are often blended, generating a fast-moving flow of news that works like the age-old game of “telephone” on a much larger level.

In news stories, we do our best to deal in facts by verifying information with highly reliable sources. If it doesn’t come on the record from a trusted source, it isn’t reported. In crime, there are police and prosecutors who provide information. There are arrests and charges filed. Court documents are public record and citable forms of information. In government, there are city officials, public documents and meetings from which we routinely generate stories.

Often we report on fluid situations where the story changes or develops on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis. As we confirm information in those cases, we report it. We post these stories to our website and then share them to social media to get the confirmed information out.

In recent weeks, though, we’ve been troubled by the unconfirmed and even wild accusations that have made it back to us in the form of online comments to these stories.

For example, a 31-year-old Petoskey man was arrested last month and charged with felony assault with a dangerous weapon as police and prosecutors allege he sprayed a fire extinguisher at a Boyne Highlands security guard who was trying to evacuate people from the resort’s main lodge after a fire broke out on the third floor.

Those are the latest facts in what is most certainly an ongoing story. But the immediacy of today’s internet society demands information faster and when it’s not available or unconfirmed, commenters draw conclusions or report hearsay as though it is certain.

In the instance of the Boyne Highlands fire, claims are being made that are not tied to known facts in the case. Local authorities are awaiting the findings of a Michigan State Police investigation, which is expected sometime soon.

There is no information in court documents that ties the man who has been arrested to the fire. Authorities say he and the security guard were in a hallway when the alleged act occurred, but we don’t know other key facts like if that hallway was even on the same floor as where the fire started.

Along those same lines, in Charlevoix there have been two devastating fires a block apart in the downtown area over the last two months. To date, there is no evidence either fire was intentionally set, nor is there anything linking them. Yet if you head to social media, commenters are not shy to suggest a conspiracy.

Within hours of posting our story on the second fire, which occurred Christmas Eve, there were social media posts alleging a serial arsonist was on the loose in Charlevoix, while others remarked the fires were suspicious and something nefarious was going on in the community.

Our point is these often baseless claims are harmful. They are so often not factual and yet are spread to others by those who read them as in a game of “telephone.” By the end of the line, who knows what’s true and what’s not?

In a time where nearly everyone has a social media voice, it’s up to you what kind of information you want to spread. And to those reading social media for updates, please heed the Associated Press’ advice.


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