Local governments seek help to regain big box tax revenue

By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Local governments continue to fight recent changes in valuing commercial properties that they say have cost them $100 million in lost tax revenue since 2013.

The problem, according to local officials and some lawmakers, is that the state’s Tax Tribunal is using methods to assess “big-box” retailers like Target and Menard’s based on sales of similar, vacant properties, often called “dark stores,” whose true value is not reflected.

That’s a shift from evaluating a store’s tax value based on more complete factors such as the cost of constructing the building and the amount of income it generates. Now, big retailers are appealing assessments and winning big tax breaks across the state.

Rep. David Maturen, R-Vicksburg, and dozens of co-sponsors are again pushing to solve the issue by insisting that the tribunal take more information into account when reviewing assessment appeals for any commercial property. Continue reading

Local governments applaud Legislature’s proposed revenue-sharing boost

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Proposed increases to Gov. Rick Snyder’s recommended budget for revenue sharing marks a welcome shift for cities, villages, townships and counties, which say they have not seen this part of their funding change for years despite great need for additional money.

Despite numerous cuts elsewhere to Snyder’s budget, Republicans in the House and Senate want the numbers for revenue sharing to local governments to be higher. They have proposed increases in the overall revenue-sharing budget of 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, which has been met with praise from Michigan associations of local government units.

The revenue sharing program takes a portion of sales tax revenues collected by the Treasury and distributes those funds to local governments. The sales tax currently stands at 6 percent. Continue reading

Efforts lag to help mentally ill prisoners

By ISAAC CONSTANS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite recent efforts, treatment of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons is still inadequate, experts agree.

Up to 64 percent of inmates in Michigan jails have a mental illness, according to an August 2014 report from the office of Gov. Rick Snyder. In Michigan prisons, the figure hovers just above 20 percent.

Stepping Up, a 2-year-old program launched by the National Association of Counties, aims to reduce the number of those with mental illnesses in jails across the state. By closely monitoring the status and collecting data on those with mental illnesses, the program aims to link various groups to solve the issue.

Despite the endorsement of the Michigan Association of Counties, the situation is still bleak. Continue reading

It’s time to prioritize Michigan roads, transportation chair says

By LAURA BOHANNON

Capital News Service

LANSING — In light of a recent study detailing Michigan’s road needs, some legislators say they’re hoping to see roads become a bigger priority for the state.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, said transportation is his main focus, and roads are a major issue.

“The two things that my constituents bring up the most are insurance and roads,” Cole said.

A recent study by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group, concluded that Michigan’s roads require more than the increased funding they’re getting, or else they may deteriorate further. Continue reading

Education nominee Betsy DeVos gets Michigan educators talking

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan lobbyist and business executive Betsy DeVos’ nomination as U.S. secretary of education has been met with criticism from Michigan educators and public school advocates who have been sparring with DeVos for decades.

But some educators who have worked in Michigan charter schools, for which DeVos has been an aggressive advocate, argue that school competition has helped the state.

Those who have been pushing back against the billionaire GOP donor’s influence on state politics and legislation, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA), say that DeVos’s persistent advocacy for charter schools could prove detrimental to public schooling across the country if her nomination is confirmed.

“There has never been in [DeVos’s] history – and you only have to look at her history here in Michigan – much concern at all about the public schools,” said union President Steven Cook. Continue reading

Michigan among states forced to deliver the most with the least

By BRIDGET BUSH

Capital News Service

LANSING– Michigan is one of 18 states required to provide the most state-mandated services with the least state funds, according to a recent national report.

Michigan local governments are among the most economically burdened nationwide.

Only Georgia and Montana didn’t feel similar budget pinches in 2016, according to the report by the National Association of Counties.

“It’s important that people realize this is a problem all over — not just in our state,” said Michael Selden, director of member information services for the Michigan Townships Association. “Citizens want more and more, but local units have less and less.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where the problem began, Selden said. Since the recession began in 2008, tax revenues decreased, and legislators reacted by reducing state revenue sharing. Continue reading

Local officials wary of new energy plan

By RAY WILBUR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Some rural officials are concerned that a recent package of energy bills will encourage yet more wind turbines to be built in their communities, leaving residents to bear the physical burden they pose.      

The main thrust of the two-bill package is to increase renewable energy to 15 percent by 2021, attempting to wean the state off harmful coal fire pollution. It is sponsored by Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.

The state successfully reached its previous goal of 10 percent last year.

“The 15 percent mandate would require double the wind turbines, but developers can’t get them built anywhere,” said Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, a Michigan-based group that raises awareness of the negative impacts of wind projects.

“The only people who aren’t being heard are the people living in the projects’ footprints,” he said Continue reading

County government upheaval likely

By KAREN HOPPER USHER

Capital News Service

LANSING — A lot of new faces will be in county boardrooms come January.

More than 130 county commissioner seats statewide will be filled by people new to their jobs — a 21 percent turnover rate, according to the Michigan Association of Counties.

And that’s just because of the August primary.

In the November general election, 145 more seats remain in contention. If all of them get new commissioners, that would be a turnover rate of 44 percent, said John Amrhein, a public policy educator at Michigan State University Extension. That’s something he’s never seen in 20 years of public policy work.

But it’s a tough year to call.

“We have such unusual things going on at the top of the ticket,” Amrhein said.

If the turnover is that great, a lot of new officials will have to learn to govern quickly.

Commissioner Conor Egan, R-Drummond Island, who was a new  commissioner in Chippewa County in 2014, remembers his first day when he had to start making appointments. Continue reading

Police recruiting not a problem in U.P., but retention a statewide issue

By BRIDGET BUSH

Capital News Service

LANSING—While the state’s Upper Peninsula can attract new police recruits, its Lower Peninsula has challenges attracting qualified officers, experts say.

The number of police officers is at an all-time low in Michigan, said Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police.

“I’ve got departments in lower Michigan that have 10 openings and five applicants,” he said.

The reason is low pay and no retirement benefits, Timpner said. “What the public doesn’t realize is that 70-some percent of officers aren’t eligible for Social Security.

“People are going out of state because why would anyone risk their lives for $13 to $14 an hour after a college education?” Timpner said. Continue reading