Regulations threaten services for disabled, nonprofits say

By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service

LANSING — Facilities employing and training people with disabilities face increased regulations that will decrease the amount of help they can provide, nonprofit program experts say.

Federal regulations intending to provide disabled residents with more community integrated programs for employment education have vocational rehabilitation facilities worrying that changes may mean less choice for participants.

Vocational rehabilitation facilities around Michigan specialize in working with people  with physical and mental disabilities. The goal is to enable them to find employment. Services include socialization skills, resume building, career planning, transportation assistance and job placement.

The U.S. Census Bureau says 75 percent of the 552,000 persons living with a cognitive disability in Michigan are unemployed. The poverty rate for Michigan residents with disabilities is 28 percent.

Federal law requires vocational rehabilitation facilities to provide more opportunities for work experience in community settings. The intent is to ensure that facilities don’t  isolate participants from the broader population in what are referred to as sheltered workshops.

North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center, a nonprofit manufacturing facility in Alpena, employs around a hundred individuals with disabilities, said David Szydlowski, its chief executive officer.

Employees are trained on site by job coaches and receive training to operate forklifts, pay loaders and industrial saws. The program also contracts out employees to provide custodial services to local businesses.

Szydlowski said the problem is the Michigan Department of Community Health’s interpretation of federal law. If the program gets a contract for a local cement plant for two people to move tables, or to paint a room, it cannot assign two disabled individuals to be on that job together.

“In order to comply to the regulations, I’ll have to take away those jobs for disabled workers,” Szydlowski said.

Determination of compliance can vary by local health departments, he said.

“There are community rehab programs across the state and across the nation that are saying that this isn’t an issue and those two people can continue to work together because they are working in the community for a local business,” Szydlowski said.

Todd Culver, the chief executive officer for the Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Organizations, said, “If these rules and regulations are implemented in a way that is not fair to the individuals receiving services, then it can impact the quality of their life.”  

According to Culver, Health and Human Services developed a test for a thousand different environmental settings that facilities may operate in and is determining which ones qualify for Medicaid funding.

“We’re right in the middle of going through that data,” he said

According to Culver, if a program fails the test, there’s an opportunity to follow a corrective action plan.

Rehabilitation facilities argue that the law shouldn’t restrict a participant’s choice in where to go for services.

Another facility which was cited for non-compliance is Grand Traverse Industries in Traverse City. It’s now following a corrective action plan.

“This is a regulatory nightmare,” said Steve Perdue, the facility’s president.

“We’re working through the Home and Community Based Services waiver with our Northern Michigan entity and thus far are optimistic that we are in compliance,” Perdue said. “They’ve gotten back to us on certain issues and we made changes that we believe will have us in compliance.”

The nonprofit’s annual report said 31 percent of its services were conducted outside of its main facility.

More counselors suggested by schools plagued by threats

By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan schools are experiencing increased threats of violence in the months following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when 19 students were killed.

The number of threats or acts of violence in schools is three times higher across the nation since February, according to the Educators School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks media reports of violence. It regularly reports Michigan as being in the top 10 in the nation for such incidents.

Two shootings have occurred at Michigan schools since 2016.

In Northern Michigan, police have investigated three potential threats at Traverse City West High School and one at Petoskey High School since mid-February.

Two cases concerned friends who responded to a threat made by a classmate. None of the instances was found to be a credible threat of violence.

“I don’t think the hypersensitivity to threats is a bad thing right now,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff.

“At the root cause of this are students who really need help,” Pratt said. “We need to be able to provide the holistic education for a kid, and that includes taking care of their mental wellbeing.”

In 2015, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District developed a crisis response team of two social workers and nine psychologists to address the needs that its school often face.

“The crisis team offers training for all the local school districts and academies,” said Carol Greilick, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education.

“Trauma and crisis are in the eyes of the beholder,” Greilick said. “It may be a relatively simple thing, such as a student losing a family member, or it could be a school district losing a student or teacher.”

In response to the sudden death of a teacher last year, the crisis team provided  assistance.

“The team worked with administrators in both districts to plan a response,” Greilick said. “They set up counseling rooms, planned the script for informing students and worked step by step through the response anticipating student needs, family needs and staff needs.”

Addressing student concerns is more difficult with less staff, said Tamara Kolodziej, a guidance counselor at Petoskey High School.

The average ratio for K-12 schools in the U.S. is 482 students per counselor. In Michigan, which has seen a 25 percent decrease in school counselors since 2005, the ratio is 729 students for each counselor.

In response to concerns about school safety and student welfare, the Senate is considering a bill that would allocate an additional $50 million towards hiring more guidance counselors, social workers and armed resource officers.

“Here at Petoskey we have two counselors for a thousand students,” Kolodziej said. “We’re lucky because they’re going to be hiring another counselor next year. We’ve been down to two counselors for the last seven years.”

Guidance counselors are responsible for “data maintenance, scheduling classes, transcripts, communicating with parents and staff —  it’s a lot for two people,” she said.

“Our biggest job is organizing testing,” said Kolodziej.

Those obligations mean that counselors get less face time with students. “We each generally see 10 to 12 students in our office a day,” Kolodziej said.

Kolodziej emphasized the difference between a guidance counselor and a licensed therapist.

Petoskey High School has a licensed therapist practicing on site. Therapy isn’t free but having one on site provides easier access for students seeking mental health services.

Addressing student mental health needs will take adjustments on the part of schools.

“We need to arm educators with smaller class sizes, more counselors and better security measures,” the MEA’s Pratt said.

Students are well aware that the potential for violence exists, Pratt said. “Even at a young age, you have elementary schools going through lockdown drills.”

Teachers and counsellors are not the only ones who should be responsible for students’ welfare, he said. The whole school system is responsible.

“A classroom teacher’s job is to help every student learn the material,” Pratt said.

“We can’t ask educators to do everything,” Pratt said. “They need to be able to assess the situations, but they also need the resources to follow up.”

More alternatives needed for criminal suspects with mental health problems, advocates say

BY COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — As more communities in Michigan join the fight for jail diversion programs for inmates with special needs, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said he hopes it will soon become a mainstream program.

The Snyder administration created a diversion program to reduce the number of people with  special needs entering Michigan’s corrections system.

“It was informal in the beginning, and then we formalized it part way through our first term,” Calley said. “I served as a chair of the diversion council, and its mental health diversion. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The program works with pilot committees from counties across the state that want mental health-related changes in corrections facilities

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach,” Calley said. “So a person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they’re found guilty, they go to jail or go to prison.

“But if a person committed a crime because they have a mental illness that was untreated, I think the criminal justice response needs to be different. It has to include evaluation of what the root cause of the problem was and treat them. That still might some include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” he said.

Now five years after establishment of the initiative, Calley said he hopes diversion programs will become more mainstream.  

“Right now, it’s in about a dozen communities in the state — trying to prove out the concepts that treating mental illness is better than throwing people in jail who have mental illness,” he said. “It has the same potential that treating addiction has.”

Rich Thiemkey, the chief executive officer of the Barry County Community Mental Health Authority, one of the agencies that maintain a diversion program, foresees diversion programs increasing.

But he said changes to funding and stigmas are needed to further help those with mental illnesses.

“Number one is just stigma, or how people view people with a mental illness,” he said. “And then the second part would be funding of individuals that are in the jail.”

With funding an issue, his agency is constantly looking for grants to help fund the treatment of mental health patients.

One such grant enables the agency to screen individuals for substance abuse and mental health disorders, he said. Some receive services in the jail and some who are diverted will be treated at the agency’s facility.

Thiemkey said that’s called “post-booking because the diversions happen after they walk into the jail. So what we’re trying to focus on this upcoming year is pre-booking.”

Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is one of the biggest diversion programs in the state.

“We have a strict definition of diversion, which is when a mental health worker intervenes, usually with a judge, to come to an alternative disposition, which usually means a bond reduction,” said Robert Butkiewicz, the supervisor of programs at the agency. “Sometimes that means sending someone to a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes it is coordinating care with an adult foster care provider so the person can be safe.”

According to Butkiewicz, people can be eligible for these diversion programs if they are being charged with a misdemeanor.

“When we talk about mental health diversion, we have to separate that from legal diversion,” he said. “Mental health diversion relates to alternatives to incarceration. A legal diversion relates to alternatives to criminal prosecution.

Butkiewicz said the diversion system needs improvements.

For example, he said laws “should be more focused on treatment. If you’re poor and are roped in the legal system, you can hardly pay next month’s rent. You have a $25 oversight fee. You have a $300 legal fee. You have a $100 this and that. And for those who are really poor, you get locked in.”

 

Young people are struggling with homelessness, studies find

LANSING — Schoolchildren and youths in Michigan are struggling with homelessness at high rates, new studies show.

Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan initiative dedicated to prevention and alleviation of poverty, found Michigan among the states with the largest number of homeless youths — more than 36,000 children in elementary, middle and high schools facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

This report was confirmed by the 2018 Kids Count report– a study by the Michigan League for Public Policy that analyzes and evaluates the wellbeing of children in the state. It  found that in 2016, 444,100 children lived in poverty.

The report ranked 82 of the 83 counties for overall child wellbeing. The top five counties are Livingston, Ottawa, Clinton and Oakland. The bottom five counties are Lake, Clare, Muskegon, Calhoun and Oceana.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Kids Count shows a 23 percent improvement in children homelessness rates. However, more than one in five Michigan children lived in poverty in 2016.

“It’s not a great improvement but it is some improvement. More than one in five children living in poverty really has huge implications on education and health and other indicators of well-being for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count director.

Despite the slight improvement and the lowest unemployment levels in decades, the Kids Count report said jobs are paying significantly low wages that don’t  keep up with growing inflation rates, causing income levels to remain below pre-recession levels.

According to  U-M’s Poverty Solutions analysis, dropout rates for homeless students are increasing and homeless high school students are particularly vulnerable.

Some areas in the state are affected more than others. In West Michigan, for example, counties like Oceana, Muskegon and Mason have the highest rates of homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington-based nonprofit organization operating in a number of West Michigan counties, said its Oceana County agency is experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other counties in the area.

“I was not surprised by the high number in Oceana County. There is a real lack of housing in Oceana County and the poverty level is pretty high,” said Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of Staircase Youth Services.

The organization works with high school students and youths between the ages of 12 and 21.

“We have a host home program where we place youth that are homeless in a host home within the county so that they can stay in school,” Arneson said.

Participants can stay in the program for up to 18 months while receiving support by the staff.

Poverty Solutions created a map that shows the percent and number of students experiencing homelessness in each Michigan school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness.

During the 2015-16 school year, Michigan ranked sixth among states with the most homeless students, after California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Though homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural and urban areas, the highest rates are among students in the smallest school districts, the U-M report said.

Guevara Warren of the League for Public Policy said workforce development and the types of jobs available locally are a big piece of economic security and poverty.

“We still have in this state over 30 percent of children whose families lack full-time permanent work. You see a lot of families who are either working at low wage jobs or are trying to piece together several part-time or seasonal jobs,” she said.

Arneson said that in Oceana County, even if people are employed, the level and amount of income they earn is insufficient for the local housing market.

“So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties,” she said.

To address the issue of poverty, Guevara Warren says one way to improve economic security for children is to take a generation approach, which ensures that children, parents and caregivers all receive help and support at the same time.

As an example, she said the state has started investing  to improve the child care system, particularly concerning eligibility requirements.

“We have improved that slightly but we’re still really towards the bottom when it comes to child care eligibility in the country,” Guevara Warren said.

She said the state has also improved provider reimbursement rates through child care subsidies but still tends to be at the bottom when it comes to reimbursement to providers.

Michigan reversing prison population boom of ‘90s

By GLORIA NZEKA
Capital News Service

LANSING — Following the closing of some correctional facilities in recent years, the size of Michigan’s prison population is at its lowest in two decades.

Criminal justice experts, however say, there’s still more to be done.

John Cooper, the policy director for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a nonprofit public policy organization, said the Department of Corrections’ current recidivism rate of 28 percent isn’t a good measurement of what’s going on in the criminal justice system.

“To have 28 percent of people who got out of prison return still is a very high rate,” Cooper said. “We don’t want anybody to be going back to prison.”

Earlier this year, the department reported that the prison population is below 40,000 for the first time since 1992.

Cooper said there are a number of reasons for that development, including low crime rates, fewer people going to prison and high parole rates.

However, there’s a need for improvement.

“Michigan has a very punitive system,” Cooper said, adding that the state has the longest average length of imprisonment in the country, with an average minimum sentence of  almost 10 years.

“About 13 percent of the prison population in Michigan will never be released because they are serving life sentences,” Cooper said.

A recent law sponsored by Sen. Steven Bieda D-Warren, eliminates the requirement that repeat drug offenders get an increased sentence, up to life in prison without parole. Instead, prisoners would be eligible for parole after serving five years of their sentence.

When it comes to offenders with mental illness, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the justice response needs to be different.

“Our system in the past has been a one-size-fits-all approach. A person has a negative interaction with the law, they go through the system. If they are found guilty of a crime, they go to jail or prison,” Calley said.

If a person commits a crime because of an untreated mental illness that might include developmental disabilities, addiction or anything that changes the way that the brain works, the justice system response should include evaluation and treatment, he said.

“That still might include some jail or prison, but maybe it doesn’t have to,” Calley said.

 

He heads the Snyder administration’s mental health diversion council that works with sheriffs, prosecutors and judges on programs intended to provide treatment rather than jail for arrestees with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Cooper, of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, said Michigan doesn’t have  a compassionate release policy for medical parole.

“Many aging prisoners and sick people are not allowed to be released to medical facilities that are more appropriate,” he said. “These are very old and sick people who are no longer a threat to society.”

A set of bills pending in the Legislature would create a compassionate release policy. The bipartisan package is sponsored by a number of representatives including David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, and  Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg.

In terms of re-entry into the community, Cooper said it’s hard to get a job with a criminal record. The unemployment rate for people with a criminal record is 67 percent.

“There are legal barriers to getting employment for people who have been formerly incarcerated. Many employers do not want to hire someone who has a criminal record,” he said.

And at the same time, it’s hard to find housing. “Private landlords can decide to not rent their property, and there are also limitations on the availability of certain government assistance if you’ve got a criminal record,” Cooper said.

The underlying problem is that most people who go to prison don’t have any work history or a high school diploma, he said. If they don’t get an education and/or job skills while they are in prison, it’s going to be hard for them to get a job when they get out.

“The department understands this and is trying to do the best it can,” Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has created jobs and trade skills training programs and so far, these programs are producing good results, according to reports on the department’s website.

Calley, the lieutenant governor, said that when the criminal justice system started treating addiction, it had a profound impact, and mental diversion programs have the same potential that treating addiction had in improving recidivism outcomes.

“Throwing people in jail does not treat addiction, does not cure addiction. It’s not a willpower issue, it’s a health care issue,” he said. “If we start treating mental health effectively and connect people to gainful employment at the same time, recidivism rates will go even lower.”

Plan to coordinate roadwork expected soon

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — A pilot program looking for better ways to coordinate the repair, maintenance and replacement of Michigan’s roads and other infrastructure is finishing its recommendations this month.

The recommendations will address ways to implement the program statewide, improving efficiency and saving money. Under the “integrated asset management” concept, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said the state expects all private and public entities involved in public infrastructure to work together to handle projects more efficiently.

For example, Calley said, consider a hypothetical road being repaved in front of the Capitol. Under integrated asset management, all necessary improvements such as water, sewer, cable lines and sidewalks would be coordinated so road is torn up only once.

“It’s the same concept as if you’re having your driveway repaved at the same time that they’re repaving the road in front of your house. It would be a lot cheaper because the equipment and materials are already there,” Calley said. “We think there can be substantial savings.”

Therese Empie, a strategy advisor for Gov. Rick Snyder, staffed the governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. It looked across the state to figure out what Michigan needs to do to have a world-class modern infrastructure in the next 30-50 years.

“Currently, infrastructure in Michigan exists in silos,” Snyder’s executive directive reads. “There are 700 separate road and drain agencies; 79 transit agencies; 1,390 drinking water systems; 1,080 wastewater systems; 116 electric utilities; 10 natural gas utilities and 43 broadband providers.”

The pilot program, which started in 2017, grew out of a commission recommendation, Empie said. Empie said Michigan is the first state to undertake a program like this.

The long-term goal is for asset management to result in coordination and cost efficiencies for public and private utilities, Empie said.

The pilot program includes 153 participating governmental units in two of the state’s regions, Empie said. The West Michigan region covers 13 counties, including Ionia, Lake, Mecosta, Mason, Oceana, Montcalm, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, and the Southeast Michigan region covering Metro Detroit participated.

“We had communities as small as a few hundred people participating, to large communities like Grand Rapids,” Empie said.

The pilot program’s recommendations are due to Snyder by the end of the month, Empie said, and the pilot’s final report will be released to the public on May 4.

A bill introduced by Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker to create a Michigan Infrastructure Council to oversee implementation of a statewide asset management system has passed the House, Empie said, and has been sent to the Senate Transportation Committee.

“It’s a lot of exciting work, and we can do it,” Empie said. “It’ll take a little bit of time, but we have a lot of passionate people here who are very knowledgeable throughout the state and at every level of government that are definitely gonna work to get it done.”

Note: Article correct April 23, 2018, to show that Empie staffed  the governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission but wasn’t a member of the commission.

More test scores put Michigan students in bottom half

By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan lags behind most of the country when it comes to the biennial standardized test given to select fourth- and eighth-grade students, according to a new National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

The report shows that Michigan students in those grades made miniscule improvements from 2015 to 2017 in math and reading on the NAEP test.

And the overall picture is not good: Michigan ranked 38th in fourth-grade math, 33rd in eighth-grade math, 35th in fourth-grade reading and 30th in eighth-grade reading.

In specific scores, in 2017, Michigan fourth-graders averaged 236 on the math portion of the assessment, which was unchanged from 2015 and four points lower than the national average.

Average math scores of eighth-graders increased slightly from 278 in 2015 to 280 in 2017.

Fourth-graders averaged 218 in reading, a two-point increase from two years prior. Eighth-graders improved by a one point in reading, the only score close to the national average.

“We haven’t changed,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an assistant professor of educational leadership and educational studies at Wayne State University. “What that told me was we’re not improving those numbers we saw declining over the years.

“Our scores are stable, which is better than declining, but while Michigan has remained stable, other states are improving their numbers,” she said. “This makes me concerned. We’re being left behind.”

Despite the marginal improvement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston said he wants to make Michigan a top-10 education state in 10 years.

“It is important that we keep working with intermediate school districts and local school districts to provide support and assistance to help all of their students achieve at higher levels,” he said.

“We keep moving forward on our goal to be a top-10 education state in 10 years and know that the early work we’re putting into motion will pay positive dividends in the very near future,” Whiston said.

Part of that plan, said William DiSessa, a communications officer in the Department of Education, is to focus on the “whole child” to improve student achievement and to make students college- and career-ready by increasing their pathways to success.

“As we implement the plan’s various strategies, we anticipate further academic improvements for students in our K-12 public schools,” he said.

While state education officials say the plan will work, Lenhoff said she isn’t sure.

“I don’t want to say it’s not possible,” she said. But it will require “serious change” from the  Legislature, governor and Department of Education.

“There needs to be adequate resources put forth to fix this,” she said. “Currently, they’re not doing everything they can do to improve the schools.”

Zoos hoping to breed large animals again

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan zoos would again be allowed to breed large carnivores such as tigers and bears under a recently introduced bill.

Since 2000, zoos must take their large carnivores, including lions, leopards, cougars, jaguars, panthers and cheetahs, to states that allow breeding.

The law now prevents animals from mating as they would in nature, said Peter D’Arienzo, the chief executive officer of the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, citing an unintentional drafting error in the 2000 law.

The zoo has already had to move two male breeding-age Amur tigers to facilities in Wisconsin and South Dakota to breed because of the error in the current state law, he said.

D’Arienzo said the bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, would  provide a regulatory framework that will require all Michigan zoos to maintain high standards, meet specific breeding criteria and help zoos preserve endangered specifies for future generations.

“Conservation breeding programs are a key part of ensuring the preservation of endangered species and large carnivores, including tigers, bears and lions,” he said.

Valid reasons exist for the prohibition, said James Averill, the director of the Animal Industry Division at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

There were issues with large carnivores being owned by people as pets and having issues where they would get away from their owner and killed people,” Averill said.  

Under the bill, an applicant for a license from the department would need to meet specific requirements, including being an organization focused on showing animals for education or exhibition purposes.

The Detroit Zoo, one of the five American Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos in the state, argues that the bill would put too much responsibility on the state for oversight, which was being handled appropriately by the AZA, according to a statement on the zoo’s website.

Matt Blakely, the director of policy and legislative affairs at Agriculture and Rural Development, said the proposed license is a way that qualified institutions could breed large carnivores in the state.

It does add responsibility to the state, he said, but “I would not say that’s too much responsibility.”

Blakely said the department and Gov. Rick Snyder have no position on the bill. He said allowing breeding can be good for conservation of endangered species.

The bill wouldn’t have any impact on wild animals, said Sarah Cummins, the legislative and regulatory specialist at the Wildlife Division of the Department of Natural Resources.

In current times, we do not allow people to, for example, catch a deer in Michigan and put it in the zoo,” she said. “Any animals that are game animals, or are threatened to endangered, they would not be able to capture them in the wild and put them in the zoo.

But there might be a case where a seriously injured endangered or threatened animal could end up in a zoo permanently for educational purposes, Cummins said.

Averill, of Agriculture and Rural Development, said he doesn’t think the bill would have any impact on animal health.

“From my conservation standpoint, my hope is it will help encourage genetic diversity,” he said.

The bill is now in the House Agriculture Committee.

Boating is up, and so are accidents

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Are Michigan waters getting less safe for boaters, with or without motors?

The number of recreational boating accidents in the state increased from 92 in 2013 to 125 in 2016, and deaths increased from 21 in 2012 to 38 in 2016, according to the latest report from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Accidents are happening on inland waters and on the Great Lakes. Last year, for example, on July 22, a 45-year-old woman was critically injured after a boat crash near Grand Haven.

On Aug. 6, a 23-year-old woman died from injuries caused by being thrown from a tube into another boat on Sand Lake in Clare County.

And on Sept. 17, a 23-year-old Holland man died in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Michigan.

One factor in the rising accident toll is the increasing popularity of paddle sports  — participation is up about 7 percent annually, experts say.

Over the last five years,  the number of powered vessels and paddle craft has grown steadily, said Dennis Nickels of Grand Haven, the chair of the state’s Waterways Commission.

There are more than 600,000 paddle sport vessels in the state, according to the Coast Guard.

“In three years, the number of paddle crafts in Michigan water will exceed the number of powered vessels,” Nickels said.

As a paddling enthusiast for over 40 years, Nickels said he’s  “extremely excited about promoting the paddle sports in Michigan, but we’ve got to find a way to keep them safe.”

July and August are the heaviest boating months, said Jeff Pendergraff, Crawford County’s undersheriff in charge of the Marine Division.

To make sure of boaters’ safety, the Marine Division strengthens its workforce from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Pendergraff said. “Some officers retired from other places, and they come and work here [for the Marine Division] in the summer to do marine enforcement.”

“Generally, there was an accident and alcohol was involved,” he said, adding that many people aren’t aware they cannot operate a boat well while drinking.

The general things that Crawford County’s Marine Division looks into include whether boaters wear life jackets, checking that they’re not drinking too much and making sure jet skis don’t get too close to swim areas, boats and anchors, Pendergraff said.

Chris Dekker, the chair of West Michigan Offshore, said that to improve boating safety, the Hudsonville-based powerboat club provides members with safety videos and a code of conduct to educate and regulate boaters’ behaviors.

The big factors that cause boating accidents are excess speed and alcohol, Dekker said. “Just staying on the basics and having a healthy fear of what can happen on the water is the key.”

Pothole claims? Fuhgeddaboutit

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service


LANSING — State agencies rarely reimburse drivers for pothole damages, a fact that rings true for drivers seeking reimbursement from county governments as well.

In Gladwin County, all damage requests are handled by a third party, Sedgwick Claims, according to Dave Pettersch, the managing director of the county’s road commission.

Any claims paid go against the road commission’s insurance, although the county receives only about one request per year, he said.

“Once they leave here, we usually don’t hear back on the results of them,” Pettersch said. “But very few of them are paid out.”

To be eligible for county payouts, the damage must have occurred on a county-maintained road. The offending pothole also had to be known to the commission but not fixed, said Pettersch. He also serves as vice president of the County Road Association, an advocate for Michigan’s 83 county road agencies.

At the state level, payouts are capped at $1,000 per claim, with lawsuits being the only option for drivers seeking higher amounts, according to the Department of Transportation. As it stands, MDOT has 30 days from being informed of a pothole’s existence to fix it before it can be held liable to reimburse drivers.

Even with clear eligibility guidelines for submitting a claim, the state rarely approves payments — only 27 of 717 requests were approved in the last three years, according to MDOT records.

Pothole reports filed with MDOT aren’t publicly available, although they are subject to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. This can make it a challenge to verify whether rejected claims involved potholes that went unfixed for more than 30 days.

In response, House Democrats have introduced a bill package that would raise the maximum payout for pothole damage to $5,000, limit the maximum response time to seven days and create a website for the public to track where and when potholes have been identified. The bills would apply to claims only against the state.

The lead sponsors are Reps. Leslie Love, D-Detroit; Patrick Green, D-Warren; and Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township. The bills are pending in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Similar regulation at the county level would hurt county road agencies, said Todd Behring, the managing director of the Montmorency County Road Commission.

He said that the $175 million in additional road funding unanimously approved by the Legislature  this year should be reserved for exactly that — the roads.

“The roads are an issue. That’s why we’re getting extra funding to try and make them better,” Behring said. “We’re not getting funding to give to the general public because they hit a pothole.”

Both Behring and Gladwin County’s Pettersch agreed that drivers must pay attention to the roads, as counties simply do not have the money to be aware of and fix every pothole.

Paying for every instance of pothole damage to cars would pose “an insane threat” to county budgets, Pettersch said.

County road commissions “have the funding to fix the roads, and drivers have the responsibility to slow down,” Pettersch said. “That’s what it comes down to. If you’re in an area where you know there’s potholes or you see them coming, move around them or go through them slowly.”

Rural areas like Montmorency County, which has only 19 residents per square mile, rarely get valid claims of pothole damage, Behring said. That’s something that happens only “maybe down in the cities.”

Behring said he hasn’t handled even one pothole damage claim in his three years as managing director.

“It’s a little slowed-down up here,” Behring said. “People don’t drive 85, 90 miles an hour. We don’t have the traffic that you’ve got down there.”

Nearly 90,000 miles of road are maintained by counties, representing about three-quarters of the state’s total road mileage.

However, they aren’t subject to the same stress, as fewer drivers use county-maintained roads as a whole. State-funded roads account for only 8 percent of Michigan’s total road mileage and carry 53 percent of total traffic, according to MDOT.

Michigan spent about $314 per person on state-maintained roads in 2015, the most recent year available from the Federal Highway Administration.

For comparison, neighboring Ohio spent $502 per capita — which is still less than Illinois’ $527 or Wisconsin’s $616.

MDOT Director Kurt Steudle said Ohio focused its repair efforts on highways closest to the Michigan border to show drivers the difference immediately after crossing state lines.

Many of Michigan’s pothole problems would likely be less severe if the state could afford more than so-called Band-Aid fixes, Steudle said.

“If for the last 10 years we had been doing longer-term repairs, they would be more structurally sound,” Steudle said.