Michigan faces affordable housing shortage

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan has a shortage of rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low-income households, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Its study found that 71 percent of extremely low-income renter households in the state spend more than half of their income on housing costs and utilities.

We’re seeing more and more people who maybe precariously housed, being at greater risk of becoming homeless,” said Eric Hufnagel, the executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, a nonprofit organization of emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.

Hufnagel said the cost of housing is going up, and it’s getting more difficult to afford or keep housing.

“The housing market is tougher. Fewer units and higher costs are pushing more and more people to the point where they may become homeless,” Hufnagel said. And when people live from paycheck to paycheck, any economic downturn can put them at risk of losing their housing.

The national coalition’s 2018 report shows that households whose incomes are at or below the poverty line spend more than half of their income on housing. Its recent report said poor households are more likely than other renters to sacrifice necessities like healthy food and health care to pay the rent and to experience “unstable housing” situations like evictions.

The national study found that, on average, a Michigan household must earn $16.24 per hour (working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) or have a $33,775 annual household income to afford a two-bedroom rental home without paying more than their income.

In some communities, not everyone working 40 hours a week can afford housing.

For example, Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of a Ludington-based shelter called Youth Staircase Services said, “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.

The organization serves Lake, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Wexford and Oceana counties.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition says the housing crisis “isn’t just about affordability—it’s about economic mobility, too.”

Adam Sheren, a real estate agent with the Adley Group Realty & Development in Ludington, said housing in West Michigan is a concern, and the major difficulty is that it’s tough to lure major housing developers to the city.

“It’s very hard for a community such as Ludington to attract big-time developers because they don’t see the dollars,” Sheren said. “For them to come and do a project here, there has to be a ton of incentive.”

In Michigan, Sheren said rent for a two-bedroom apartment in rural communities ranges between $600-$850 a month, and in the city prices can go up to $2,000.

Jana Cooper, from Third Coast Development, a Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate firm, said the company has two affordable housing projects under construction in Grand Rapids. One is set to open in August 2018.

The apartment complex will feature 165 one- and two-bedroom units priced to be affordable to households of mixed income levels.

Sheren said it’s hard for many local developers to break into the development game even though they have the skills and the desire to do so. Because they don’t have experience, they aren’t always aware of available grants and financing opportunities.

In Mason County, Sheren said initiatives such the Growth Alliance and the Vacant Property Campaign have done a good job of understanding the need for local developers.

Those initiatives, brought in by local groups, conduct marketing campaigns to show local developers the opportunities around the area and help them meet with local stakeholders.

“Municipalities should assist developers in finding properties, development opportunities, grants or whatever it may be so that they can address these affordable housing issues,” Sheren said.

Instead of trying to attract developers from Grand Rapids or out of state, Sheren said the key to solving the housing problem is working with people already in the community who have a vested interest in seeing that community flourish.

“Provide them with a team and tools and incentives — whether it’s tax reductions, a grant or being a voice between them and organizations like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. — so somebody in the local community can get a project done,” he said.

Solar power changes cause critics to sizzle

Capital News Service

LANSING — A new order by the Public Service Commission (PSC) will reduce savings for homes deciding to generate electricity from solar energy, according to some lawmakers.

And that means less savings and reduced incentives for anyone hoping to save money by adding solar panels to their home.

The solar power community is upset by the change and some legislators are attempting to reverse the effect of the ruling.

Under the order, utility companies will have to pay solar households only the wholesale cost for the energy they produce. Utilities must pay a household or small business for putting energy into their grid. Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are the two largest servicers of solar households in the state.

Most individuals generating their own energy are still connected to the power grid as a backup source of electricity for cloudy days and at night. During the day, excess electricity flows into the grid and solar system owners are credited for that energy by their utility.

Under the new system, the energy going into a household from a utility company will cost the full rate. Energy from the solar household going into the energy grid will be paid at a lower wholesale rate.

PSC staff estimate that solar households will be paid about 10 cents a kilowatt hour. At that rate it would take solar households an additional two to three years, or about 33 percent longer than with current rates, to cover the cost of installing solar panels.

The new policy begins on June 1 and affects only homes and businesses that install new solar systems. Existing contracts will remain valid and unchanged for up to 10 years.

Legislation in the House Energy Policy Committee would repeal any grid charge and block the changes approved by the PSC.

“They have not taken the time to properly weigh the pros and cons of solar energy and because of that, they have come up with a rate that is lopsided,” said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, one of the sponsors. “That’s a big reason we introduced the bills.”

The co-sponsors include Reps. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and Tom Barrett, R-Potterville.

The PSC was directed to create the new system by a state energy law in 2016. The commission  was told to develop a new metering program that allows energy companies to make money on their services and that reflects a customer’s fair and equitable use of the grid, said Sally Talberg, the chair of the PSC.

“The commission looks forward to working with stakeholders who may propose refinements or new data and with the Legislature if it seeks to pursue a different approach,” she said.

Rabhi said the proposed metering program fails to accomplish what the Legislature ordered.

“In the legislation that created the grid tariff, it was pretty clear that the Public Service Commission had to take into account the benefits that solar brings to the grid,” such as economic and environmental benefits, Rabhi said.

“Then there are the more tangible things such as providing energy to the grid during the daytime when energy is needed most.”

“The real problem is that they have put into place an interim rate. They have changed the rate in such a way that the benefits of solar are not factored in,” Rahbi said.

Utility companies say that solar households should be paid for the electricity they produce at an equal price to large-scale utilities.

Brian Wheeler, the senior public information director for Consumers Energy, said, “If you want to look at a home with a solar array like a power plant, they both serve as power generators and both will receive the wholesale rate moving forward.”

Like a home in this example, a power plant draws energy from the grid to operate, he said. And just like a solar home, it generates more energy to put back in the grid.

“Just like a power plant, anyone’s home or a customer of ours, they’re paying the price that represents the cost of generating and then distributing energy throughout the grid,” Wheeler said.

John Sarver, a board member at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, said, “Right now the rate is around 15 cents a kilowatt hour. We believe that metering, as it’s structured now, is fair.”

“There are benefits to when homeowners invest their own money in a solar system and put their excess production on the grid,” Sarver said.

One such benefit is that household solar arrays produce the most energy during the summer and can assist with increased demand on the energy grid by air conditioning units.

Sarver said he doesn’t believe that the smaller payments will have an extensive negative impact on new solar power users. “People will still buy systems even if the return on their investment is lower.”

An alternative to working with utility companies is to purchase batteries to store the generated power.

“If we’re not careful with new policies, we may be encouraging people to take a serious look at batteries and store the power on site, and that doesn’t help anybody,” Sarver said.

“The economics of going off the grid is debatable, but the technology is certainly there.”

State ramps up opioid response

Capital News Service

LANSING — Last October, President Donald Trump called the nation’s opioid crisis a public emergency.

Now, six months after his announcement, Michigan has taken more steps to strengthen the state’s battle against opioids.

“The news has definitely been reporting on the opioid crisis for a while now, and, yes, it continues,” said Monica Gonzalez-Walker, the clinical implementation and engagement manager of Michigan OPEN — the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network.

Data published by the governor’s office says the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed has decreased by 10.7 percent since 2015. For the first time since 2011, the total number of controlled substance prescriptions dispensed in Michigan dropped to below 20 million.

“The decrease is a result of our partnerships and collective efforts to raise awareness among patients and health professionals,” said Shelly Edgerton, the director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “We, along with our partners, will continue our targeted education and outreach efforts to fight back against this devastating public health crisis.”

In 2015, 10,833,681 opioid prescriptions were written in Michigan, contrasted with 6,670,989 in 2017.

“These figures are promising indicators for our continuing efforts against the opioid epidemic in Michigan,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. That means “less potentially addictive opioids in our communities.”

Calley chaired the governor’s Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force.

To continue that trend, he said there’s a need for “a conscientious approach to prescribing and dispensing while managing care for patients.”

Even before Trump’s announcement on the opioid crisis, Rep. Joseph Bellino Jr., R-Monroe, had introduced legislation to assist in Michigan’s battle against opioids.

“My district got opioids early — 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s everywhere in the United States. It’s affected my family — I lost a cousin. It affected my work. It affecting my community, my school. It’s hurt all of us.”

Last December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Bellino’s bill that restricts the amount of opioid prescriptions given to children.

“My bill says if you’re a minor, you have to have your parent or guardian’s signature OK’ed for the doctor or provider to give you an opioid for pain, Bellino said.

Several other restrictions on opioids will be put into place later this year. On June 1, health care providers must be registered in the Mandatory Michigan Automated Prescription System before prescribing controlled substances.

As of July 1, doctors treating patients with acute pain won’t be able to prescribe more than a seven-day supply of an opioid within a seven-day period.

Partnership agreements help failing schools avoid closure

Capital News Service

LANSING — Thirty-eight of Michigan’s lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools are about to wrap up their first year under a partnership program created to save them from closure.

In 2017, the state’s School Reform Office announced that the schools, which had been in the bottom 5 percent for academic performance for three years in a row, were at risk of being shut down.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had 16 schools in danger of being closed, while Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Saginaw and Kalamazoo all had multiple public schools on the original list.

Facing public backlash, the Department of Education instead chose to partner with those districts to improve academic performance.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, has “always preferred” finding an alternative to school closures, said David Crim, the MEA’s communications consultant.

“We were supportive a year and a half ago when [state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston] announced the creation of these partnerships, and we’re still supportive,” Crim said.

Under a partnership agreement, a district remains in control of its schools, with additional support from the department and local partners like colleges, community foundations and businesses.

That level of community involvement is crucial to the agreements’ — and the schools’ — success, said William Disessa of the Department of Education’s Office of Public and Governmental Affairs.

“The partnership agreements are designed to be positive and collaborative in nature,” Disessa said. “Working together, partnership districts and schools have a real opportunity to succeed.”

In late March, 21 districts entered discussions with a goal towards signing their own partnership agreements, including ones in Baldwin, Grand Rapids and Flint.

Of those 21, 16 are public charter schools. The MEA’s Crim said the union “railed against” that fact, saying it was proof of the state’s misguided investment in “failing for-profit charter schools.”

“We’re very concerned about the money we’re spending on corporate charter schools which end up on these partnership lists,” Crim said.

Improvement in state English/Language Arts and math test scores is a “common thread” among the partnership agreements, but every agreement is tailored to individual districts’ needs, said Dedrick Martin, the Education Department’s school reform officer.

“There could be a number of systemic issues, whether that’s getting enough certified teachers, changes to the curriculum or training that teachers need, instructional coaches, data systems — each district will have their own unique fingerprint on their partnership agreement,” Martin said.

Martin was hired as school reform officer in October 2017 and wasn’t involved with creating any of the current agreements. Since even the earliest adopters have yet to finish their first full year, he said it’s too soon to gauge the agreements’ success.

Seven districts signed partnership agreements last October, including Lansing Public Schools, which entered five schools into its agreement.

Three of Lansing’s schools — North Elementary, Woodcreek Achievement Center and Gardner International Academy — entered the agreements on an optional basis. That means the schools’ performance wasn’t poor enough to require a partnership agreement now, but was so low that they might require one in the future, Disessa said.

Lansing’s agreement provides assistance from the department, the Ingham Intermediate School District and 18 community groups like the Lansing Promise and the Capital Area College Access Network to meet the benchmarks.

Among many other benchmarks, Lansing’s schools must see a 5 percent increase in students who test at their grade level in reading and math by fall 2019, and reduce the number of suspensions by 20 percent by 2021.

For all participating districts, schools have 18 months to show improvement on “intermediate” goals. At that point they enter another 18-month review period to complete the agreement. Failure to meet their benchmarks puts districts right back where they were — facing closure.

Martin said closure isn’t off the table for schools that fail to meet their goals after three years. However, he indicated the department is taking a more “holistic” approach to these agreements, and may grant more time to districts that have shown significant — if not total — progress.

“If a person sets a goal of losing weight, and they want to lose 15 pounds in a month, do you tell them that they’re unsuccessful because they only lost 12?” Martin said. “No. They keep with the same program, and you give them a little more time to do it.”

Schools push early literacy for young children

Capital News Service

LANSING – Parents have great impact on developing and improving children’s literacy, but most of them are insufficiently aware of it, experts say.

Early literacy is essential to future success. Students who fail to master reading skills by third grade will continue to struggle in high school, and thus be at high risk of dropping out, according to a report from the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Michigan is among the bottom 10 states for early literacy, according to the Education Trust-Midwest, an advocacy organization based in Royal Oak.

To improve early literacy, the state passed a third-grade reading law in 2016. It calls for holding back third-graders who fail the grade-level state assessment in reading in 2019-20.

The law has its critics, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

“We do not believe retention is a solution to reading deficiency,” said David Crim, a communications consultant for the union that represents teachers and other school personnel.

The MEA is working with early elementary teachers who focus on reading to improve the recent reading law, Crim said. “Once we get these responses, we will be sharing them with legislators so that legislation can be drafted to correct the law’s deficiencies.”

One solution to reading deficiencies is parental involvement, experts say.

“Parents or caregivers can greatly impact a child’s later success with reading,” said Sarah Kugler, an early interventionist in the Early On program at the Kent Intermediate School District.

Reading to babies and toddlers builds language, thinking, social and emotional skills, which are important to develop early literacy, Kugler said.

However, “I don’t think that parents understand that a child’s literacy skills start developing at birth,” she said. “From birth to 3, they are usually most concerned with sleeping, eating, walking and talking.”

Kugler said the problem exists especially for “parents who are struggling with basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and they don’t or can’t think about a toddler’s communication delay until their basic needs are met.”

To improve parents’ awareness of literacy skills from birth to 3, the Kent district has Early On and Bright Beginnings programs to support early intervention, she said.

The Ingham Intermediate School District has a Great Parents, Great Start program, which enhances family-child interaction and encourages reading 30 minutes per day, according to the district.

Shelly Proebstle, the district’s literacy consultant, said the schools are working hard to deepen parents’ awareness but it could be hard for some parents to get involved in a read-at-home plan.

In addition, rather than having teachers come to the Ingham district to learn how to improve early literacy, “we go out into the classroom to provide them with professional development,” Proebstle said.

“We are looking closely at what interventions are being used for students who are struggling with reading, and we develop an individual reading improvement plan and share it with their parents,” she said.

GR Montessori at North Park, a public school with two campuses in Grand Rapids, is connected to its parents, said Mary Fridsma, the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association.

Working closely with parents can make students feel supported by the community, Fridsma said.

The school communicates with parents through a Facebook group, she said. “When they have concerns, they typically go direct to the teachers.”

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

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.”


Zoos hoping to breed large animals again

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.

Killing cormorants legal again

Capital News Service

LANSING — Culling season is coming quickly for a controversial Great Lakes waterfowl after it received a one-year reprieve.

Control of the double-crested cormorant will return this spring when the bird returns from wintering along the Pacific, Atlantic or Gulf coasts, according to federal authorities.

Almost all culling was suspended last year after a federal judge ruled in May 2016 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately assess its impact. With that study complete, the agency can again issue permits to kill cormorants to protect property, habitat, airports, fish hatcheries and other birds.

“We’re trying to balance maintaining a stable cormorant population with managing them in the place where they’re causing damage,” said Tom Cooper, a program chief for the agency’s Migratory Bird Program.

The agency will issue permits to kill up to 18,270 cormorants this year in eight Midwestern states.

Permit applicants must submit photos of cormorant damage, how many cormorants they wish to kill and how they plan to do it, Cooper said.

Cormorants moved into Michigan from neighboring states in the early 1970s, according to a Department of National Resources report. By the turn of the century, there were 30,000 nesting pairs in the state.

Their colonies are found in places like Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan, Ludington and the Les Cheneaux Islands just off of the southeastern edge of the Upper Peninsula.

Some area residents claim the birds hurt local fisheries but researchers say the cormorants’ impact on local fishing is exaggerated. In fact, scientists have discovered that cormorants are eating invasive species, especially round goby in Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay and Lake Michigan’s Beaver Archipelago.

Once threatened by chemical contamination, the birds have returned in dramatic numbers.

There were only 125 nesting pairs of Great Lakes cormorants in 1972. Today, there are 40,000  pairs, and they’re causing a big problem on many islands where colonies have degraded many habitats, forcing other animals to move on.

Anglers know them as the bird whose numbers blew up in the 1980s after tapping into a nearly bottomless supply of the invasive alewife. They’re incredible divers and can eat one-fourth of their weight in fish each day.

And they’re public enemy number one for many perch anglers, although how many perch they eat is hotly debated, Cooper said.

Many know them by a distinct calling card — acidic feces that damages cars and buildings. They also destroy vegetation, stripping trees of leaves for their nests and poisoning the ground with their guano.

But defenders think of them as a bird that’s faced persecution for centuries and continues to do so despite protections t under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Some remember them as an environmentalists’ poster child — their DDT-malformed beaks were displayed on posters. The deformities caused by that insecticide kept them from eating and reproducing, threatening the bird’s existence.

Cormorant management is contentious, Cooper said.

“There’s folks that are on both sides of the issue,” he said. “Our role is to balance those using the best available information.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service began to allow culls in 2003 after mounting complaints of damage by a booming cormorant population. Cormorants threatening fish hatcheries, vegetation and other birds were often taken without a permit.

The birds were either harassed or shot, but many prefered to coat their eggs in oil, asphyxiating the embryos. Cormorant mothers continue to sit on the dead eggs. The mothers otherwise often laid new eggs if they found theirs were smashed.  

Cormorant management is often done to protect shorebirds that often live alongside the colonies, but researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the culls hurt some of those same species.

The team analyzed population data from 1976 to 2010 and watched how the colonies fared when cormorants were killed.

Black-crowned night herons nest in the undergrowth, often under cormorant nests, said Francie Cuthbert, a co-author of the study in the “Journal of Wildlife Management.” Culling cormorants should save their habitat from an acidic demise and boost the heron population. Instead, those populations declined when the cormorants were killed.

Egg spraying is probably the culprit, she said. To spray cormorant eggs, managers must traverse the island, causing panicked heron chicks to fall out of their nests. The parents then no longer care for them and they die.

For two species of gulls, the opposite is true. The Great Lakes have too many gulls already, and cormorant management makes it worse, Cuthbert said. Gulls raid empty cormorant nests — an easy-access, population-boosting food source.

“When somebody goes in to spray the eggs, the cormorants are the first to take off, and boom, they’re gone,” Cuthbert said. “They’re out sitting on the lake.”

Gulls are quick to take advantage, she said. “They’re into that cormorant colony, busting open eggs as fast as they can.”

That makes for more gulls, and another possible round of eggs from the cormorant mothers, she said.

Cooper said the Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of the study. The managers he’s spoken with are open to changing tactics, even if it means hampering efficiency by limiting egg oiling.

There were close to 10,000 cormorant pairs on West Sister Island in Lake Erie before culling started in 2006, said Jason Lewis, the manager of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. The island’s colony has since been cut to 4,000 pairs.

Other nesting species on the island were struggling as the number of cormorants continued to grow, Lewis said. And West Sister Island is the only habitat of its kind in the western basin of Lake Erie.

“It’s not like these species have any place to go,” he said.

Since culling began, vegetation and co-nesters on the island have bounced back, Lewis said.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Michigan families get $70 million for child care

Capital News Service

LANSING — An influx of federal money is expected to put more children from Michigan’s struggling families into child care programs.

Families who meet eligibility requirements, including an income cutoff and employment or high school completion, are able to receive a state subsidy to help with the costs of child care.

Because of the positive effects that quality care can have on children, all families should have a chance to take advantage of it, said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive think tank focusing on social issues.

“The costs of child care are so huge that most low-income people really cannot afford high-quality child care,” Jacobs said. “It needs to be subsidized, it needs to be available, and there needs to be transportation to it.”

Help is on the way for low-income residents. The spending bill signed by President Donald Trump in March boosted funding for child care assistance. The league estimates new  funding will approach $70 million in Michigan.

That could mean up to 3,500 more children receiving assistance to attend child care.

That’s the good news. The bad? The number of families receiving child care assistance from the state dropped dramatically for years and is only now starting to rise again, falling from nearly 70,000 in 2003 to 18,381 in 2017 according to state data.

The league is pushing the Legislature to raise the income cutoff for assistance to 200 percent of the poverty level. The current cutoff of 130 percent puts many low-income families in a bind, said Audrey Marvin, the owner of Stepping Stones Child Development Center in Petoskey.

“I know for a fact that I have lost families because they can’t afford the center but they make just enough that they don’t get government assistance,” Marvin said.

The federal funding boost could be crucial, as skyrocketing costs pose a significant barrier for parents looking to maintain a job, according to league communications director Alex Rossman.

Low-income residents are caught in a Catch-22, he said. They can risk sending much of the income from their job to a child care facility, or they can limit their income by not working and caring for the children personally.

The average annual cost of center-based infant care in Michigan — $10,281 — is nearly that of a year of mortgage payments or public college tuition, according to Child Care Aware of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit. Home-based infant care runs $7,179 annually, on average.

It’s unfortunate that high child care costs are a barrier, but given how beneficial it is to young children, the price point is necessary, Rossman said.

“It’s an area in which you don’t want to cut costs or corners,” Rossman said. “The offerings just continue to increase — the quality of food available, the field trips, the technology available.”

Rossman also said that there isn’t a huge difference in costs among child care centers and most quality centers will charge similar amounts.

“It’s not like there’s two Cadillacs of day care and then everyone else is a standard sedan — it’s all relatively high, or you drop down significantly” in quality, Rossman said.

A lack of “big-city, high-end” jobs means child care costs aren’t quite as high in rural Michigan, said Stepping Stones’ Marvin.

However, the income difference also means many parents struggle to send their children to child care in the first place, she said.

“Most of my clientele are the average blue-collar workers that possibly get laid off for four months out of the year,” Marvin said. “We are continually full, but we do have children who need to leave” due to their parents’ inconsistent employment.

Rossman, who is soon to be the father of twins, said even with his professional career child care costs would eat up a significant portion of either his or his wife’s salary.

“All our friends that are parents say that once (their children) start school, then you feel rich,” Rossman said. “Even as someone who was reading and writing a lot about the costs of child care, it didn’t really resonate until pricing it out individually.

“My first thought was like, ‘which one of us is quitting our jobs to just stay home?’” he said.

Marvin, who has four children, is no stranger to this decision. She said she chose to quit her preschool teaching job when her first child was born to focus on child-rearing.

A year later, as Marvin was pregnant with her second child, she decided to use her child development degree and open an in-home daycare center.

“I really don’t think I would’ve been able to leave my kids with somebody else,” Marvin said. “This gave me the opportunity to be with them but still work.”

New census question threatens Michigan’s federal funds, voice in Congress

Capital News Service

LANSING — If a “citizenship question” is added to the 2020 U.S. Census, an undercount of noncitizens and communities with immigrant-heavy populations might worsen the negative impacts of Michigan’s population decline, immigration experts say.

Critics of the question, announced in March by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, claim that asking if someone is a citizen means fewer people will complete the census. And that will lead to underreported local governments receiving less federal aid and other resources and could threaten the size of Michigan’s representation in Congress.

The Commerce Department said it’s adding the question to more accurately enforce the Voting Rights Act by learning more about the percentage of the population eligible to vote.

But a question about citizenship could drive some people away from the census. Undocumented immigrants or their families might fear deportation, while those with legal immigration status might worry that their status doesn’t protect them from other consequences, said Susan Reed, the managing attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows nearly eight out of every 10 travelers stopped when President Donald Trump’s travel ban was in effect were legal permanent residents.

An undercount could further reduce Michigan’s congressional delegation, Reed said. And if populations are undercounted, local governments could lose portions of $675 billion in federal funds for public programs, which is divided among communities across the nation based on census data.

“That funding is there, and the question is whether or not a community will get its fair share,” said Reed, whose center has offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. “Representation and resources really are the question, and really are at stake.”

Reed said the question was proposed during a period of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, which is also running the census. That context means non-citizens might not feel safe disclosing their status.

“The (citizenship) question has not been asked since the 1950s, and the reason why is because it’s been shown to depress participation by non-citizens,” Reed said.

People with legal immigration status, non-citizens and members of households that include non-citizens are reluctant to have contact with the government involving questions of their citizenship, Reed said.

Few people have a good handle on the language of citizenship, so many people don’t understand what it means to admit they’re non-citizens, Reed said.

People who would classify themselves as  “non-citizens” can be undocumented immigrants, those with a student or other temporary visa or legal permanent residents — someone with a  green card who isn’t yet a citizen, said Victoria Crouse, a senior policy fellow at the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan policy institute that focuses on social issues.

Immigrants made up 6.3 percent of Michigan’s population in 2015, compared to 5.3 percent in 2000, according to the league. Michigan had an immigrant population of 622,875 in 2015.

“That’s something to keep in mind,” Crouse said. “We’re talking about this group of non-citizens, but it’s people with all sorts of different immigration statuses.”

The state’s population growth has slowed since 1970, shrinking by roughly 55,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to census data.

The reluctance of immigrants to answer the proposed citizenship question can be magnified by a lack of a visible benefits to people responding to the survey, Reed said.

Families might disclose their citizenship to receive benefits they’re entitled to based on immigration status, but in the context of the census, it might be difficult for them to see benefits that would offset potentially negative consequences, Reed said.

“The benefits for the community of a complete count are tremendous,” Reed said. “But the benefit of an individual filling out the census form is almost impossible to detect.”

If Michigan population trends continue, the Census Bureau predicts the state will lose a congressional representative following the 2020 census, dropping from 14 to 13 seats, according to Carolina Population Center, a population research group at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Michigan has lost five House seats since the 1970 census, when it had 19.