30 October 2013

Autumn hayrides are fun but there's little safety oversight; 9 hurt in Milford

This story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

It’s rider beware.

Hayrides are a staple of autumn fun in Michigan, but riding on a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon along rutted, two-track paths through fields and woods isn’t without potential hazards, as evidenced by Sunday’s accident at Camp Dearborn. In Michigan, there are no government oversight or safety requirements that hayride operators have to follow. A Grand Rapids Auto Accident Lawyer is closely watching this story.

Nine people were taken to the hospital after a hay wagon, transporting 16 people with the Henry Ford Community College Support Staff Association, tipped at the City-of-Dearborn-owned camp in Milford Township late Sunday afternoon. Those injured complained of back and neck pain, bruises, scrapes and a possible broken jaw, according to Dearborn city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche.

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which regulates ski lifts, amusement parks and carnivals, doesn’t oversee hayrides, nor does the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The cause of the Camp Dearborn accident is under investigation. Laundroche said that two more hayrides — the last ones scheduled for the season — continued as planned after Sunday’s mishap. Camp Dearborn hosts 50 rides in the fall, starting in September, and 60 in the summer with a total of approximately 2,500 participants. 

But some hayride mishaps have been much worse. A worker at a Dexter farm was paralyzed from the waist down after she thrown off the wagon she was driving and trampled by horses in 2011. The year before that, a teenager almost died when a hayride wagon ran him over. In 2005, a woman was killed after she fell off a hayride in Midland County. And about a decade earlier, a boy died when his head was crushed after he slipped and fell under a hayride tractor in St. Clair County. A Grand Rapids Car  Accident Lawyer believes these accidents are preventable.

In a written statement, the president of the Michigan Agri-Tourism Association, Charles Goodman, said, “Members are certainly keenly aware of the need for maximum safety in all of their operations.

“At the same time, agricultural experiences are not without the need for all participants to be carefully aware of their surroundings and accept the fact that there is no such thing as a totally risk-free experience, especially where there is a mix of machinery, people and learning or entertainment.”

Pure Michigan, the state’s tourism arm, isn’t concerned about repercussions.

“It’s unfortunate that this accident happened. I don’t think it’s a common occurrence,” said spokeswoman Michelle Begnoche. “We certainly encourage people to be safe. We encourage people to make sure their guests are safe, their employees are safe. We want it to be a great experience for everyone, to be a great Michigan experience. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to negatively impact tourism in the state.”

It can cost farms an additional $500-$3,000 annually for liability coverage that includes activities such as hayrides, according to Andrew Kling, a senior field farm underwriter for Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance. Requirements include railings on the sides of the wagon and steps up to the wagon.

“If you go to a water park, you know the risk at hand. ... If you drive down the road, there’s risks. I can’t tell you what things to look for. Take time and be careful. Keep your eyes on kids,” Kling explained. “Tipping over of a wagon, yeah, it’s happened over the years. Does it happen every year? No.”

Although other state agriculture extensions, such as those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have created hayride safety guides, Michigan State University Extension has not done so.

“They’re there. They’re excited. They might not be used to being on a farm,” said MSU Extension educator Michelle Walk. “It’s not the same as going to Disney World where it’s built specifically for the consumers. It’s a farm, and they’re inviting the public onto the farm.”

Walk explained that farmers are told about liability and to make sure insurance covers them appropriately. Among the recommendations are training employees about safety, making sure the ground the wagons traverse is level, posting wagon rules for visitors to see, using wagons with sides, forbidding standing in wagons while they’re moving, assigning a staffer to load and unload passengers and, if possible, having a second employee in the wagon to watch guests.

Apple Charlie’s, an orchard in New Boston that offers seasonal hayrides, follows many of those guidelines.

“We stop (the wagon) if they start standing up and if there’s too many,” said employee Mary Grover, who added that her reaction to Sunday’s incident was, “Accidents happen. Oh jeez, we hope that doesn’t happen to us.”  A Grand Rapids Truck Accident Lawyer says this happens too often at this time of year.

Robert Szostak, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who specializes in amusement park accidents, said that because hayride proprietors have taken an admission fee, they owe visitors a higher duty of care.

“We often call this a disaster waiting to happen,” he continued. “When you have the perfect storm of improper loading, torque speeding, incline or decline, there will be (a) time when one of these fails like that. ...If you go down a black-diamond ski path, you expect certain risk. Here ,you expect to be protected, but you don’t see it as risky because there are hidden dangers.”

21 October 2013


Story first appeared in The Detroit Free Press

Michigan ranks 44th among states for the average amount of debt owed by college kids who got four-year degrees in 2011 -- $26,951. New Mexico had the lowest amount of debt, $16,276; recent college graduates in New Hampshire had the highest, $32,385. Average annual student debt for Michigan college graduates has grown 5.3% since 2004, according to Michigan's Performance Tracker for Public Universities . The statistics were released by Business Leaders for Michigan earlier this month, which noted higher debt levels carried by students equate to less money for local economies in Michigan.


Story first appeared in The Detroit Freepress.

DELAWARE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Whether they are beautiful or a blight on the landscape is beside the point.

Michigan's wind farms are here, en masse. And travelers can't miss them.

With nearly 900 commercial wind turbines dotting Michigan, especially in the Thumb where the wind is strongest and most consistent, a scenic drive can turn into a jaw-dropping experience. The Thumb alone has 618 wind turbines already operating or scheduled to go into service by next year.

"I was driving down the road when the sun was coming up one morning, and the sun hit the turbines and it was beautiful," says Scott Carr of Elkton, whose tiny community has been transformed in the last five years by 32 wind turbines. "Some people don't like them, but they don't bother me."

Wind turbines began sprouting in the state in response to a 2008 Michigan law that requires at least 10% of the state's energy be provided by renewable energy sources, such as wind, by 2015. The first phase of a high-capacity, 140-mile electric transmission line called the Thumb Loop was just completed in the region. It is capable of carrying electricity linked from at least 2,800 wind turbines.

Many things have been said and written about wind turbines. All over the world, they have changed tourist landscapes, adding strong man-made vertical elements to nature's soft horizontal vistas. Some travelers see wind turbines as engineering marvels and symbols of energy independence. Some see them as evil industrial fans ruining treasured landscapes.

Some see beauty in a sunset that makes the towers shine, or charm in a scene of a small house dwarfed by a turning blade. Other see turbines as too big and harsh -- which they are, compared to a cow, a sugar beet or a farmhouse. Some are so tall that Michigan residents can even see turbines erected across the water in Canada.

At first, they dotted the landscape here or there. Then, they spread. Last summer, an operator in the Ludington and Scottville area did a lively business driving busloads of tourists out to see the turbines. That success has others asking: How does Michigan make the most of their breathtaking stature and the awe that they stir inside of us?

Towering over farms

Along Bay City-Forestville Road near the border of Huron and Sanilac counties, swaths of turbines churn away as dairy cows graze and sugar beets grow.

Get out. Notice their size -- as tall as 410 feet. Hear their hum. See their slow-moving blades, each half a football field long. Marvel at how many turbines you can see at once -- 20? 30? 40? Maybe more.

If someone could figure out how to create a tour that let people actually walk inside or stand next to a massive turbine, they would have a tourist bonanza, says Carr, who has six turbines near his house.

"If you could walk inside of one, that would help tourism. There are stairs inside, and you can walk right to the top," he says.

Carr doesn't know it, but there already is a tour in Michigan where you can get close.

In the Thumb, Huron, Tuscola and northern Sanilac counties together have 14 wind farms operating or under construction, almost all erected in the last two years, Michigan Public Service Commission figures show.

On the west side of Michigan, the Lake Winds Energy Park in Ludington went into operation in late 2012 near U.S.-31. Its 56 turbines are a prominent sight.

"You can't really miss them when you go through town," says Sarah Kronlein, administrative coordinator at the Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of people are curious about how they are made and how they work."

So a tour was created. It starts at the chamber office, where visitors watch a 20-minute video about wind energy and turbine facts. Then participants take a one-hour bus tour of Lake Winds. Retired Ludington social studies teacher Gene Jorissen operates the tour on his 14-passenger bus.

The bus stops 1,000 feet from a turbine, and passengers get out. "People want to know, how noisy are they? So we sit and listen. We talk about various concerns people have about them," he says.

Then, the bus stops at his cousin's house. The cousin has one of the turbines on his property. The cousin lets Jorissen bring his tourists right up to the turbine and stand under its massive 476-foot height to get a feel of just how big it is.

"You can walk around it. But you can't climb it. You can touch it. But you can't go inside," Jorissen says.

This summer, buses were full and there often were waiting lists, says Jorissen, who is continuing tours through Saturday.

Tours "have become a big hit," adds Dan Bishop, Consumers Energy spokesman. "Eco-tourism, right here in Michigan."

Lake Winds is not beloved by all. Consumers is being sued by 17 residents who claim the turbines are damaging their health.

DTE Energy, the other big player in the wind turbine business in Michigan, gives wind farm tours to lawmakers and VIPs, "but nothing that is open to the public," says spokesman Scott Simon.

That's also true in Gratiot County. It has 167 turbines at two massive wind farms, including the tallest ones in the state, 498 feet. Drivers can spot them from U.S.-127 between Lansing and Mt. Pleasant.

"People call and ask, can you take me up in one?" says Don Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development. Sadly, he can't. He gives tours to school groups sometimes, but from a distance. Sometimes, he says, residents who live near turbines are randomly visited by wind-curious people ringing their doorbells.

"It's getting to the point," Schurr says, "where we may need a tour on a routine basis."

Wind Turbine Day

In the village of Elkton, population 808, the state's first commercial wind farm, Harvest, went up five years ago. What a novelty it was then -- 32 wind turbines, each 353 feet tall -- taller than than the Statue of Liberty.

Enthusiastic town supporters began holding Wind Turbine Day each summer. Wind Turbine Day offered driving tours, bicycle tours, booths about alternative energy and more.

At first, they got a lot of interest in the new, strange turbines. But the event lasted only three summers -- 2009, 2010 and 2011. This fall, Elkton's Autumnfest still offered wind turbine tours guided by local teenagers. Just 30 people attended.

These days, residents aren't quite as enthusiastic about the turbines they welcomed five years ago.

"Some people are annoyed and totally hate them and say the noise makes it so they can't sleep," says Carr, who helped plan Wind Turbine Day while it lasted. On the other hand, maybe Wind Turbine Day was just ahead of its time. As the number of turbines grow, tourists driving up Caseville or Elkton Road or almost any other road in the Thumb become wind turbine tourists just by passing the region's most visible crop. As even more turbines go up, "I can't say for sure but I think it might help tourism," Carr said.

But see for yourself. Drive into the Michigan countryside. Drive up close. Stop the car. Get out. Listen. Argue amongst yourselves -- are they beautiful, dreadful or something in between?

Wind turbines are our new tourist attraction. We may as well make peace with them.

Where to see Michigan's wind turbines Wind farms don't have entrances or exits: They spread over private farmland across thousands of acres. The best a traveler can do is to know the crossroads. Wind farms also do not have signs, although they do have pleasant names like Pheasant Hill or Big Turtle or Crosswinds, and many have websites.

The Michigan Traveler drove around the state and recommends these spots if you want to see them. Remember, turbines are so tall that those that seem close actually may be a few miles away.


  • Bay City-Forestville Road. Huron/Sanilac County line. You'll see swaths of them from two miles inland of Lake Huron all the way to west of Minden City, where three wind farms: Minden, Michigan Wind 1 and Michigan Wind 2, converge with a total of 116 turbines.

  • Caseville and Elkton Roads near Elkton. The site of the first commercial wind farm in Michigan, now dense with turbines between Elkton and Pigeon. Wind Farm Day is no more, but wind farm tours are offered during the village's annual Autumnfest on Labor Day weekend.

  •  Southeast of Bay City. Tuscola County has 75 wind turbines at the Tuscola Bay Wind farm, and is a hotbed of future activity with 121 more going up as Cross Winds and Tuscola Wind II are built. One good spot to see them is between M-138 and Darbee Road in Fairgrove Township.


  • Gratiot County: Driving on U.S.-127 between Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, you can't miss them. Get off at Ithaca and take Washington Road east. Cut north on Wisner Road to M-46 near Breckenridge. The county has 167 wind turbines at the Gratiot and Beebe wind farms, including some 498 feet tall from the ground to the tip of the blade at Beebe, the tallest in the state. When the blades turn, they create a circle with a diameter longer than a football field.

  • Between Ludington and Pentwater. Near Hawley Road east of U.S.-31. Fifty-six wind turbines churn slowly at the Lake Winds wind farm, covering 36 square miles, each turbine standing 476 feet tall from the base to the tip of the blade.


  • Garden Township: The Garden 1 wind farm near the shores of scenic Big Bay de Noc has 14 turbines that reach 414 feet high. It is easily seen from the air on flights between Detroit and Marquette.

  •  Paradise: The tiny Upper Peninsula tourist town on Lake Superior is directly across from Canada's third-largest wind enterprise, the Prince Wind Farm, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Stand on the scenic shores of Paradise, and your view includes 126 turbines on the Canadian side of Whitefish Bay.


  • Grosse Pointe Shores and Farms: Depending on how clear it is, residents of the Pointes -- and boaters -- can easily see 27 410-foot high Vestas wind turbines along the far shore of Lake St. Clair in Lakeshore, Ontario. Particularly visible at night with their red lights, the Pointe aux Roches Wind Farm went up three years ago. It's just one of many wind farms multiplying on the Canadian side of the lake, including the East Lake St. Clair Wind Farm and the Erieau Wind Project. Some wind power enthusiasts in Canada want turbines placed miles out into the lakes -- so the view from the Pointes may get even closer.

15 October 2013


Story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

At least 146,000 Michiganders — and possibly thousands more — with health coverage purchased directly from insurers now are learning their polices will end Dec. 31 because they don’t meet the minimum requirements of the federal health care act.

Under the law, each policy must cover essential benefits in 10 categories. Instead of beefing up these policies, insurers are opting to drop them, advising consumers to consider other policies that are now available either from the insurers directly or though the Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace, also known as the state exchange.

The policies that are ending were often less expensive on the individual market because they provided limited benefits and were sold to healthier consumers.

And that was fine with consumers such as Josh Mulder.

Mulder had landed a plan several years ago that cost his Wixom family offour just $291 a month. That policy will end Dec. 31, according to a letter from his insurer.

The policy didn’t cover things such as maternity care or prescription drugs, but, Mulder said, his family is generally healthy and he was willing to take the risk.

“I had a great rate,” he said.

Rates that meet the required benefits under health reform average $762.06 a month on the Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace for his family of four, according to a cost estimator by the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has notified about 140,000 policyholders on the individual market that their plans will end Dec. 31. Health Alliance Plan and its subsidiaries are dropping 6,000 plans.

Both are major players on the state exchange, where 13 insurers, including a HAP subsidiary and another Blues insurer, Blue Care Network, are offering 142 plans.

That Blue Cross and HAP are ending current policies on the individual market isn’t surprising, said Robert Krughoff, founder and president of the Washington-based nonprofit Consumer Checkbook.

The increased costs to provide essential benefits was just one part of the cost equation. Under the health care reform law, insurers also can’t deny anyone insurance, even if they’re very sick. Neither can insurers cut cap coverage at a lifetime limit.

“These plans had to be reconfigured,” Krughoff said.

Customers will pay more, but they also will get more coverage now, noted Gail Jensen Summers, an economics professor at Wayne State University, who specializes in health insurance policy and costs.

The insurers may expect their customers to seek them out on the marketplace, where federal tax credits for some consumers can help shrink the costs of the monthly premiums, according to Checkbook’s Krughoff.

In the first 10 days of business, the exchange logged 14.6 million unique visits, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Anyone whose income is up to 400% of the federal poverty limit — up to $45,960 for an individual and $94,200 for a family of four — is eligible for tax credits.

Health insurance reform supporters have said this puts insurance within reach for an estimated 1.4 million Michiganders who are underinsured or uninsured.

Blue Cross, in fact, is competing aggressively on state marketplaces across the U.S., Krughoff said.

Another insurer on the Michigan exchange, Kentucky-based Humana, indicated that it, too, will end some policies, but it declined to offer specifics. Letters to members are being finalized, according to the insurer.

Grand Rapids-based Priority Health is taking a different tack. It’s allowing its current and new members to lock in 2013 rates that extend through 2014 before they end those plans on Dec. 31, 2014. The plans won’t include all the essential benefits required under the law, but the insurer will be able to extend them for one more year, said spokeswoman Amy Miller.

That extension is possible for some plans. Still, with the exception of catastrophic plans targeted for those younger than 30, all plans on the individual market must carry essential benefits Jan. 1, 2015, said Caleb Buhs, spokesman for the Michigan insurance department.

Consumers can still find plans on the exchange and off the exchange that do cover all the essential benefits. It might cost the insurer more to offer the extension at the same premium rates, but it gives members “more time to consider their options going into 2015,” she said.

Gary Plasko of Walled Lake is looking at options like those.

An insurance broker, he knew big changes were coming under health care reform. He wasn’t surprised when he was notified last week that his policy — one that costs the 63-year-old nonsmoker $381 a month and covered about 70% of his medical costs with no deductible — was ending. And he had warned customers to expect similar notices.

Still, he was disappointed with what he found.

Like the Mulders, Plasko won’t get tax credits to help him pay for the new policies.

He said he found a Blue Cross policy for less than $550, but it covers about 60% of his medical costs. Plus, he now faces a $6,350 deductible.

The law? For him, he said, “it’s the un-Affordable Care Act.”


Story first appeared in The Detroit News.

Lansing— Lawmakers must pass corrective legislation that could spark another squabble over Medicaid expansion, the Senate’s appropriations chairman says.

“I would hope that people want it to go reasonably smoothly ... (but) some might say we’re not done fighting,” said Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw.

Follow-up legislation is needed because the Senate backers didn’t win immediate effect for the Medicaid act Snyder signed into law Sept. 16. It will make more than 400,000 additional state residents, earning 100 to 133 percent of the federal poverty guideline, eligible for government-funded health care.

The legislation can’t take effect until about three months into 2014, so state lawmakers have to come up with $70 million to cover Medicaid mental health services during that period. Had the expansion taken effect immediately, the coverage cost would have transferred to the federal government Jan. 1.

The Senate Fiscal Agency says cleanup legislation also is needed to revise downward by $500 million the amount of federal Medicaid funds received and spent this fiscal year. The bill specifies $1.7 billion, but the three-month delay will reduce the amount to around $1.1 billion or $1.2 billion, according to fiscal agency analysts.

The $70 million outlay and the technical adjustment through what’s termed a “negative supplemental appropriation” of $500 million could be wrapped into a single bill.

Lawmakers probably would take up the legislative proposal in about five weeks, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, told the press last week. He said Kahn would craft the proposal.

“There’s a fair amount of accounting work to be done,” Kahn said. “I would imagine before it gets ramped up, there will need to be a discussion between Richardville, (House Speaker Jase) Bolger and (Gov. Rick) Snyder.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, whose staunch opposition nearly prevented passage of the Medicaid expansion, said he wasn’t available for comment Friday.

Spokesman Ari Adler said it had been Bolger’s understanding nothing much more than the $70 million appropriation was needed as a follow-up. The $500 million is “just gone ... (and) we don’t need to take any action on it,” he added.

“Either way, this should not be seen as some sort of proxy on Medicaid reforms,” Adler said. “The policy debate was already held, the votes were cast and the outcome is done.”

07 October 2013

The high cost of corruption: How Kwame Kilpatrick's crimes deepened Detroit's crisis

Story originally appeared on Freep.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was a spender, a schemer and a liar.

And taxpayers paid for it, by the millions.

Over seven years, Kilpatrick's public corruption schemes, lavish lifestyle and ethical missteps cost taxpayers at least $20 million, a tab the financially strapped city was in no position to pick up but did anyway -- usually without knowing.

On Thursday, Kilpatrick will be sentenced for 24 corruption convictions. As he heads to federal prison for what could be decades, one important question lingers: How much did his extortion, kickback and bribery rackets contribute to the city's financial crisis and its filing in July for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation's history?

"Kilpatrick is not the main culprit of the city's historic bankruptcy, which is the result of larger social and economic forces at work for decades," federal prosecutors said in court documents. "But his corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis."

In purely monetary figures, the cost of Kilpatrick's ring of corruption is staggering:

  • There's the $8.4-million settlement the city coughed up in the 2007 police whistle-blower trial.
  • Another $9.6 million in illegal profits was pocketed over the years through crooked water and sewer contracts, the government says.
  • A $500,000 state grant that was meant for kids and seniors instead went to Kilpatrick's contractor friend, Bobby Ferguson, and Kilpatrick's wife, Carlita Kilpatrick. Taxpayers also paid $42,000 to lease two Lincoln Navigators for the former first lady.
  • Kilpatrick misused his city-issued credit card, charging more than $210,000 in his first three years in office for perks like a family trip to Las Vegas, spa visits, a hotel room for the babysitter and an $850 steak dinner. The mayor's petty cash fund also was abused to the tune of $144,000, which covered things like Lions football tickets, a Rolling Stones concert, health club membership and $43,000 worth of meals.
  • Tax dollars aside, there's also the $84 million in losses to troubled city pension funds. Six individuals, including Kilpatrick appointee and former fraternity brother Jeffrey Beasley, face criminal charges in that case. Kilpatrick wasn't indicted, but he is named as a coconspirator.
  • The cost to taxpayers for prosecuting him and providing him with a public defender won't be known until his appeals are exhausted.

But much more difficult to quantify is the nonmonetary cost of corruption: the betrayal of the public's trust. The honest contractors who were elbowed out of deals, even though their bids were lower. The businesses that refused to participate in pay-to-play schemes and just stayed away -- or went somewhere else.

"The numbers don't tell the gravity of the situation," said Reid Schar, the former federal prosecutor who successfully prosecuted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "When you have public corruption cases, the things that are very difficult to gauge and are not captured are, 'How much of public confidence is eroded by what the person has done? ...

"How do you put a value on a company that didn't bid or get the job?' You don't know."

In 2002, for example, Kilpatrick killed a plan to add a House of Blues restaurant at Ford Field because the company that proposed it refused to hire Kilpatrick's father and codefendant as its minority partner. Kilpatrick had pledged $10 million in city funds but changed his mind when the company refused to hire his dad.

In 2006, Ferguson used his relationship with the mayor to pressure a company into giving him 40% of a contract to renovate the Detroit police headquarters. The company offered 30%. Ferguson declined. The company then bowed out of the deal.

In 2001, minority contractor William Hayes was stiffed out of a $24.7-million sewer repair job that Kilpatrick steered to Ferguson instead. Six years later, Hayes closed his 40-year-old excavation business, claiming later that Ferguson and Kilpatrick made it impossible for him to compete for water and sewer contracts.

"He helped put me out of business," Hayes told the Free Press in March, referring to Ferguson. "It said right in the text messages. He told Kwame to put me out."

Meanwhile, Kilpatrick padded the city payroll with friends and family, including a cousin who admitted stealing nearly $20,000 from the Manoogian Mansion restoration fund. City payroll records show that more than two dozen of Kilpatrick's appointees were relatives or close friends who got an average 36% in salary increases while other employees got 2%.

The government is seeking at least 28 years in prison for Kilpatrick and up to 28 years for his longtime friend and partner in crime, Ferguson, who got $127 million in city contracts while Kilpatrick was mayor. Prosecutors said at least $73 million of that work was obtained illegally.

The defense is challenging the sentencing guidelines, saying the high end of Kilpatrick's sentence should be 15 years. The defense will make its own sentencing recommendation on Monday.

Schar, who got a 14-year conviction for Blagojevich, said the government's request for Kilpatrick is noteworthy, but not surprising.

"The courts are becoming less tolerant of the behavior and are willing to punish them more severely," Schar said of corrupt politicians.

For example, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who preceded Blagojevich, got 6½ years for 18 public corruption convictions in 2006. Five years later, Blagojevich got 14 years on similar counts. And last year, Jimmy Dimora, a county commissioner in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, got 28 years in prison.

"You're beginning to see (public corruption sentences) move up. ... The trend is definitely up," Schar said. "It seems clear that because these types of cases continue nationwide, the lesser sentences are not proving a sufficient deterrent."

Prosecutors in Detroit agree. "Unfortunately, the prosecutions and resulting penalties in past public corruption cases in this region have not been sufficient," they said in court documents. "They clearly did not dissuade Kilpatrick and his associates from using the mayor's office to engage in a brazen six-year crime spree."

"Kilpatrick is more culpable -- and his misconduct more pervasive -- than any other public corruption defendant sentenced in recent memory," prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo, later adding: "None of the other public officials disrupted his community as profoundly as Kilpatrick did."

Todd Haugh, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, says he believes Kilpatrick's criminal record is especially damaging. He has been to jail three times: once for obstruction of justice and perjury in the text message scandal and twice for probation violations, including one that took place in the middle of his public corruption trial. He took a cash wire money transfer from a pastor in Chicago and never reported it to his parole officer.

"I can't imagine that he's not going to get a very stiff sentence," said Haugh, a white-collar crime expert who helped amend federal fraud sentencing guidelines, which stiffened public corruption penalties in 2004.

"That's a problem under the (sentencing) guidelines. It shows that someone has a history of doing the wrong thing, and that's something judges care about," said Haugh, adding that the monetary cost of Kilpatrick's crimes also is noteworthy. "This is a lot of money. We're not talking about a couple thousand bucks here. We're talking about pretty big amounts."

Kilpatrick and Ferguson have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Ferguson has long maintained that he earned every contract he got. And Kilpatrick has argued that he didn't have as much say over contracts as the government claims, and that he never forced anyone to give Ferguson work.

Kilpatrick's lawyer, Harold Gurewitz, argues that Kilpatrick's suggested punishment is based on crimes that were never proved. He also said Kilpatrick's criminal history was overstated, and Kilpatrick was never the leader of any conspiracy.

"I have faith in the judicial system," said Gurewitz. "All we can really hope and pray for is that the system works in the way that it's intended."

When U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds sentences Kilpatrick, she will have several factors to consider, including: the purpose of the punishment, the harm that was caused, deterrence, whether the defendant can be rehabilitated, and how other similar defendants have been punished to ensure there's no disparity.

Haugh noted that Edmunds also can consider the city's bankruptcy filing. "That's like a CEO cooking the books and the company goes bankrupt. ... I don't know that there's a reason the judge can't consider that."

Edmunds also heard plenty at trial. There was minority contractor Avinash Rachmale, who said that he gave Ferguson $1.7 million for no work because he feared having his contracts killed. Contractor Thomas Hardiman said he lost two contracts worth $15 million combined because he wouldn't give Ferguson a big enough cut. Past mayoral employees said they were hit up for cash twice a year to buy Kilpatrick Christmas and birthday gifts. And Emma Bell, Kilpatrick's fund-raiser, said that she gave the ex-mayor more than $200,000 in cash kickbacks because she felt pressured.

"It struck me as such a brazen case," said Richard Winters, a veteran government professor at Dartmouth College who has researched and written about political corruption.

"I can't believe that the courts will ignore that anecdotal evidence," said Winters, referring to allegations of pay-to-play schemes that shoved certain businesses out of deals.

Winters noted that public corruption doesn't always deter economic development. For example, Illinois and Chicago have had plenty of public corruption, including four convicted governors -- yet Chicago is thriving.

Unfortunately, Detroit's not in the same boat. The city says it's bankrupt.

"I would be hesitant to lay something as big as that at the foot of (Kilpatrick)," said Schar, the Blagojevich prosecutor. "But if I wanted to subtly address this, I'd say, 'We're in bankruptcy. There may have been ways to avoid that.' "

Multilingual driving schools help immigrants get on the road From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20131006/METRO08/310060012#ixzz2h4OlGZpM

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Sterling Heights— Determined to master parallel parking, Iqbal Kina concentrates as she maneuvers her car between a pair of conesin the parking lot behind Madamma Driving School.

Outside, instructor John Bitti calls out commands in his student’s native Chaldean.

As a new immigrant from Baghdad who is just learning English, Kina, 32, is relieved to be working with an instructor who speaks her language and is excited to get her license.

“Here you can’t live without being able to drive,” the Madison Heights resident said through an interpreter. “You can’t go shopping, you can’t go to school.”

Kina is one of nearly 23,000 Chaldeans who have moved to the state within the last four years, according to U.S. census data. The Chaldean Community Foundation said 13,000 of them sought refugee status in Michigan after fleeing Iraq, which has been torn by sectarian violence since the U.S. invasion a decade ago.

As more of these new immigrants seek driver’s licenses in Metro Detroit, multilingual driving schools have been popping up.

Eric Younan, director of strategic initiatives for the Chaldean Community Foundation, said the number of Chaldean refugees continues to grow.

Once they arrive, after securing housing and getting their children into schools, these refugees seek jobs, Younan said. Often they don’t speak English, which makes it difficult to get a driver’s license and therefore to travel to work, he added.

“Learning how to drive is very important for the acculturation process,” Younan said. “If you’re not from Metro Detroit, it’s a really large expanse of area to travel.”

The foundation works to provide interpreters who help translate the written driver’s test, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State.

Ban Manna, owner of Southfield-based International Driver Testing, decided to start her business two years ago after she heard from family members and friends about how hard it was to find a Chaldean-speaking road testing agency.

Manna experienced it herself when her family came to the United States and her mother was taking her road test.

“I was sitting in the back and translating for her, but by the time I could translate it, she’d miss the turn or the sign,” she said.

Manna speaks English, Chaldean, Arabic and some Italian. Many of her clients are women whose culture would make it difficult to drive alone in a car with a man from outside their family.

“Most of the people I’m road-testing are adults who have been here less than a year,” she said. “Without a car, it’s like you have no life.”

Bitti, Manna’s cousin, said he has been a driving instructor for seven years and opened Madamma Driving School two years ago in the hopes of improving the quality of life for his community members.

“A lot of these people, the first question they get when they go to find a job is, do you have a driver’s license, which is the same as saying, do you have a car,” said Bitti. “I want to put everybody on equal ground. I can teach them in Arabic and Chaldean just as I could teach in English.”

Bitti said he teaches students the signs and road rules in English as well, to make sure they get used to it.

Driver’s training is only one part of the equation, Bitti said. Not everyone coming to the school can afford the lessons, which start at $50 per two-hour session, and the road test, which costs around $50.

The Chaldean Community Foundation is working to alleviate some of the expense for refugees.

The foundation, started in 2006 as the nonprofit wing of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, provides services such as mental health care, English classes and job training and placement. But foundation members soon noticed another gap they needed to fill.

Last year, the foundation launched the Chaldean Loan Fund to help recent immigrants buy cars. The loans have a $5,000 cap, Younan said.

Wasan Wartan said she moved to the United States four years ago after escaping religious persecution stemming from the Iraqi civil war. She came alone, knowing almost no English and with no family members and few friends living here.

The Southfield resident became the first of 11 people to get a car loan through the program last November.

Now 34, Wartan, is drives her 2003 Buick Rendezvous to her job as a sales associate at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Utica.

“I’m more independent than I was without a car. Before, I had to call a friend or pay a neighbor to drive me,” she said. “Now with my car I’m feeling more energy and I can go to work, go shopping or do anything.”

03 October 2013


Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed felony charges against four employees and former employees of Detroit-based mental health care provider Adult Well-Being Services for their alleged roles in a Medicaid fraud scheme.

The attorney general filed charges on Sept. 25 in the 54B District Court in East Lansing against:

• Current employee Dr. Sandra Schiff, PhD, 66, of West Bloomfield.

• Current employee William Vallier, 65, of Clawson.

• Former employee Marceia Lugo, 39, of Sterling Heights.

• Former employee Laura Leca, 27, of Westland.

The charges allege that in March 2011, a healthcare provider left her employment at Adult Well-Being without completing progress notes for hundreds of meetings with mental health patients.

The incomplete patient records violated Medicaid program rules, and a scheduled audit of the agency would have revealed that and triggered a repayment demand to Adult Well-Being, the attorney general said in a release.

He alleges that the four employees forged the electronic signature of the former employee more than 10 months after her departure, without her knowledge or consent, to create and authenticate false progress notes.

The former employee whose signature was allegedly forged by the four defendants does not face criminal charges at this time, but the investigation continues, the attorney general said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General is assisting in the investigation.

The charges stem from a June 2012 raid of Adult Well-Being Services locations.

The four defendants are each charged with:

• One count of Medicaid fraud- false record or statement to avoid payment to the state, a felony punishable by four years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.

• One count of medical records- intentionally placing false information on chart-health care provider, a felony punishable by four years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.

The four defendants surrendered themselves to authorities and were arraigned on Sept. 26 before Judge Andrea Larkin, who set personal bond for each at $25,000.

A preliminary exam of the defendants is set for Wednesday.


Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- When it comes to giving, Grand Rapids ranks as one of the country's most generous cities.

When compared to cities across the country, Grand Rapids comes in at 13th out of the top 20 determined by nerdwallet.com, a consumer finance site.

It's the only Michigan city to make the list that evaluates communities on volunteerism and philanthropy.

But Grand Rapids falls short of a trio of Utah cities that top the list: Provo, Ogden and Salt Lake which rank first, second and third, respectively.

Grand Rapids' volunteer rate is 36.7 percent, compared to Provo's to 58.5 percent. There was even a wide span between annual volunteer hours, with Grand Rapids' averaging just under 34 hours compared to 147 hours in Provo.

When it comes to donating money to causes, Grand Rapids residents give less than half than their counterparts in Provo: 13.9 percent compared to 5.3 percent.

Grand Rapids had an overall score of 30.5 percent compared to Provo's 100 percent.

The three top communities on the list are at ground zero of the Mormon faith, whose members belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Religion plays a role in levels of philanthropy, whether that is volunteer or donating money, says Divya Raghazan, a nerdwallet senior analyst.

She noted that while Grand Rapids is known for having generous deep-pocket philanthropists, the list also looks at community's population to see if residents, in general, tend to donate time as well as money.

"Most Christian religions request 10 percent tithing but Mormons are more likely to do it," said Raghazan. "There is a strong culture of charity and volunteerism in the Mormon Church, and I think in several other religions as well."


Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

Detroit-based Compuware Corp. has terminated a six-year, $600,000-a-year consulting contract for Peter Karmanos Jr., the company's co-founder and former chairman and CEO, according to a report filed Friday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The termination is effective Tuesday, according to the report, filed by Joseph Angileri, treasurer and CFO of Compuware (Nasdaq: CPWR).


Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

Fox Sports Detroit set another viewership record for Detroit Tigers games this season.

The cable network said today that its 152 Tigers telecasts averaged a 9.59 household rating, topping last year's record 9.21 average.

Numbers for the rest of Major League Baseball's markets were not available this afternoon, but it's believed the Tigers led all teams in local ratings average, as they did in 2012.

The ratings are based on data from New York City-based audience tracker The Nielsen Co.

Each local ratings point represents 18,459 households in the Detroit market.

The games that didn't air on FSD were televised on national channels.

The Tigers, who wrapped up their third consecutive American League Central Division championship last week, open the AL Division series on the road Friday against the Oakland Athletics.

Because of the team's popularity among viewers, FSD charges up to 25 percent more for a 30-second advertising spot during Tigers telecasts than it did a year ago, according to a person familiar with the rates who spoke to Crain's in February on the condition of anonymity.

Airing Tigers games is both lucrative and expensive for the network. Fox Sports Detroit was predicted by SNL Kagan to have $152.2 million in operating revenue against $112.5 million in expenses in 2013.

Fox Sports Detroit has aired Tigers games since 1998, when it won the broadcast rights from the now-defunct Pro-Am Sports System, owned at the time by the Washington Post Co.'s Post-Newsweek Stations Inc.

FSD inked 10-year deals, believed to be extensions of contracts already in place, in March 2008 with the Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings, both of which are owned by Little Caesars pizza chain co-founder Mike Ilitch.

The baseball team is believed to get $50 million annually from FSD under the contract. A portion of that rights fee is pooled under baseball's revenue-sharing system.

Detroit also gets another $50 million to $60 million from MLB's shared national TV rights deals; broadcast rights account for the majority of each team's annual revenue.

The Tigers and FSD are at the opposite end of the spectrum of the Houston Astros and Comcast SportsNet Houston.

On Sept. 22, the Astros road game against the Cleveland Indians drew a 0.0 rating, according to the Houston Chronicle.

That doesn't mean no one watched Cleveland beat Houston, but the numbers were so low — perhaps a few hundred — that it didn't rise to a measurable level. Most TV viewers in the market were watching the Houston Texans that Sunday.

The Astros finished a Major League-worst 51-111.

In recent days, it emerged that that Comcast SportsNet Houston — a regional network owned by the Astros, Houston Rockets and NBC Sports Group — hasn't paid the baseball team its rights fees for the past three months.

An involuntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition was filed Friday against CSN Houston in federal court by Comcast/NBC Universal, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Astros, who are protesting the bankruptcy, own about 46 percent of the network, the Rockets own about 31 percent and Comcast/NBC Universal owns 22 percent, the newspaper said.

The network, which launched Oct. 1, 2012, reportedly is available in only 40 percent of the Houston television market and has been unable to reach carriage deals with providers such as DirecTV and Time Warner.

The Tigers have no equity stake in Fox Sports Detroit.

Employment Up, Wages Down In Early 2013 For Southeast Michigan

Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

All of the five-county region of Southeast Michigan saw employment gains earlier this year, but only Washtenaw County had weekly wage growth to go with it, according to new data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The county that includes Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti had an average weekly wage of $989 for first-quarter 2013, up 0.8 percent from the same quarter in 2012, according to a report on county employment and wages from BLS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, late last week.

Meanwhile, average wages contracted over the same period by 1.3 percent in Wayne County (to $1,053 per week), 0.8 percent in Oakland County (to $1,072 per week) and 0.1 percent in Macomb County (to $974 per week).

Livingston County was not included in the report, which covers employment and wage data for 334 U.S. counties, including the 10 largest in Michigan. Wages climbed 0.6 percent to $989 per week in first quarter 2013 across all those counties, making the Washtenaw wage match the nation as a whole.

A separate data report in the BLS' Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages program shows Livingston's average weekly wage in March 2012 was $753, down 0.3 percent from a year earlier. On that same March-to-March monthly comparison, Washtenaw saw 1.4 percent wage growth, while Wayne was down 1.5 percent, Oakland is off 0.8 percent and Macomb by 0.9 percent.

Every county in the region except Wayne outpaced the nation as a whole in employment growth, however, according to the new report. Macomb led that trend with about 297,200 workers in March 2013, up 3.1 percent from a year earlier.

Oakland followed at 2.7 percent growth to about 668,900 employed, although the county in a separate news release on Monday reports that its total employment was up 3.9 percent, to 666,040 jobs. The county's figures were based on a three-month average employment rate this year, compared with first quarter 2012.

Washtenaw grew 2.3 percent to 196,700 workers, while Wayne County saw 0.9 percent jobs growth, to about 681,600 people according to BLS. Employment as a whole grew 1.6 percent last March to about 132.3 million workers, with jobs growth in 282 of the 334 counties tracked. Wages grew in 242 counties and declined in 93 counties, including four in Southeast Michigan.

Total March employment figures differed for all five counties in data collected separately by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget. But that data also showed employment gains among all five Southeast Michigan counties and a shrinking jobless rate, compared with a year earlier.

Michigan Opens Health Care Marketplace

Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

It's Oct. 1. Do you know where your Michigan Health Insurance Marketplace is?

Today – depending on your political viewpoint – is either the beginning of the government takeover of the health insurance industry or an opportunity for you to shop for (hopefully) lower cost and (possibly) subsidized health insurance.

Without further adieu, click here to begin the online health insurance application process that federal officials say will only take about 30 minutes to complete.

There are a lot of details for people to remember about the health insurance exchange. There also has been a lot of debate about whether the U.S., individuals or small businesses can afford it or not afford it.

But here is the bottom line: A 2009 study by Harvard University concluded that lack of health insurance coverage contributes heavily to at least 45,000 preventable deaths per year.

In other words, people without health insurance had a 40 percent higher risk of death than those with private insurance, primarily because they were unable to receive timely medical care.

In Michigan, about half of the state's estimated 1.2 million uninsured people earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, the federal-state program that serves low-income folks and families.

Many of those uninsured also earn too little to purchase health insurance in today's current market. Some, of course, especially the "young and invincible," just choose to roll the dice and hope they don't get seriously sick or injured.

Today and over the next six months of open enrollment, you have a chance to check out the prices, the benefits and the relative ease of shopping for health insurance online.

Or you can continue what you are doing, include being uninsured, and next April pay a $95 fine on your 2013 tax form for not having a health insurance policy.

The fine increases over three years until it caps out at $695 per year, or 2.5 percent of gross household income.

While small businesses under 50 can start the application process on Oct. 1 to cover their employees, the online function of the exchange won't go live until Nov. 1.

Check with your insurance agent or broker for how to sign up with the small business health option program, or SHOP.

Or go online. Many business associations in Michigan have developed informational websites to help small companies learn how to begin offering health insurance.

    Warren-based Michigan Business and Professional Association has created a Small Business Health Care Reform Guide.
    The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce also offers MI Health Answers to give members and nonmembers access to health care experts in Michigan and nationally on how to implement Obamacare.
    The Small Business Association of Michigan has launched Decision Point. It is free to SBAM members enrolled in an SBAM-sponsored health plan and $50 for members who are not. Nonmembers are charged $250 to join the association and access Decision Point.
    The Michigan Department of Financial and Insurance Services also has created a handy consumer guide for those who wish to learn more on how to pick a health insurance plan.
    The U.S. Small Business Administration also is offering a free Webinar series to teach entrepreneurs what the health care law means for their business.
    On the federal level, the Small Business Majority also has an online resource called the Health Coverage Guide.

"We've been focused on educating small businesses about this law since it went into effect," John Arensmeyer, CEO of the Small Business Majority, said in a statement.

"There's been so much rhetoric and political gamesmanship around the law, but what small businesses really want and need is the facts so they know what to do to comply with, and even benefit from, (the) provisions."

The Shutdown: What's Changing, What's Not

Story First Appeared in  Crain's Detroit Business.

Campers in national parks are to pull up stakes and leave, some veterans waiting to have disability benefits approved will have to cool their heels even longer, many routine food inspections will be suspended and panda-cams will go dark at the shuttered National Zoo.

Those are among the immediate effects when parts of the government shut down Tuesday because of the budget impasse in Congress.

In this time of argument and political gridlock, a blueprint to manage federal dysfunction is one function that appears to have gone smoothly. Throughout government, plans are ready to roll out to keep essential services running and numb the impact for the public. The longer a shutdown goes on, the more it will be felt in day-to-day lives and in the economy as a whole.

A look at what is bound to happen, and what probably won't:

THIS: Washington's paralysis will be felt early on in distant lands as well as in the capital — namely, at national parks. All park services will close. Campers have 48 hours to leave their sites. Many parks, such as Yellowstone, will close to traffic, and some will become completely inaccessible. Smithsonian museums in Washington will close and so will the zoo, where panda cams record every twitch and cuddle of the panda cub born Aug. 23 but are to be turned off in the first day of a shutdown.

The Statue of Liberty in New York, the loop road at Acadia National Park in Maine, Skyline Drive in Virginia, and Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park, home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, will be off limits. At Grand Canyon National Park, people will be turned back from entrance gates and overlooks will be cordoned off along a state road inside the park that will remain open.

"People who waited a year to get a reservation to go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon all of a sudden will find themselves without an opportunity to take that trip," said Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

BUT NOT THIS: At some parks, where access is not controlled by gates or entrance stations, people can continue to drive, bike and hike. People won't be shooed off the Appalachian Trail, for example, and parks with highways running through them, like the Great Smoky Mountains, also are likely to be accessible. Officials won't scour the entire 1.2 million-acre Grand Canyon park looking for people; those already hiking or camping in the backcountry and on rafting trips on the Colorado River will be able to complete their trips. The care and feeding of the National Zoo's animals will all go on as usual.

The shutdown won't affect Ellis Island or the Washington Monument because they are already closed for repairs.

THIS: The Board of Veterans Appeals will stop issuing rulings, meaning decisions about some disability claims by veterans will wait even longer than usual. Interments at national cemeteries will slow. If a shutdown drags on for weeks, disability and pension payments may be interrupted.

BUT NOT THIS: Most Department of Veterans Affairs services will continue; 95 percent of staff are either exempted from a shutdown or have the budget to keep paying them already in place. The department's health programs get their money a year in advance, so veterans can still see their doctor, get prescriptions filled and visit fully operational VA hospitals and outpatient clinics. Claims workers can process benefit payments until late in October, when that money starts to run out.

THIS: New patients won't be accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health, including 255 trials for cancer patients; care will continue for current patients. Federal medical research will be curtailed and the government's ability to detect and investigate disease outbreaks will be harmed. Grant applications will be accepted but not dealt with.

BUT NOT THIS: The show goes on for President Barack Obama's health care law. Tuesday heralds the debut of health insurance markets across the country, which begin accepting customers for coverage that begins in January. Core elements of the law are an entitlement, like Social Security, so their flow of money does not depend on congressional appropriations. That's why Republicans have been trying explicitly to starve the law of money. An impasse in approving a federal budget has little effect on Obamacare. As for NIH operations, reduced hospital staff at the NIH Clinical Center will care for current patients, and research animals will get their usual care.

THIS: Most routine food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration will be suspended.

BUT NOT THIS: Meat inspection, done by the Agriculture Department, continues. The FDA will still handle high-risk recalls.

THIS: Complaints from airline passengers to the government will fall on deaf ears. The government won't be able to do new car safety testing and ratings or handle automobile recall information. Internal Transportation Department investigations of waste and fraud will be put on ice, and progress will be slowed on replacing the country's radar-based air traffic system with GPS-based navigation. Most accident investigators who respond to air crashes, train collisions, pipeline explosions and other accidents will be furloughed but could be called back if needed.

Kristie Greco, speaking for the Federal Aviation Administration, said nearly 2,500 safety office personnel will be furloughed but may be called back incrementally over the next two weeks. The union representing aviation safety inspectors said it was told by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that nearly 3,000 inspectors will be off work. Greco did not confirm that.

BUT NOT THIS: Air traffic controllers and many of the technicians who keep air traffic equipment working will remain on the job. Amtrak says it can continue normal operations for a while, relying on ticket revenue, but will suffer without federal subsidies over the longer term. FAA employees who make grants to airports, most Federal Highway Administration workers and federal bus and truck safety inspectors will also stay on the job because they are paid with user fees. Railroad and pipeline safety inspectors will also remain at work.

THIS: About half the Defense Department's civilian employees will be furloughed.

BUT NOT THIS: The 1.4 million active-duty military personnel stay on duty and under a last-minute bill, they should keep getting paychecks on time. Most Homeland Security agents and border officers, as well as other law enforcement agents and officers, keep working.

THIS: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, could shut down. It provides supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education for pregnant women, mothers and their children.

BUT NOT THIS: School lunches and breakfasts will continue to be served, and food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will still be distributed.

THIS: A shutdown that lasts two weeks or more would probably start to slow an already sluggish economy, analysts say. Closures of national parks would hurt hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses. And federal workers who lost pay would spend less, thereby curbing economic growth. A three-week shutdown would slow the economy's annual growth rate in the October-December quarter by up to 0.9 of a percentage point, Goldman Sachs has estimated. If so, that could mean a growth rate of 1.6 percent, compared with the 2.5 percent that many economists now forecast.

BUT NOT THIS: Little impact on the economy if the shutdown only lasts a few days.

THIS: Economic data will be interrupted as the Bureau of Labor Statistics ceases almost all operations. This will leave the stock market without some of the benchmark economic indicators that drive the market up or down. The key September jobs report, due Friday, could still be released on time if the White House authorizes that, but that's not been determined. Statistical gathering also is being interrupted at the Commerce Department and Census Bureau. This means the government won't come out on time with its monthly report on construction spending Tuesday or a factory orders report Thursday.

BUT NOT THIS: The weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits is still expected Thursday. The Treasury Department's daily report on government finances will be released normally and government debt auctions are to proceed as scheduled. And at Commerce, these functions continue, among others: weather and climate observation, fisheries law enforcement and patent and trademark application processing.

THIS: Some passport services located in federal buildings might be disrupted — only if those buildings are forced to close because of a disruption in building support services.

BUT NOT THIS: Except in those instances, passport and visas will be handled as usual, both at home and abroad. These activities of the Bureau of Consular Affairs are fully supported by user fees instead of appropriated money, so are not affected. As well, the government will keep handling green card applications.

THIS: The Federal Housing Administration, which insures about 15 percent of new loans for home purchases, will approve fewer loans for its client base — borrowers with low to moderate income — because of reduced staff. Only 67 of 349 employees will keep working. The agency will focus on single-family homes during a shutdown, setting aside loan applications for multi-family dwellings. The Housing and Urban Development Department won't make additional payments to the nation's 3,300 public housing authorities, but the agency estimates that most of them have enough money to keep giving people rental assistance until the end of October.

BUT NOT THIS: It will be business as usual for borrowers seeking loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together own or guarantee nearly half of all U.S. mortgages and 90 percent of new ones.

THIS: Possible delays in processing new disability applications.

BUT NOT THIS: Social Security and Medicare benefits still keep coming.

Fixing Problems At Water Plant Can't Wait

Story first appeared in Traverse City Record Eagle.

Traverse City officials who worry about the region’s reputation as a vacation destination when e-coli bacteria counts get too high on area beaches should shudder at the thought of what a few cases of giardiasis might do.

That could have been the case at least twice this year during prime tourism season and, it turns out, “many times” in the past decade.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials issued a Significant Deficiency Violation Notice for incidents on July 5 and July 31, when the city failed to use enough coagulant to filter out a pathogen that can cause diarrhea from the city’s drinking water.

The more serious incident occurred July 5 — just as the National Cherry Festival was getting into full swing — because of a pump failure at the city’s water treatment plant.

City commissioners and officials from Elmwood, Garfield, and Peninsula townships, which buy water from the city, didn’t learn of the problem until Monday.

“Shouldn’t that have been done two months ago?” asked Commissioner Jim Carruthers.

The short answer, of course, is yes. If the city’s reputation suffered a black eye when the brand-new splash pad at Clinch Park spewed untreated sewage on some children, imagine what a few cases of “travelers diarrhea” (so named because of its prevalence in nations with less developed water systems) might have done.

This is the kind of thing that must be dealt with swiftly and publicly, to ensure it’s being fixed and to guarantee the public isn’t being kept in the dark.

City workers didn’t consider the incident a public health threat because the pathogen is usually not present in the area of East Bay where the city draws its water. But public officials can’t take that kind of gamble. 

DEQ officials said the incidents should have been immediately reported and they would have ordered an increase in chlorine, a partial flush of the system and a public notice.  This public notice would also have been read by those with a Golf Course Irrigation Systems.

The superintendent of the water treatment plant said he thought the level of a chemical that helps filter out the pathogen was a DEQ recommendation, not a required minimum. Incredibly, city records show the amount of coagulant has been below that level many times over the last decade.

That’s not acceptable. This is the major source of drinking water for thousands of people and untold numbers of visitors, and its purity must protected at all costs.

Obviously, the city needs to do some major work at the water plant — to better train personnel and upgrade or replace outdated equipment.

This can’t wait. Few public health issues are as crucial as pure potable water. The region’s health literally depends on it.

The Government Shutdown and Home Loans for Homebuyers

Story first appeared on RiverbankFinance.com.

Article By Anthony Bird CEO of Riverbank Finance in Grand Rapids Michigan:

Buying a home can have many challenges from critical underwriters to conservative appraisers however, on the long list of things that can go wrong with a home loan you would not expect a government shutdown to be a factor. As of 12:00 AM today on October 1st, 2013 the Federal government has now shut down due to a failure of Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution. With over 800,000 Federal employees being furloughed, this may mean home loan delays for home buyers.
Government Shutdown Causing Delays in Home Loan Approvals.  This could effect a Grand Rapids Mortgage Refinancing.

While the federal government may not be directly involved with the home loan process, there are several indirect factors that the Federal government has to help with to close a mortgage loan.  Large government bodies may all be suffering from furloughed employees and backups in processing approvals. These delays could affect all loan types including FHA Loans, USDA Loans, VA Loans, and even Conventional Loans.
Why will Home Loans be delayed during the Government Shutdown?

Regardless if your bank or mortgage company has stated that delays will not happen, this may not be the case. Delays in third party verifications may cause delays in real estate closings if income, identities or flood zones cannot be verified.

A common verification for any home loan approval is income verification through a 4506-T IRS tax transcript. A standard mortgage process for all mortgage companies and banks, is to obtain an IRS verification of income so that underwriters and quality control teams can verify that the income a mortgage loan applicant has provided is correct and accurate. The IRS has announced that they will be furloughing non-essential personnel including those whom process tax transcripts. If the income cannot be verified through the IRS, the loan will not close on time.

If a borrower cannot fully document their Social Security Number by providing documents such as a Social Security Card, a bank or mortgage company may process a SSA-89 Form for Social Security Number (SSN) Verification. This document is submitted through the Operations Field Officer at the Social Security Administration and processed as a verification of SSN. According to the Social Security Administration’s Shutdown Contingency plan issued on Sept 27th, this will be one of the many activities that will be discontinued.

Another example of possible mortgage delays due to the government shutdown is flood insurance coverage verified through FEMA.  FEMA is the government agency that sets the flood zones maps. If lenders cannot verify that homes are not in a flood zone then they may not allow a home loan to close.

List of Government Agencies Affected By the Government Shutdown:

    Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
    Federal Housing Administration (FHA which insures FHA Loans) (This may effect a Grand Rapids Mortgage.)
    Fannie Mae (FNMA a conventional mortgage buyer)
    Freddie Mac (FHLMC a conventional mortgage buyer)
    Veteran’s Administration (VA for VA Loans)
    Internal Revenue Service (IRS which verifies income on tax returns)
    United States Department of Agriculture (USDA for Rural Development Loans)
    Social Security Administration (SSA which verifies Social Security Numbers)
    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA which helps with flood insurance)
    Department of Education (DOE verifies minimum student loan payments)

This list of government agencies that will be affected by the government shutdown, provides critical services to fund, verify, insure and close mortgage loans. A furlough of employees could mean long turn times and delays in real estate closings.

Will FHA Loans be delayed?

FHA Loans, a popular mortgage program for First Time Homebuyers, should not be significantly impacted as long as the government shutdown is brief. HUD has issued a memo to banks and lenders explaining that daily operations will be continued. The FHA will continue to endorse single family loans, however with furloughed employees the process may take longer. Only limited FHA staff will be available to responds to questions emails and loan scenarios which may also cause delays. FHA connection will still be open and available to request FHA case numbers and transfer requests. Overall, business should continue as usual for FHA loans providing that they do not run out of commitment authority during the shutdown period. Delays may be expected on third party verifications.

Will VA Loans be delayed?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has issued a statement explaining that business should continue as usual for VA Loans however 1/3 of the VA Benefits Employees will be furloughed.  The Veterans Benefits Administrations has 7,252 employees, of their 21,237, which will be furloughed during the shutdown.  Even with the limited staff, the VA encourages banks and lenders to continue to originate loans for homebuyers.  Veteran’s Certificates of Eligibility (COE) will still be available to request online through the webLGY. Manual COEs will still be processed and researched through the Atlanta Eligibility Center. Appraisals may still be ordered and processed through the Veterans Information Portal. Delays may be expected on third party verifications.

Will USDA Rural Development Loans be delayed?

USDA Rural Development Loans may be delayed throughout the Government Shutdown. There are no updates from the USDA at this time, however it is likely that they will not issue Conditional Commitments for home loans until a continuing resolution is passed by Congress. This may be a major setback to USDA mortgages as no updates are available.

The overwhelming and increasing popularity of USDA home loans has already created a backlog of 4-5 weeks for processing once a loan has been sent to the USDA for a conditional commitment in some areas such as Michigan in their Traverse City and Mason offices. USDA Home loan pre-approvals and originations will still continue with banks and mortgage lenders, however homebuyers and real estate agents should be cautioned about possible delays. Additional details about USDA Rural Housing delays may soon be available.
Will Conventional Loans be delayed?

Conventional loans are not directly handled through government agencies until after a loan’s funding by a banks or mortgage company. Once a home loan is funded by an institution, it may then be repackaged as a Mortgage Backed Security (MBS) and sold by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Conventional Mortgage loans should not be directly delayed through the government shutdown however third party verifications may cause minor delays.
Will Homebuyers be affected during the Federal Government Shutdown?

Chances are that Congress will quickly pass a resolution to re-fund the Federal Government within three days, however if this does not happen, you may see delays in mortgage loan funding for any home loan type. During this time of uncertainty, it is a wise plan to expect delays and plan accordingly. The details of individual delays may not be immediately available until an issue occurs. Homebuyers and sellers should be vigilant in requesting updates from their loan officers and real estate agents as well as work closely with them to ensure a quick and smooth real estate closing. Unforeseen issues may arise such as IRS transcript verification delays, government insuring delays or even flood insurance delays.

What can I do to ensure my home loan closes quickly?

While many of the factors that could delay your home loan are simply out of your control, there are step you may take to ensure your loan is moving forward as quickly as possible. It is recommended that you keep a great line of communication with your loan officer and real estate agent during the government shutdown.  If any documents or requirements are needed for loan approval, be sure to provide the documentation as soon as possible so further delays are not created by you.

The best advice for a homebuyer buying a home during the government shutdown is simply to be patient. Delays in a home purchase would undoubtedly be frustrating, however, there is little a homebuyer or seller can do if the delays are due to the government shutdown. Contingency plans are now in place by all government agencies to reduce delays. Remember, you are not alone in waiting as there are over 60,000 government home loans closed monthly.

The first reaction is to look for whom is to blame and react by pushing them to help move your loan towards closing. It is not your real estate agent nor your loan officer’s fault for the government shutdown, so do not shoot the messenger.  We can all agree that Congress has some major issues on their hands, so let’s all hope they do their jobs quickly and get the Federal Government back in business.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Government Shutdown

How long will a government shutdown last?

While this is not the first government shut down that we have had, this is the first government shutdown in the past 17 years. Other government shutdowns are typically over within a few days, while others have lasted up to three weeks (21 days).

Is the Entire Federal Government Shutdown?

No. The government shutdown will affect only non-essential personnel which is estimated at 800,000 of the 3 million Federal Government employees.  On the list of those that do not have to worry about their paychecks are military personnel, the president and of course Congress (they write the laws – why wouldn’t they get their paychecks right?).

Will I still get my Mail?

Yes; the US Postal Service (USPS) will still continue to deliver mail throughout the Government Shutdown. While the USPS is essentially ran by the federal government, it is its own separate entity.
Will Universities and Schools be closed?

No however federally funded programs such as Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans could directly affect schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education, if the shutdown should last more than one week. Some schools receive as much as 20% of their funding from Federal programs which could cause major funding issues for schools if congress does not pass a resolution.

Will National Parks and National Museums be closed?

Yes; visitors to National Parks and Museums will be told to leave immediately and then entrances will be sealed off.  The @USCONGRESS Twitter page tweeted at 12:00 AM, “Due to a lapse in government funding, this account will not be active until further notice.” Hours before this, they made it clear that Visitor Centers would also be closed, “If there’s a lapse in gov’t. funding, the Capitol Visitor Center will be closed beginning 10/1 & all tours will be suspended.”

Campers at Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and other National Parks have already been asked to leave and travelers at hotels within the parks will be given up to two days to remove their items and exit. National Museums and Presidential Museums such as the Smithsonian, National Zoos and even the Gerald R. Ford Museum will be closed and denying visitors.

Locally, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI was closed and will not reopen until the shutdown is ended. This has already affected the World’s Largest Art Festival, Artprize, in Grand Rapids, with several top exhibits are behind pushed to the curb as visitors will not be allowed to enter.

For more information on a Home Loan Grand Rapids, contact Riverbank Finance today.