The Year In Politics • 2008

Posted In: Politics, National, State, Local,   From Issue 674   By: Mike Thompson

26th December, 2008     0

In Saginaw's local government, the year started with holes in the streets and ended with holes in the budgets.

 In Michigan's state government, the year began with holes in the budgets and ended with gifts to Consumer's Energy and Blue Cross executives as the auto industry teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

And in the national political scene, the year began with Bush and Congress presiding over the erosion of our real estate market, with legislators and regulators apparently asleep at the wheel as their pockets filled with cash from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, only to end with Bush signing dozens of last minute executive orders designed to pay back campaign contributors and all eyes shining upon Barack Obama as a modern-day Prince Valiant to slay the dragons of hubris and greed afflicting us.

Ah yes, what a year it was.

In terms of the American psyche and collective spirit, it can best be described as beleaguered, outraged, and uncertain – qualities uncharacteristic to our heritage of confidence, security, and pro-active problem solving.

With so many Americans struggling to make ends meet, it was as if they could not be bothered with the corruption running rampant around them; and worse yet, years of scandal & greed created a paralysis, an inability to react to each new betrayal of the public trust, except to shore up the weakening banks of their own narrow self-interest.

One ray of hope and exception to this rule came in the form of the landslide Presidential election of Barack Obama. He epitomized qualities of unification embodied by Lincoln and the visionary pragmatics of Kennedy who strove "not to look at things as they are and say 'why'; but look at things as they could be and say why not?"

Whether Obama can anchor substance to his vision in a land bloated by entitlement and bankrupt through decades of inefficiency and wastefulness is an open question. He certainly cannot do it alone, so as 2008 fades into the recess of memory and 2009 opens a new door, we must remember that the future indeed, is unwritten.

How the chapters unfold is up to each of us.

So let us start by naming names, halting the madness that often passes as public service and public policy, and forging a new political party for 2009 – one that isn't defined by Republican or Democrat, but distinguished by reason and rationality – The Common Sense Party.


The Year in Local Politics • Icy Streets and Potholes

In the City of Saginaw and Saginaw County 2008 began with icy snow covered streets and ended the way it began, with the City claiming it didn't have the 'resources' to properly plow side streets and the County re-appointing Dick Mallette to the Road Commission, despite the fact he spent most of last winter sunning in the warm climates of Florida.

When Mallette was asked about his reappointment, he replied, "I don't got no comment."

There was progress in between, in terms of potential for local development, and in terms of increased volunteer activism. People were making things happen, for everything from a Water Spray Park near the old Andersen wave pool site, to a Central Michigan University medical facility on the site of an old dump at the northwest edge of the City of Saginaw's riverbank.

Citizens rallied against crime and for neighborhood improvement. It might be said, in some cases, that the performance of civic leaders exceeded the performance of the governing units.

Holes in streets are a growing problem, both physically and metaphorically. Lack of federal and state funds is a problem, although this might change with Barack Obama's emphasis on fixing infrastructure through economic stimulus.

 However, the City of Saginaw did itself no good when crews couldn't cope with early February's ice storm-turned-blizzard. Jagged packed ice in the storms aftermath tore up the bottoms of cars. Then, when the ice melted, gaping potholes doubled the damage.

City Manager Darnell Earley declined a chance to describe the challenges faced by his crews, stating, "We do what we can and it really doesn't seem to satisfy a lot of people when it comes to snow removal and street maintenance."

This statement showed little faith in citizens.

These are the same citizens who volunteered in so many ways.  Just a few examples are anti-crime groups such as Parishioners on Patrol, or grassroots organizations such as the Covenant Neighborhood Association pairing with Habitat for Humanity, or recreation enthusiasts who brought Hoyt Park back to life for youth baseball, or participants in a widespread spring cleanup.  In fact, council members and other elected leaders, in their own right, often are volunteers as well.

In contrast to Earley's stance, Saginaw County Road Commission Director Brian Wendling did himself a good deed by responding to public concerns.

Wendling and the Road Commission were widely criticizing for putting their plows back into the garages during the heart of that same February blizzard. However, some basic research showed that crews in every other county did the exact same thing, mainly to prevent plows from crashing into stray or stranded drivers in whiteout conditions.

 When conditions abated, the county crews did their jobs.

Wendling received no apologies for the unfounded criticism, but he deserved some.

From holes in the roads, City Hall found a hole in its budget late in the year. It was discovered that a nameless person or persons in the budget office had improperly sent $1.6 million from industrial property tax abatement's to the Saginaw Board of Education headquarters, even though such sharing was not intended because schools now depend mostly on state aid.

Earley and School Superintendent Tom Barris said they didn't know this was happening, and pointed to past underlings no longer on staff because of high turnover.

City Council members and Board of Education trustees also professed a lack of knowledge, although when they met after the fact in a liaison group, they still didn't discuss the issue, demonstrating not only do they apparently not know what is going on within the city, apparently they don't even care.

It doesn't take a genius to see that much of this money could be used for – hey, plowing city streets!

The school board has to pay the $1.6 million back to City Hall, and so now the school board has a hole in its own budget.

In fact, the school board is missing yet another $1 million.

Of course, former School Board Superintendent Gerald Dawkins – who resigned and moved out of the area in 2008 – has been unavailable for comment.


 Local government in (in)action.

Despite these stumbles, City Council members managed to come up with good enough plans to draw outside investment, especially in terms of recreation. The splash park south of Ojibway Island will replace the expensive, inefficient wave pool with free or affordable water fun geared to smaller children.

Rejuvenation of Hoyt Park brings one of the state's best facilities back to life for youth baseball and adult softball. Ojibway Island is gaining more activity each summer, and the Old Town area across the bridge keeps fighting the odds with events such as the summer Lawn Chair Film Festival and many new events by the Old Saginaw Civic Association.

The Mid-Michigan Children's Museum has debuted, and the Saginaw Children's Zoo should not be taken for granted.

As for jobs, Saginaw's economic rebirth faces similar challenges throughout America. The best bet for a local economic cure, or more realistically for at least a bandage, is to continue establishing Saginaw as a regional medical center. Covenant and Saint Mary's both have undertaken expansions, the Shaheen family has offered a boost with MCVI and other projects, and now Central Michigan University may continue with a medical school near Interstate 675's northbound Davenport Street exit ramp.

We can only be thankful that plans during the 1980s for a "Lumbermill theme park" never emerged, or these 60 acres would not be available.

One thing that can be said for the Saginaw City Council is that at least they televise their meetings on cable. The Saginaw Board of Education could do the same. So could suburban and outlying school boards and township boards, not to mention the County Board of Commissioners.

However, people on these boards opt not to do so.

If you were to ask a member of one of these boards, they would respond that Review Magazine is misinformed because they do not have their own cable stations, unlike the Saginaw Board of Education.

But they, not Review, are the ones who are "misinformed," because all cable companies provide access channels. Even if not live, any group can air proceedings (or virtually any content) via videotape.

Cable access, even during the Internet era, remains underutilized.

Given the inability of City Government to properly manage their budget without cutting essential public services, perhaps they should look at eliminating the Fiscal Services Administration and outsourcing these duties to the highest bidder. This would save taxpayers $341,587 per year.

And while city leaders cry 'poor', the approximate cost of one management position for two retirement cycles in Saginaw City government amounted to $13,690,846.17 – this equals the actual cost of one position for 58 years, inclusive of all retirement & benefit packages.

Government pension reform anyone?


The Year in Regional & State Politics


The election of Barack Obama as president will etch 2008 as one of the most significant years in American political history, but little of the enthusiasm shook down to the Saginaw front.

John McCain had conceded the State of Michigan a month earlier, which detracted from any sense of urgency among citizens who focus on little more than presidential elections.

Republican Rep. Ken Horn kept his state 94th District House seat with his second win in a row over Democrat Bob Blaine, in a battle of former County Commissioners. This was an odd election because Blaine had all the potential for Obama coattails, but he ignored media requests for interviews and attended few of the assorted candidate forums.

However, Horn will be term-limited out of the House in 2010, and Republican Sen. Roger Kahn still will have a term to go, blocking Horn from moving up in the same manner as Kahn.

U.S. Congressional incumbents, who don't face term limits, win 98 percent of their elections. Republican Dave Camp in the 4th District and Democrat Dale Kildee in the 5th District kept their seats with ease, as did Democratic U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

In local law enforcement, Prosecutor Michael Thomas and Sheriff Charles Brown faced their main challenges not in the November general elections, but in the August Democratic primaries. Thomas withstood the heat from longtime defense attorney Tom Frank, but Brown was knocked out of office by Bill Federspiel, a Saginaw Township police officer and former City Council member.

Federspiel successfully zeroed in issues such as alleged mistreatment of jail prisoners, and the personal use of unmarked cars among top Sheriff's Department officers.

The most important change in state government was underpublicized in most cases, but not in the thorough pages of The Review.

For an open Michigan Supreme Court seat, Democrat Diane Hathaway ousted Republican incumbent Cliff Taylor. A 4-3 court of John Engler appointees had tilted decisions in favor of corporate and insurance interests, but with Taylor's removal, the balance will swing more in favor of "the little guy" at the state's highest court.

Michigan voters also passed a provision to allow use of medical marijuana for limited reasons and with a doctor's prescription, ending one component of a costly travesty that can be collectively labeled the 'war on drugs'.


One Environmental Challenge Lost, Another Begins


Corporate and civic interests who want to dump the Saginaw River's dioxin-laden sediments on Crow Island will seemingly get their way. The problem is supposed to be that freighters, lined up en masse like economic soldiers, can't get far enough down the river.

However, the problem never seemed serious enough for the corporate interests to pay for adequate environmental controls of the sediments that demand removal.

Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (with Jennifer Granholm keeping her hands supposedly clean) finally intervened into the regulatory process, in effect deregulating it.

So, good luck, neighbors of Crow Island.

On the next environmental front, energy producers desire to build eight new coal-fired plants in Michigan. The energy industry proclaims that coal now is clean, but environmental activists insist that coal never can be clean.

One of the eight sites is at Bay County's Karn-Weadock facility on the mouth of the Saginaw River in Essexville, and another is in Midland at Saginaw Road and Waldo Avenue. The Sierra Club is involved in protests, along with an array of smaller organizations.

On Dec.18th several environmental groups charged that the EPA is poised to cut a deal with Dow Chemical in the waning days of the Bush Administration.

National and regional environmental organizations strongly objected to closed-door negotiations to reach an agreement on the largest dioxin contaminated site in the country here in Mid Michigan.

Dow Chemical, the world's largest chemical company, has contaminated more than 50 miles of river downstream from the company's global headquarters in Michigan.

In a letter sent to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, groups including Waterkeeper Alliance, the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan's Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and the League of Conservation Voters allege the proposed process could result in an agreement that reduces the protectiveness of the cleanup, weakens the government's hand in requiring timely action, curtails public input and reduces government transparency and accountability.

Every single one of our nation's environmental laws was built on a foundation of transparency and public participation," stated Waterkeeper Alliance Chairman, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  "EPA's attempt to circumvent that fundamental approach is an attack on the very cornerstone of our democracy."

The EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) launched the private negotiating session with Dow with the intent of negotiating an agreement under the non-regulatory Superfund Alternatives Sites (SAS) program.  

This would change the way the cleanup would be administered.  Currently the site is administered through requirements in an existing State hazardous waste permit.


Boos, Hisses & Kudos

 What Happened to 'Common Sense'?


The Right Idea:  Right now Property Tax Values under Proposal A may go up every year by 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

But Democrats Richard LeBlanc of Westland and Richard Hammel of Mount Morris introduced a plan to assure when market value goes down the taxable value at least doesn't go up. 

Last year the Legislature stipulated cities must go back to the current market values predicated upon the past six months, rather than the value from the prior year.

Government always has money coming at it from taxpayers and lobbyists; but now, with the new realities of our economy, they need to learn to live within their means, as do all Americans.

Unfortunately, this lesson was not learned very well, seeing as all state and local governments in a recent Harvard Survey were actually spending well over the amount of money they had coming in.


The Wrong Idea – A Gift to Consumers Energy: In September the Michigan Legislature passed an energy package to lure businesses to Michigan, requiring more renewable energy, but raising residential rates in the process.

The cost increase for consumers and ratepayers during this cold winter will be 8 to 20 percent over five years.  Chairman Frank Accavitti said ratepayers would be "paying more per kilowatt hour, but we want to help them use less".  Legislators attempted to offset the increase by allowing tax credits for people who install energy star related appliances, windows and insulation.

But this only works if people have the money to spend on the home improvements – giving us pause to question the 'common sense' of this plan in the first place.

As Senator Roger Kahn noted, "The weaknesses in the bill are the creation of monopolies, cost overruns of 10 percent that don't have to be validated on the parts of energy companies, and problems with the rates for our poor and struggling."

If local residents were worried about not being able to buy more than a lump of coal for Christmas, the utility companies with this measure intend to be doing exactly that with the extra revenues generated by this move.

Consumers Energy claims it will be using the additional revenue to help build a coal plant at the Karn Weadock Complex in Hampton Township.


The Right Idea • The income tax now is 4.35 percent, up from 3.9 percent. Republicans said lawmakers could have done more to hold this in line, possibly through Frankenmuth Rep. Ken Horn's proposal to cut each department by 2 cents on a dollar.

Democrats argued that the action was more a "restoration" than an "increase" because the rate was as high as 4.6 percent during John Engler's tenure before Governor Granholm took office.


Bonus for the Blues: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan sells nearly 70 percent of health insurance policies in the State. As a 'non-profit' insurer of last resort, by law it must cover anyone a for-profit carrier will not. In exchange, the state gives it a $75 million tax break. The 'Blues' net earnings last year were $152.5 million and between 2001 and 2006 it doubled revenues to $2.8 billion.

The Blues have spent $365 million since 2005 to buy four additional insurance companies. A Blue Cross written bill that zipped through the House into the Sensate would allow the Blues to raise rates first without state approval, charge more depending on how old someone is and where they live, and extend to a year from the current six months the waiting period before benefits begin with someone having an existing condition.

Meanwhile, the Blues CEO Daniel Loepp last year got paid $1.66 million, 67 percent more than the previous year. Their Top 10 executives got $10.5 million in salary bonuses and deferred compensation.


The Bailout:  The deed is done.

Navigated in the midst of a crisis, Congress managed to pass the $700 billion Wall Street 'Bailout Plan', but only after the Senate added another $100 billion in spending packages, leaving the majority of Americans exiled on Main Street to ask, 'Where's my happy chocolates?'

And more importantly, how are we going to pay for all of this?

The CRA Act of 1977 essentially ensured equal access to funds, designed to give people 'stakes' in their communities through financial ties such as home ownership; but it also subjected banks to political pressure and encouraged them to make loans they otherwise would not.

 With banks giving credit to people that could not afford to buy the homes they were approved upon, it created a house of financial cards that came tumbling down into every home in America.


On a Positive Note:  HealthSource Millage Approved (But Politics Still Gets in the WAY)

At a time when many hospitals throughout the region are moving away from costly long term care services and risky, cost-intensive mental health & chemical substance services, HealthSource Saginaw is actually expanding its involvement into these arenas, contracting with Bay Medical to provide specialized services, to cite one example.

Through the stewardship of CEO Lester Heyboer, Jr, the facility has taken a $400,000 annual loss and turned it into a $500,000 annual gain; but because HealthSource is a municipal health facility heavily dependent upon Medicare & Medicaid dollars and the fact President Bush has threatened to slash $182 billion from Medicare and $17 billion from Medicaid over the next five years, this would translate into a $372 million reduction to Michigan in 2009 and $4.4 billion over the next five years,

Saginaw County voters were asked on Tuesday, August 5th to approve a .20 reduced millage renewal, which will cost the average homeowner only $10.00 per year and bring in about $1 million, or 4 percent of Healthsource's budget the first year. 

With voters stepping up to the plate and approving the millage renewal, HealthSource is now poised to move forward into the 21st Century – provided politics doesn't get in the way.

Even though the entity could split off as an independent 501c3 non-profit regional health provider, similar to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, it would require a vote from the HealthSource Board and County Commissioners to do so.

However, many commissioners are looking at this resource as a potential source of revenue to the County, even though revenues derived from HealthSource by law may not be diverted.

Perhaps the best direction to ensure the future of this jewel in our community would be for the Board under the IRS standards for non-profit corporations to limit the number of politicians on the HealthSource Board, as this would require more community input and better serve the public.

But don't hold your breath for that to happen.

In November a 5-member Special Interview panel consisting of Republicans Pat Wurtzel and Tom Basil and Democrats Eddie Foxx, Carl Ruth and Bregitte Braddock interviewed six candidates presented by the HealthSource Board of Trustees for two new open Board positions (3-nominees for each position).

The HealthSource Board approved the nominations of Chairman Robert Ducharme and Board of Trustee member Trish Luplow. However, the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners rejected this selection by its own Trustee Advisory Committee & Board and re-appointed member Cathy Trudell over Luplow, despite the fact Trudell earlier claimed she wasn't seeking the position again.

Highly political and confrontational in the Saginaw News about union issues and other challenges facing HealthSource, the rejection of Luplow and re-appointment of Trudell – an Avon Sales representative – raises serious concerns about the agenda that the Board of Commissioners envision for this significant resource to Saginaw County.


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