Running Scared

Congressman Paul Mitchell among hundreds of Republican representatives ducking constituents during the February work break

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Photo courtesy of St. Clair County Democrats.

Last week was the first district work break of the 115th Congress, a week-long recess from business in Washington during which representatives head back to the districts that elected them to keep in touch with the issues that matter to folks at home. .

Traditionally, members of Congress use these breaks to meet with constituents to gauge public opinion and hear from voters about the issues they would like to see their representatives address. But little about American politics in 2017 has been typical, and the Congressional work break was no exception.

Following weeks of protest against President Trump’s executive orders and moves by Congress to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement on the table, many representatives are opting out of public appearances and town hall meetings. According to Vice News, more than 200 Republican representatives are skipping public events during the work period in favor of tele-town halls and private events with pre-approved guest lists.

Paul Mitchell, the freshman representative of Michigan’s 10th District, is among them.

Mitchell, the former CEO and owner of Ross Medical Education Center, moved to the district in 2015 when long time 10th District representative Candice Miller announced she would not seek re-election. He spent $3.6 million of his own money on an aggressive primary campaign against State Senator Phil Pavlov, outspending his opponent nearly ten to one.

With major issues ranging from school vouchers to health care reform currently pending in Congress, Mitchell and his staff have received an unprecedented volume of calls and e-mails from voters.

Rather than taking the time to interact with those voters over the work break, however, Mitchell has opted for controlled discussions with carefully screened groups. He has also kept his schedule of events private, in order to avoid disruption by constituents upset about the lack of public town halls or coffee hours. Even staffers in his Shelby Township office claim to be unaware of his comings and goings, telling drop-in visitors that they don’t know if or when the Congressman would be present to hear their concerns.

Of particular concern to local residents is the pending repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Mitchell’s working class constituents will be among the hardest hit by the end of President Obama’s health care reform. In the 10th District, one in ten residents are currently insured either by an ACA marketplace plan or under the law’s expanded medicaid eligibility.

Mitchell is a supporter of the Republican repeal effort, characterizing efforts to defend the ACA as protecting the previous president’s legacy despite the law’s failure. In response to concerns about the repeal, he has touted his sponsorship of a bill protecting those with pre-existing conditions against coverage exclusions, though that bill does not address policy pricing or affordability.

A petition requesting a town hall meeting with Mitchell drew hundreds of signatures and small groups of constituents visited his Shelby Township office throughout the week to request a meeting. The Congressman has not responded to either effort.

In an appearance on the community access program Round Table, Mitchell defended his decision not to meet with voters in a public setting. He characterized town halls as “signs and screaming to get on TV” and suggested his strategy of meeting only in private with select groups better served the constituents of his district. And despite a token acknowledgement that he represents all the people of his district, he dismissed both the push for a town hall and high-profile policy concerns as motivated by partisan politics.

Mitchell has since returned to Washington, where the House reconvened this week to consider bills including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the establishment of a nationwide school voucher program, and the elimination of major environmental protections.

The next Congressional work break is in mid-April.

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What Recovery?

 

New economic data suggests the recession lingers on in local households and in communities across the state.

SONY DSCFive years after the official end of the “Great Recession”, poverty rates in Marine City continue to rise while median incomes continue to fall.

Last week’s release of the American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau paints a picture of an uneven recovery that is not being felt in Marine City or throughout much of Michigan.

Median income in Marine City fell 9 percent over the last five years to $40,897, only a few dollars more than the median income recorded in the 2000 Census. The 2000 median, after controlling for inflation, would be worth $55,192 in current dollars.

The local poverty rate jumped to 16.3 percent from 9.9 percent in 2009, when the recovery officially began. This is due in part to a stubbornly high unemployment rate that remains more than triple the 2000 rate, as well as to declining labor force participation.

Statewide, nearly three-quarters of Michigan cities and towns are experiencing the same economic difficulties. The overall poverty rate for the state rose to 17 percent, and nearly 1 in 4 Michigan children now live in a household with an income below the poverty line.

Backpack Give Away to be Held August 20

On the first day of a new school year, backpacks and pencils are big news.

The day starts with finding their hooks, neatly labeled with each student’s name. As they put their things away, they show off their gear – backpacks in favorite colors or featuring popular characters, new boxes of neatly sharpened pencils and crayons, decorative folders to carry homework back and forth.

It may seem a little thing, but it is a bonding experience for young children nervous about a new teacher and new classmates, one that can give a feeling of confidence in being well-prepared for the learning to come. But for students from low-income families who cannot afford school supplies, it can start the year off on a sour note.

The Women’s Foundation of the St. Clair County Community Foundation wants to change that.

In partnership with the East China School District, the foundation is hosting a backpack and school supplies giveaway for low-income residents of St Clair County on Thursday, August 20 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the district administration building.

In addition to backpacks filled with school supplies for school aged children, preschool packages containing a reading book, coloring book and crayons will be available for younger children. A mobile food pantry will also be on site to help needy families.

To receive supplies, families must bring proof of St. Clair County residency and children must accompany their parents to the event. Students do not need to be enrolled in East China schools to qualify and no proof of income or other documentation is required.

The administration building is located at 1585 Meisner Rd. in East China Township. More information about the event is available on the school district’s website at http://www.eastchinaschools.org/index.php/ecsd/backpack-giveaway-2015.html.

East China School Board Votes to Close Eddy Elementary

At a special school board meeting on August 10, the East China school board voted to close Eddy Elementary school. The closure will be effective for the start of the 2016-17 school year.

The vote comes as the latest development in efforts by the school board to better align district facilities with current enrollment levels. East China school district has operated at a deficit for 11 of the last 12 years, primarily due to declining enrollment.

Vice President Glenn Koenigbauer presented the motion as part of a broader discussion of the ongoing facilities study process. Consulting firm Barton Malow presented detailed assessments of the current state of the district’s buildings at the last two school board meetings.

“I think that the parts that become obvious, if we can make decisions and put them behind us I think it would help the entire process.” Koenigbauer said.

Board member Allen Reichle cast the lone dissenting vote after voicing concerns that the meeting agenda did not indicate that a vote on a building closure was expected. He acknowledged that the move was “not shocking”, but characterized holding the vote at a special meeting as “misleading”.

The board rejected Reichle’s suggestion that the vote be postponed until the next regular meeting. The motion passed 6-1.

After the vote, Reichle took to Facebook with criticism of the board’s actions and allegations that they violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing the facilities studies in small group sessions.

The closure does not change the board’s plans to move forward with a bond proposal to modernize and improve district facilities. The issue will be on the agenda for discussion and a possible vote during the next school board meeting. If approved, voters will get to weigh in on the bond measure in a March election.

The next meeting of the East China school board is scheduled for August 24 at 7 p.m.

Riverview East art program connects creativity to community

Chalk drawing on the sidewalk just outside the main entrance of Riverview East.

Chalk drawing on the sidewalk just outside the main entrance of Riverview East.


The importance of art at Riverview East High School is apparent even from the parking lot.

Under the school’s sign a living wall, still in its winter dormancy, adorns what was once a garage door. Colorful chalk drawings decorate the path to the back side of the building, where the school’s main entrance is located.

The force behind the creativity that spills out from the school and into the community is art teacher Jason Stier.

In a t-shirt and khakis Stier, whose students call him Jay, could be mistaken for one of the teens in his class at first glance. When he started teaching art at the school 14 years ago it did not have an art program at all. Developing the program from scratch was a challenge.

“They had nothing. When I came here they had a pack of construction paper and some markers.” Stier said.

From those humble beginnings he has grown a program that connects creativity to community, engaging students in art projects that go far beyond the classroom and the school.

His newest effort aims to bring 10 to 12 Little Free Libraries to locations in and around Marine City. The project was the idea of English teacher Pat Keck, who suggested it as a way of connecting a research unit on literacy with action in the community.

“It just makes so much more sense than to have my kids do a Powerpoint on literacy or illiteracy, and show it to me, and me give it a grade. It is going to stick with them a lot longer.” Keck said.

Students are charged with developing ideas for the libraries, building partnerships with local businesses and organizations to support the project, gathering materials, and even securing permission for the libraries’ eventual placement. Each library will be unique, with its own theme and content that reflects the interests of the team of students that built it.

“The goal is to get students thinking about their own community and tying in their interests and what they recognize as needs.” Stier said.

The libraries are not the first community art project Stier has helped students launch.

Thank you note from the food pantry that benefited from the school's Empty Bowls fundraiser.

Thank you note from the food pantry that benefited from the school’s Empty Bowls fundraiser.

In November, Riverview East students organized an Empty Bowls fundraiser dinner to support the food pantry at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Marine City. The dinner raised more than $2000. As with the Little Free Libraries, the project was a collaboration between Keck’s English class and Stier’s art class in which students connected both their research and their art with a community need.

Stier’s students also created the banners that hang from lamp posts along South Parker Street during the summer. The city’s historical museum recently contacted him to discuss the possibility of creating additional banners or other student art to beautify the community.

The art room at Riverview East showcases the diversity of art created by students under Stier’s guidance.

Beside the door hangs a skateboard adorned with birch branches. On a table, a painted sneaker sits in front of a reminder about Vans’ Custom Culture shoe design competition. And in the corner, a half-dozen old newspaper boxes, donated by the Macomb Daily for the Little Free Libraries project, are lined up, awaiting students’ creative efforts.

“I’m pushing students to use their creativity and their existing skills to create a project that effects the larger community, beyond the bubble of our classroom.”

Students enjoy the freedom this approach offers.

“There’s no structure. There’s not a path you have to follow.” said student Sebastian Evans. “You come up with an idea, run it past Jay, and he’ll point you in the right direction to make it happen.”

And in making it happen, they learn not only about art but also about collaboration, persistence, and leadership.

Related: A Photo Tour of the Riverview East Art Room

By the Numbers: Property Tax Revenues

Marine City’s proposed budget and tax increase is making waves with residents. This series will take a closer look at the numbers behind the controversy.

Budget Overview
Property Tax Revenues


Property Tax Revenue

2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016*
1,727,303 1,594,350 1,553,851 1,471,000 1,421,000 1,430,000

*projected

There is no question that property tax revenues fell sharply during the recession. Understanding how long it will take for the city to recover some of that lost revenue is a far more complex matter.

In a presentation at the city’s town hall meeting, acting City Manager Don Tillery pointed to a forecast that it would take until 2028 for revenues to recover to the 2008-09 peak. That forecast only told part of the story.

Passed in 1994, Michigan’s Proposal A limits increases in taxable value to the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is greater. Recent inflation rates have been much lower, averaging under 2 percent, and it is on that number that the 20 year recovery forecast is based. At 1.75 percent average inflation, it will take until 2028 for property tax revenues to reach 2008 levels.

But that assumes no housing turnover in that time.

Foreclosures and home sales hastened the decline of tax receipts to a pace that far exceeded the inflation-indexed declines permissible under Proposal A. When a home is sold, those limits do not apply and taxable value resets freely to current market value. While this sped the drop in revenues, it will also increase the pace of recovery.

Over the last year real estate sales in Marine City have averaged 17 sales per month, and the median selling price has more than doubled over the last five years. Renewed strength in the housing market will accelerate the pace of property tax revenue growth well beyond the inflation-based predictions featured in Tillery’s presentation.

By the Numbers: Marine City Budget Overview

Marine City’s proposed budget and tax increase is making waves with residents. This series will take a closer look at the numbers behind the controversy.

Budget Overview
Property Tax Revenues


Total Budget

2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016*
3,023,094 2,657,390 2,663,930

* projected

The 2015-16 proposed budget reverses a long downward trend in spending as the city plans to make come capital improvements despite difficult financial circumstances.

Several departments are seeking increases in spending, most notably the Marine City Police Department, and funds are allocated for multiple capital improvement projects for police, public works, and buildings and grounds. Those projects will be explored in detail by department in future installments of this series.

A series of public budget workshops were held to reconcile the proposed budget with city revenues but changes to the budget that resulted from those meetings have not yet been published. The council will vote May 21 on a public safety millage increase and new water fees and rates, which will raise the funds needed to make up the current budget shortfall.