Bus service brakes for June 30 end

Read the original piece here.


That’s what Lena Vuie said her life, and the lives of others, is going to be like once the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority ceases operations on Saturday.

Vuie, a 40-year Hammond resident, said people of all backgrounds use the RBA service.

“It’s their only source of transportation,” she said. “There’s something they ought to be able to do.”

Vuie is not the only one who will be affected by the close of the bus service; the RBA counts 30,000 rides each month. Each of the riders will need to seek a new method of transportation after that day.

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Asian demand increases price for muskrat furs from West Michigan

See the original version of this story here. Also published by USA Today

PIERSON — High demand for fur in Asian markets means one thing for Michigan trappers — muskrat love.

Asian countries are buying raw material for fur garments from Michigan trappers, and muskrats — one of the most popular furs with foreign buyers — are among the most abundant fur-bearing animals in the state.

“The Chinese can’t get enough of them,” said Kevin Syperda, owner of Sy’s Fur Shed, a fur buyer in Pierson. “We call (muskrat) the poor man’s mink.”

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Saginaw accountant recommends capitalizing now on expiring state income tax credits


SAGINAW– This year is the last you’ll be able to receive some credits on your state income taxes.

Expiring credits include include the city income tax credit, which offsets any income tax paid to cities and the college tuition credit, an 8 percent of nonrefundable income tax credit for college tuition and uniformly-required fees paid on behalf of a student, also expires this year.

The elimination of all nonrefundable credits is expected to save $103.5 million in 2012-13, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency. Continue reading

Department of Human Services says drug-testing welfare recipients is “feasible,” agency still in early process of developing policy

My last week at the Saginaw News, I came across another news outlet’s story. It was just a blurb, a mention of a bill that was proposed to our state legislature. It turned out to be a major story — this and related posts turned out to be at the top at  MLive.com for several days. At MLive.com, we did quick-hit posts and then often do follow-ups, with polls and reactions from other sources. This was my major, initial story. 

As it stands now, the bill was approved by the state house — I’m curious to see if it makes it to the governor’s desk. But this generated very passionate reactions from both sides.

View the original story here.

SAGINAW — The Department of Human Services says it is still in the “early process” of developing a drug screening policy for cash-assistance welfare benefit recipients.

David Akerly, DHS spokesman said the answers to the questions of how the policy would be implemented and when the policy would take effect are not available yet.

“We have determined it is feasible to do this testing,” Akerly said. “What the exact process would be — that’s still to be determined… it’s being discussed, and I’d say it’s more than just a discussion. It’s a push in that direction, but it is not a done deal.”

Saginaw County has 1,863 cases of welfare cash assistance recipients, Bay County has 463 cases, and Midland County has 177 cases.

Michigan Radio reported Monday that “likely” drug using welfare recipients would receive the testing.

DHS officials say they want the new policy to be part of an overhaul of the state’s welfare-to-work program in the spring of next year.  The department submitted a report with its recommendations to the Legislature earlier this month.

A DHS report (read it here: dhsreport.pdf) says a variety of drug screening options are available, from simple questions on the application to professional screening tools.

The report says DHS would recommend a pilot program for suspicion-based drug testing of applicants and recipients using a drug screening process, but does not specify what would warrant suspicion. The agency recommended drug court treatment professionals and law enforcement’s assistance in formulating a proposal for drug testing applicants and recipients.

“One of the primary goals of a suspicion-based drug testing for FIP (family independence program) families should be removing any barriers associated with job readiness and family self-sufficiency,” the report said.

kenhorn.JPGView full sizeState Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth

Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, says he supports drug testing welfare recipients.

“We want to make sure tax dollars are being paid in the state of Michigan are being used for their intended purpose,” Horn said.

However, before mandating testing, which he said is “popular,” Horn wants to make sure the state does not get struck down in the court like other states that have implemented such policies.

It is unclear how much drug testing welfare recipients would cost — twelve states were surveyed by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, who found costs ranged from $92,487 to $20 million. In Michigan, that would not prove a net savings, and states at the higher end of the price spectrum also included drug treatment in their costs.

Urinalysis runs from $25 to $44 per test and hair follicle testing costs $75 to $150 per test.

Thirty-six states have proposed laws that would require applicants for and recipients of public aid programs to undergo drug testing by way of a urine sample.

Most recently, Florida and Missouri implemented drug testing laws, with different approaches.

Florida’s law became effective in July and required all welfare applicants to pass a suspicionless drug test as a condition for Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In October, however, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing Florida’s Department of Children and Families from further drug testing.

Missouri’s law went into effect in August, and requires the state’s Department of Social Services to develop a program to screen each applicant or recipient of TANF benefits and drug test each person the department has reasonable cause to believe, based on a screening, engages in illegal use of controlled substances.

Horn says the frequency of testing is something that causes concern and is what is leading the legislature to act with caution. He said one of the questions they are trying to answer is if recipients need to be tested when first entering the program, every time they receive a check and if every recipient is tested.

“It’s a big question,” Horn said. “The randomness of it is what causes the heartburn in the courts… we’re just acting cautiously.”

This isn’t Michigan’s first time drug testing welfare recipients. For several weeks in 1999, eligibility for cash assistance for some recipients was dependent on a successful test for substance abuse.

A pilot program ran, testing 435 applicants for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and phencyclidine. Forty-five, or 10.3 percent tested positive for drug use.

Initially the pilot program was to go statewide in April 2003, according to the DHS document, but after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled against DHS saying the drug testing violated Fourth Amendment rights of recipients because testing was being conducted without “individualized suspicion.”

The only way such suspicionless tests would be justifiable would be with a public safety “special need,” and that the state’s interest in child abuse and neglect prevention was not a sufficient public safety concern.

In October 2002, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and said the implementation of the state program to test applicants for drug use was constitutional as a condition of receiving benefits. The parties reached a settlement in 2003, and the injunction on suspicionless drug tests remained until 2007, unless the legislature created a replacement pilot program. No such program was created, and the injunction expired.

The DHS report says that cash-assistance program is designed to make families independent and self-sufficient — considering many employers require applicants to submit to and pass a drug test before employment, illegal drug use is a barrier to employment and is a barrier to independence and self-sufficiency.

Horn says DHS agents would have to make judgment calls themselves on whether or not to test applicants.

“If a case worker notices someone is visibly intoxicated or visibly on drugs, they would have enough authority to ask for the test,” he said. “The conversation is good, we need to come to a very clear, concise policy platform we can work off of.”

According to the ASPE report, substance abuse varies widely nationwide among welfare recipients. Between 4 and 37 percent of recipients abusing substances was found, but ASPE credits the differentials to different data sources, definitions and measurement methods, especially different thresholds defining substance abuse. It said including abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs also changed the estimate.

Federal law allows drug tests for welfare recipients, and penalization for failing such tests. If a recipient fails the test or is convicted of a drug-related felony, they receive a lifetime ban on TANF and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).

Horn said it is unclear when progress will be made on drug testing mandates in the legislature, but it is likely to come up in the next few months.

“Just like every other important policy decision, we just need to act cautiously,” he said. “This is an important issue, a popular issue and we want to make sure we’re on the right track, and make sure we’re not stepping on any land mines with anything we do.”

The Saginaw News left messages for state Rep. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, state Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes, D-Saginaw, and state Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township.

University says FA wants $10 million in 3 years

My last summer in college, I was taking classes, working two jobs, preparing for my Saginaw News internship and trying to make the most of my rapidly ending college career. I’m especially proud of the work I did that summer for Central Michigan Life, my college paper. To this day, the biggest story of my career were the ongoing faculty negotiations during a labor dispute. The story lasted beyond my time at Life, but I remain very proud of the work I did that summer. This is one of many stories I broke working on this subject. It was very complex but so very important to the university at the time.

See the original version of this story here.

The university and Faculty Association cannot reach consensus on 17 items before signing their next three-year contract and have petitioned for fact finding.

Some of the key issues leading to disagreement are compensation, health benefits, recognition — who is included in the bargaining group — and tenure policy.

Mediation between the groups ended Thursday. Ray Christie, vice provost of academic administration, sent an email to employees Tuesday afternoon that said the university and FA were unable to make “meaningful progress” during mediation sessions.

The groups met three times for mediation; the FA contract expired June 30. The university has not extended the faculty contract, which it has done in years prior.

Laura Frey, FA president and professor of counseling and special education said Christie’s message was inaccurate and misleading.

“The update that was sent out … is a blatant attempt to circumvent the bargaining process,” Frey said. “That was sent out to the FA leadership and the community, with Ray Christie being a member of the bargaining team. The update includes inaccuracies and misleading characterizations of the FA position … it’s extremely frustrating that (he) as a member of the administration’s bargaining team has decided to release that information.”

Both sides have filed for fact finding, Frey said.

Disputed points

Fact finding is conducted by the state, said Ruthanne Okun, director of the Bureau of Employee Relations.

“Fact finding goes beyond mediation,” she said. “A third party looks at both sides and issues a recommendation. The parties then go back to bargaining based on that recommendation.”

Okun said the factfinder should be appointed within the week.

“In the recent proposal, the university has offered increases equal to 4 (percent) over a three-year contract,” Christie said. “Overall, however, the (FA) proposal would raise salaries by 9.8 (percent) … The total compensation — salary and related benefits — would increase the university’s base budget by approximately $10 million.”

According to the petition, the university proposes a freeze for 2011-12 and 1-percent increases plus a flat amount of $830 and $835 for 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively.

The FA proposes a freeze for the fall semester 2011-12, a 1-percent-plus-$1,000 increase in the spring; in 2012-13, 1 percent plus $500 for fall, 1.5 percent plus $500 for the spring; in 2013-14, 1.25 percent plus $500 in the fall and 1.5 percent plus $500 in the spring.

The university proposes compensation at $1,470 per credit hour for summer courses and the FA wants to maintain current contract language with a $8,250 cap per course. The university wants the number contingent on FA acceptance of language on supplemental assignments.

Both groups agree on overload salary — $1,470 per credit hour, but the university also wants that number contingent on FA acceptance of language on supplemental assignments.

The university wants to maintain current health and prescription drug coverage rates until January 1, 2012. At that point, it wants to convert FA employees to the CMU plan “at rates paid for other benefit-eligible employees.”

Those rates include increases each year to the monthly contribution made by the university. Other CMU employees are covered under a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan with 91 percent of premiums covered, Christie said in the email.

The FA wants to maintain Michigan Education Special Services Association benefits at 95 percent with a 10/20 prescription card for all three years of the contract.

With dental coverage, the university is proposing the same CMU plan “at rates paid for other benefit eligible employees;” the FA wants 100 percent of a 100/50/50 plan.

The university’s factfinding petition said it wants to remove coaches, librarians and counselors hired after July 1, 2011 from the bargaining unit, as well as College of Medicine and CMU First Professional Degree faculty members.

The university wants to change the current reappointment, tenure and promotion policy.

CMU wants to “(strengthen) the quality requirement of application materials, (and) extend the time in rank from 4 to 5 years for professor salary adjustment,” while the FA wants to change the reappointment process in terms of number and timeline for applying.

The university also wants to change the language for salary adjustments for promotion and completion of terminal degrees.

Outside counsel hired

The university has hired Vercruysse Murray & Calzone, a law firm from Bingham Farms which specializes in labor and employment issues.

“These lawyers have experience in handling major negotiations, strikes, class action and complex litigation, non-competittion litigation, injunctions, union avoidance, organizaing unfair labor practices, arbitrations, ERISA litigation, OSHA, MDCR, DOL and EEOC complaints and all forms of employment litigation,” the firm’s website said.

Steve Smith, director of public relations, said the university solicits outside counsel for a number of things, though it does employ a general counsel, Manuel Rupe.

In a statement, Rupe said he recommended outside counsel in the matter of faculty negotiations. Rupe directed the university to the firm because of its expertise and prior success.

“CMU evaluates, for example, the law firm’s expertise in a particular area of the law, its prior success in representing CMU or other public universities in similar matters,” Rupe said.

Frey would not say if the FA had legal representation.

“We have an FA bargaining team that we have great confidence in and that includes our (Michigan Education Association) leadership,” she said.

2011-12 operating budget set at $429 million by trustees

Making heads and tails of a budget, combing through spreadsheets and crunching numbers is not the most glamorous part of being a journalist, but it is where some of the best stories come from. I wrote this mostly on deadline, after my university’s board finalized the annual budget, along with five or six other stories that day. We also learned the tuition rate (easily the most read story of the year by students, the most important issue at the very least) and several other stories regarding the ongoing faculty contract negotiations broke that day. I started my day at a rally at 8 a.m. prior to the board meeting and my day went at least another 13 hours after that. It was long and stressful, but more than anything else, exciting. Aside from an election night, one of my favorite days as a reporter.

(Read the original story here)

CMU’s operating budget for fiscal year 2011-12 weighs in at $429 million, an increase of about $11 million from last year’s $418 million.

The university expects $333,603,212 from the general fund in total revenue, which includes tuition dollars, state appropriations and other sources. The non-general fund, which includes other revenue such as parking tickets and several other sources, will generate about $95 million.

Tuition Revenue

Tuition dollars will account for $204,496,263, said David Burdette, vice president of Administration and Financial Services.

The number is $7 million higher than the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30. Tuition was increased about 3.5 percent, or $12 a credit hour from $346 to $358 per credit hour.

The 2,118 students still covered under the CMU Promise, a program which locked students in to a tuition rate for five years, will not experience the change.

All students who joined CMU in 2007-2008 when the Promise was active pay $304 per credit hour, or $9,120 for a 30-credit-hour year. Those not covered will pay $10,740 annually for the same hours.

Tuition increases at other universities have ranged from 3.65 percent at Eastern Michigan University to 7 percent at Oakland University.

Kathy Wilbur, vice president of Development and External Relations, said the tuition move will be helpful in dealing with state educational organizations, referencing a message she saw on Twitter from State Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck.

Genetski, the chairman of the Higher Education subcommittee in the state House of Representatives, wrote in response to a Detroit Free Press article regarding the tuition news, “Great for students and state!”

Michigan State and Wayne State University have been accused of raising tuition above the 7.1 tuition restraint clause of the state budget. According to the Detroit News, MSU could lose $18.3 million in public funding, WSU could lose up to $12.8 million in public dollars.

Grand Valley State University was the last Michigan public university to reveal its rates when its board of trustees decided on a 6.9 percent increase on Friday.

Pay freezes

Four employee groups will see their wages frozen at least temporarily for a second year in a row; professional and administrative employees, senior officers, public broadcasting and office professionals will all have no pay increases for at least the beginning of FY 2011-12.

University President George Ross said the pay of these groups will be reviewed later this year.

“Given the continued uncertainty regarding the state appropriations funding and the economic climate, 2011 to 2012 salary adjustments will not be given at this time,” Ross said. “University-wide, budget-related employee furloughs and lay-offs will not occur in 2011-12.”

Two other employee groups have also seen pay freezes: the Police Officers Association of Michigan and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The Graduate Student Union and Union of Teaching Faculty both received pay increases.

The university was in mediation with the Faculty Association, which represents tenure and tenure track faculty members at CMU, at the time, and fact finding with supervisory and technical employees.

Following Thursday’s meeting, the FA announced mediation was unsuccessful between the parties and the FA will also enter fact finding with the university.

The university is looking to find efficiencies by outsourcing some services, Burdette said, and 25 vacant full time equivalent positions have been eliminated.

He said CMU cut almost $3.8 million total from the following divisions in spring 2011 to prepare for losses in state funding: Central Administration, Academic Affairs, Finance and Administrative Services, Development and External Relations and the President’s Office.

“We have put together a plan of $3.7, almost $3.8 million of permanent reductions,” Burdette said.

Financial plan

Burdette said declining state appropriations are a major change in the new budget. The university has lost $12 million in state aid, or 15 percent from FY 2010-11.

Burdette highlighted the decline in state revenue since 2000-2001, when state aid accounted for 36 percent of revenue compared to FY 2011-12, where it accounts for 16 percent.

The university has also intentionally decreased student enrollment by 2.1 percent, University President George Ross said.

CMU will spend an additional $3.8 million on financial aid, $2.1 million on infrastructure and $2.2 million in recruiting and hiring tenure-track faculty.

It currently spends $39.5 million on financial aid for various scholarships and grants; the additional $3.8 million will be spent on additional Board of Trustees Academic Scholarships, increased need-based aid and additional Study Abroad scholarships as well as others.

Administrators’ pay increases not comparing ‘apples to apples’

Obviously, numbers are not the most delightful aspect of being a journalist. I can deal with them easily, but it’s not my favorite part of the job! Still, I pitched this story while perusing the archives of Central Michigan Life. My predecessors laid out the salaries of the top 10 earners on staff. My thought process went like this: Who are those individuals now? And how much more are those top people earning compared to five years ago? In print, that involved a side-by-side list of those individuals. There was a side-by-side story contrasting those figures to tuition increases in the same period of time. (One administrator saw a 50 percent increases in salary compared to their predecessor, while tuition increased more than 200 percent in the same period.)

See the original version of this story here.

Despite recent media attention for administrative pay increases, Central Michigan University administrators say they are just staying competitive in the job market.

While administrative pay has seen an increase since 2005 at CMU, comparing the salary of former University President Michael Rao to University President George Ross is not fair, said David Burdette, vice president of Finance and Administrative Services.

“It’s not apples to apples,” he said.

Reportedly, Rao’s base salary was $232,760 in 2005. Ross’ base salary as president in 2010 was $350,000 — a 50-percent increase. Rao’s salary when he left CMU in 2009 was $302,557.

When Ross was previously employed in 2005 by the university in Burdette’s position, he made $159,529, as previously reported. In 2009, Burdette earned $209,090 — a 31 percent increase, according to the 2009 faculty salary list.

Thomas Storch, previous university provost, had a base salary of $164,430, according to previous reports. As interim provost, Gary Shapiro, earned $177,391, according to the faculty salary list. When he was promoted to provost in 2010, his salary became $253,000 — a 43 percent increase, as reported by CM Life.

With turnover, Burdette said the initial offer to a new employee needs to remain competitive, and the requirements for the position may have changed from one employee to the next.

Colbrin Wright, assistant professor of finance and law and a member of the Faculty Association, said the whole market needs to be examined when watching the trend of increasing salaries.

“It’s not so much about inflation or CMU,” Wright said. “This is market-based.”

Robert Martin, associate vice provost of Faculty and Personnel Services, said initial compensation offers to new faculty members are very competitive.

“When we are hiring somebody brand new, somebody who hasn’t worked for the university before, we would take stock of the discipline and standard national survey data, for faculty at the particular rank we would be hiring,” Martin said.

Burdette said the same process applies when hiring administrators. The president approves all salaries for senior officers after working with Human Resources to determine salary and benefits packages.

“I took Dr. Ross’s place … (and the) market affected my salary,” Burdette said. “When I had my (salary) conversation with Dr. Rao, I had no idea what (Ross) was earning.”

The university is dependent on the College and University Personnel Association, Martin said, because it publishes salary data for universities annually. He said the university compares itself with other public universities with overall budget size and student population similar to CMU’s.

“The combination of salary plus the benefit-package compensation is going to be as attractive as we can make it,” he said.

Barrie Wilkes, associate vice president of financial services and reporting and controller, said the university needs to remain competitive with Western Michigan University and other schools across the country.

“We’re not always successful,” Wilkes said. “Sometimes people do turn us down due to salary and benefit and compensation, so we have to try really hard.”

Burdette said no senior officers have volunteered to forgo their salaries or take cuts in light of Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget. Up to 23.3 percent of state funds, or about $19 million, could be lost upon legislative approval.

Steve Smith, director of public relations, said administrative jobs are more demanding than most positions.

“They don’t just show up at 8 a.m. and go home at 5 (p.m.),” Smith said. “They have irregular, demanding schedules that require much more commitment. They’re here to lead the university. It’s not in their contract that they have to do that, it’s an understanding.”

With turnover, the university has not considered reducing the base salary offered to new employees.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever said, ‘We’ve got a budget cut, let’s reduce (salary offers),’” Martin said. “We’re cognizant always of the marketplace. Over time, salaries go up.”

Burdette said while the university does not implement pay cuts, several groups have taken pay freezes, including senior officers.

Presidential benefits

Ross’ salary is reviewed annually by the CMU Board of Trustees.

According to his contract, Ross is provided with a university-funded home with all housekeeping, utility and telephone costs provided for. His salary may be increased, but not decreased. He is allowed $10,000 annually to furnish the home, but anything purchased with that money becomes university property. The university also provides a car for Ross and is responsible for fuel, repair and insurance of that vehicle.

CMU also is responsible for social club dues “pertinent to the position of president and benefit CMU,” but Ross is responsible for taxes on those dues.

Ross’ salary is the second highest on campus. College of Medicine Founding Dean Dr. Ernest Yoder earns $385,000.

Burdette said Ross’ salary is not out of the ordinary.

Martin said the rationale for providing the president with a home and transportation is because “the president is the institutional face to the world.”

“The president can invite officials to a residence that properly reflects the institution’s interests,” he said. “For a fact, the residence afforded to the president of CMU is a very modest residence by comparison. Driving around in a Chrysler is a very modest portion of compensation for CMU’s president.”

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University, said many factors contribute to a president’s salary and benefits: the size of the institution, overall experience of the president, if a school is private or public, performance in office and the market.

“The situation with presidential salaries and the compensation of senior administrative staff is similarly influenced by ‘exit options,’” Trachtenberg said in the article. “The CFO of a university could also work in private industry. The vice president of medical affairs could run a major city hospital or research institution.”