Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gearing up for the August 5th Primary

Kent County residents are beginning to get bombarded with campaign literature related to primary elections, millages and ballot proposals as the August 5 date approaches. For some this means nothing more than more flyers to pitch into the recycling, while for others the tension heightens as they speculate about tax revenues, loss of services or employment, or just undesirable political representation.

Locally, it's obvious that some people are shaken or made nervous by what recent polling has revealed. Election yard signs have been destroyed or stolen, and political polling and pamphleting has been ramped up considerably. Several candidates have announced and held town halls to further dialogue with their potential electorate. Some of this outreach has been largely smear tactics as with an apparently Brian Ellis-financed telephone poll that begins with questions that seem objective and then lists a series of statements and accusations about Justin Amash designed to manipulate the polled citizen rather than measure any upcoming vote. Amash is a polarizing candidate, and his beliefs and stances often clash with the interests of many in his congressional district, but questions framed like, "If we told you Amash owns an expensive house in [X], would that make you more likely to change your vote?" "Much more likely?" seem crafted to exploit and arouse negative emotions, not measure political opinions.

In Kent County, but not in the City of Grand Rapids, voters will be asked to decide on whether to vote yes on a millage to continue funding Kent District Library. If this millage does not pass, the library system will not be able to continue operating into 2015. For many people who depend on library services for education, entertainment, or job searching or who work for the KDL system, this is a nailbiter issue.

Proposal 1 will appear on all ballots because it's a state-wide attempt to eliminate the Personal Property Tax, which is an annual tax levied on business equipment and machinery, and replace it with a Local Community Stabilization Share Tax. Many business owners object to paying annual taxes on aging equipment, but some municipalities rely heavily on income from the PPT and would have to significantly limit services if it were simply eliminated. Proposal 1 aims to stem the flow of Michigan owners selling their businesses or moving them to states with lesser tax burdens.

For local citizens unaware of what will be on the ballot August 5 or unsure of what the proposals or millages may mean for them, Mlive just put out a voter guide designed to help. The guide pulls up election choices by address and is a good place to begin assembling information on candidates and issues. The length of the guide varies by location, and it would be a good idea to look at it earlier, rather than later, in order to make more informed voting choices.

See you at the polls on August 5th!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tornado touches down in Kentwood

We've had a spate of serious weather in the last year or so for the normally more temperate West Michigan. First we had the Great Flood of 2013 and then a bitterly cold and snowy winter, and now the summer of 2014 is turning out to be wet and stormy - with an actual tornado touchdown in Kentwood! Some of the neighborhoods the tornado passed through were previously drowned out in the flood, so it's a second round for those people. A friend's house was struck by lightning in the storm Sunday night - thankfully, it didn't burn down.

It's feeling a little apocalyptic in Grand Rapids these days. Maybe the next time the sky darkens we should grab Grandmother's jewelry, the flash drive full of photos, and get the heck out of Dodge. 

Fortunately, no one was killed, but it will be awhile before all of the property damage is repaired. In addition to the tornado damage, parts of West Michigan have gotten 10 inches of rain this past month which means some fields - and basements - have flooded. Everything not washed away is nice and green, though, which is a change from two years ago when we were in the middle of a drought.

In fact, the water levels of the Great Lakes have done a sudden turnaround, rising from well below normal to average levels for the first time in a decade. This time last year there was a whole chorus of doomsayers, from environmentalists to economists to tourist industry businessmen worried that the end was nigh. And now who knows what the future will bring? For now, though, you can easily get your boat in and out of most of Michigan's more than 10,000 lakes, and there's plenty of water for the fish to swim around in.

Tornadoes are truly frightening, though, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who suffered loss this weekend.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Is sex trafficking a serious problem in West Michigan?

There has been a surplus of strange sex crimes in the news in the last few days.

Shawn James Jarrett was arraigned in Grandville District Court Monday for first-degree home invasion and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He is accused of entering an elderly lady's house on false premises, then assaulting her and stealing an unstated amount of money and bicycling away. In a similar crime, he murdered a 64-year-old woman in 1983 and served 30 years in prison for that crime. He was released in 2012, and authorities considered him dangerous enough to warn his community that he would be living among them now. Sadly he wound up here and police now consider him a suspect in the murder of Yolanda Reyes, a woman who went missing in April and whose body was found last month at a construction site.

As disturbing as that is, Shawn Jarrett seems to be a violent individual who is likely never to see freedom again. Judge Peter Versluis denied Jarrett bail yesterday and remanded him back to the Kent County Jail.

More troubling is the idea that a system for human trafficking has been set up in the area and functions to funnel the vulnerable to the predatory. Nicole DiDonato reported Monday on this "hidden crisis," asserting that, according to experts, thousands of minors are sold right in our own communities: "...in West Michigan alone, there are 2,400 minors for sale at any given time, mostly on the internet."

For those who scoff at the idea, look to other news headlines. This morning Mlive reported that Douglas Davalos Jackson was arrested for the human trafficking of a 15-year-old girl whom he intended to sell to other men. He was also charged with criminal sexual conduct and the felony use of a firearm.

And last week radio host John Balyo was arrested on the suspicion of child-sex assault and has admitted to assaulting at least one 12-year-old boy whom he paid Ronald Moser to procure. His arrest Friday at a Christian music festival was a result of a federal investigation.  He was being held on a $500,000 bail bond, but that has since been revoked. His two previous employers, Christian radio station, WCSG, and the Kent County Traffic Squad have since disassociated themselves from him.

The fact is there are large numbers of children and teens in Kent County whose home lives are chaotic and unsupervised enough for predators to have easy access to them. How many hours after school is the average middle schooler unattended? How many kids wander the streets looking for something to do all summer? All of those kids are at increased risked to be exploited. And, sadly, in our modern sex-obsessed society, it's not unsurprising that there are plenty of people who will exploit them. Some communities have more safeguards in place to help protect their children, but others do not. How can we make sure that people in our community are not being trafficked?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Getting Arrested in Kent County: What to Expect

Most people have seen the arrest procedure on television or in movies, but are unaware of what happens in real life or why the process is designed as it is. 

People get arrested every day, day and night in Kent County. For the policemen, county processors, lawyers, and bail bondsmen, this is routine. For everyone else, we can hope it is not. Yesterday, Sunday, May 25, 2014, 45 people were booked in Kent County. Friday 64 people were booked, and on Wednesday, May 14, the day of the last full moon, it was 73 people. When I interviewed Lucas Spoor of Lucas Bail Bonds about the arrest process here in West Michigan, he said the full moon is always a very busy time for bail bondsmen

While policemen can, of course, arrest people if they witness them committing crimes, many times arrests are made after a prosecutor issues an arrest warrant, and for that, the police must have probable cause. Once they have made an arrest and the person is handcuffed, they transport him to the police station to be booked. If the police question a person about a crime that has occurred, they must advise him of his rights - recite the famous Miranda rights - before any interrogation can begin. 

At the police station, you will have to give your identifying information, and you will be fingerprinted and photographed. After being booked, you will be held until your arraignment before a judge. During your arraignment, you will be informed about the crime you are being charged with. The judge will determine whether there was probable cause for your arrest and what bail will be assigned, if any. If the crime you are accused of is a misdemeanor, you will plead either innocent or guilty at the arraignment, with sentencing immediately following a guilty plea. You will be able to consult with your lawyer before the arraignment, whether you hire one or one is assigned to you. 

At this point, for lesser charges, you may be released without bail, upon conditions set by the court. If the judge does assign bail, you will be held until that bail can be assembled, either by your friends or relatives directly or through a bail bondsman. Bail is the incentive the court uses to make sure you do not flee and show up on your assigned court date

So what is a common bail amount? It is not really possible to predict, Spoor said. Bail bonds can range anywhere from $100 to $100,000, depending on the crime, the criminal history of the accused, the judge presiding over the arraignment, or the county that the arraignment is being held in. Typically, bail set in Kent County is higher than bails set in Barry or Allegan. What's more, you can expect the process to take longer in Kent County; it will take between 45 minutes and 3 hours for someone to post bail for you in Kent County. 

When I talked to him, Spoor repeatedly emphasized the importance of choosing a reputable and trustworthy bail bondsman. There is so much built-in uncertainty about the costs associated with arrest and trial, and most people are not thinking clearly when they get the phone call in the middle of the night. Many of them are also very vulnerable and inexperienced in what to expect and what is legal for policemen, lawyers, and bail bondsmen to do and charge. If anything happens during the arrest process that seems like it might be illegal, do not hesitate to question or do your own research. The system has been modified (to some extent) to avoid taking advantage of people, but by the time an arrest occurs, your ability to affect the outcome is significantly diminished. 

This is why it's important to know what happens before it can happen - and also make sure it doesn't happen, if at all possible.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Westside Catholic hub St. Adalbert Has Been Restored

For parishioners of St. Adalbert, the restoration of their century-old Romanesque Revival church has been a lengthy and expensive process, and they are overjoyed to see the original beauty their Polish ancestors sacrificed so much to build cleaned, polished, repaired, painted, and restored to its original purpose of glorifying God again.

Over a decade ago, it was obvious to even a less-than-keen observer that the interior of the church needed some repair. Paper was peeling off the walls, and there was staining and plaster damage on the ceilings from water damage. But the full scope and necessity of the work required wasn't clear until a large chunk of plaster fell two stories and crashed to the floor at the back of the sanctuary. Father Thomas DeYoung, then serving, had repairmen and then architectural experts come in to assess the damage - which was revealed to be both extensive and in need of urgent attention. Thus began the five-stage process to "Restore the Glory" of the Basilica of St. Adalbert.

Construction and architecture engineering have changed considerably since St. Adalbert's parishioners began their building project of a second structure in 1907, but every attempt to maintain the integrity of the original structure was maintained. One of the most pressing repairs was the replacement of the roof gutters which were trapping instead of shedding the water that then entered the church and filtered through the plaster, causing it to deteriorate and fall. After the gutters were replaced, the roof was re-tiled with red clay Spanish tiles.

Other choices, made earlier on in the Basilica's history and meant to preserve elements of the church, turned out to be destructive long term. The exterior plastic sheets placed to cover and protect the beautiful stained glass windows did not allow the glass to naturally "breathe," which caused considerable damage over time. Each stain glass window was removed, releaded, and then re-installed. As St. Adalbert has a total of 43 stained glass windows, including the 16-foot, 700-pound "Immaculate Conception" window situated inside the interior dome, this part of the restoration was done in stages.

In 2010 it was time for the Basilica's domes to get a makeover. The original copper was removed and the wooden domes repaired and then covered with new copper shingles, fixed in place with copper nails, rivets and clips. 18,000 square feet of dome surfaces was replaced and then topped with newly gilded crosses, two of which were rebuilt completely as the originals had deteriorated too badly over time.

In 2013, in celebration of the Basilica's 100th anniversary, the altar was restored and repainted, and then this year more repairs were done within the sanctuary. The ceilings of the side aisles are now a vibrant blue, and the altar is a golden yellow. Monseigneur Louis Stasker, the current pastor and rector, has shepherded the parish through the final stages of this process.

Within the five-stage restoration process, more practical repairs and alterations were also undertaken on the parish's basement gathering spaces and bell towers. An elevator was added to make all levels of the structure accessible, and the boilers were replaced.

Although the project was begun and supported with monies raised from the "Restore the Glory" campaign initiated by Father DeYoung, much of the later repair work was also made possible by generous bequests left by lifelong parish members when they died.

Maintenance of a complex structure like this requires constant work and there are still a few projects planned, but the restoration of the facility as a whole is now complete. The Basilica of St. Adalbert is a working piece of art, a credit to our city's founders and their faith, visible to all who pass through downtown on the highways. If you have not seen it, make a point of stopping in some weekend when the church is open. All are welcome.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Is Crime in GR What It Seems?

Have you seen this map of Grand Rapids yet?

It's been passed around Facebook. Crime and proximity to crime is a concern for everyone who lives in the city and for property owners who want to maintain their investment or keep their merchandise safe. On the news there are regular reports of bank robberies, jewelry store heists, murders, sexual assaults, meth lab busts, fraud, and drunk driving. These accounts can be anxiety provoking, but they obscure what people are really concerned with: calculating the risk of living and working in Grand Rapids.

So what is the real crime rate like? First of all, as the map above suggests, it's different in different parts of the city. If you want to know the most recent police activity in your area, go to the Grand Rapids page at Crime Mapping and take a look at the rundown. The detail on various arrests is also helpful for evaluating the risks of being in certain areas of Grand Rapids if you are unfamiliar with them and don't know what to expect. You may not be concerned with arrests for "minor in possession of a controlled substance" or "vandalism" if you just want to do some shopping. You might not want to park in an area with robberies and assaults, though. Or motor vehicle thefts.

As you might assume, if you are familiar with news reports, the areas on the map with the most offenses are Downtown, the Northwest Side and the Southeast Side. Currently on the map the downtown area has a number of assaults, vandalism, car thefts, and burglaries. The Westside has also had a lot of vandalism, a number of car break-ins, and rash of assault. The Southeast Side has had several cases of arson, more assault and a spate of drugs and weapons crimes. Also there's a bit of fraud. These are all good things to know if you are thinking of opening a small business here or sending your daughter to live on the Pew campus at GVSU. If you want to know the safest places to live, the Neighborhood Scout website assesses the general safety of various neighborhoods for you.

But safety is a bit of a relative concept, at least as most individuals are concerned. We all know that crime exists and that some people will be victimized by it. But what are the chances it will happen to us, we want to know. And happen multiple times? At least in that respect, there's significant good news. Recorded crime has been dropping in the area for decades, despite a drop in police officers on the streets. Between 2003 and 2011, violent crime in Grand Rapids was down 33%, and property crime decreased 34%. Many people assumed that the hard times caused by the Great Recession would have increased crime, but that did not occur, whether from increased use of surveillance cameras or demographic change (the "aging" of America or as posited by the authors of Freakonomics, an unintended consequence of eugenics via increased rates of abortion).

So while it's good to be cautious and aware of what is going on around you - and even better to have an active neighborhood association and alert neighbors - overall, we have less to worry about than we did a decade or more ago. And that is good news. This isn't Mayberry, but it sure isn't Detroit or Flint either. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Roads Income Tax Rate Continuation: Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association vs. Fix Our Roads GR

The Grand Rapids Tax Association is really fighting back against the proposed income tax rate continuation for the repair of roads to be voted on next Tuesday, May 6. Fix Our Roads GR is hoping for a yes vote which would extend the temporary income tax increase the voters previously allowed and allocate the funds for street repairs.

If you live in Grand Rapids, it should be obvious to you that our roads are in bad to terrible condition and that driving on them means an eventual auto repair shop visit and perhaps even an accident. Drivers swerve to avoid the potholes everywhere, and no matter how often these potholes are filled, every year they come back. At this point they are in such bad shape we would need to rebuild many of them from the roadbed up, not simply patch them. The condition of the roads is not in dispute; the question is, what should be done about them, who should do it, and why has this problem gone unaddressed until now?

I talked to both Michael Farage, of the GRTA, and Ed Kettle of FORGR on Friday about their points of view. Farage and his organization feel strongly that the taxpayers have already paid for high quality roads, but the money has been mismanaged and funneled to other city needs, leaving the roads neglected. Farage looks at the long history of request for money from Grand Rapids citizens via millages or income tax increases as a sign of a city never satisfied, a city government that never will never have enough tax revenue. The issue for the GRTA is the trustworthiness of the government: will it use the monies the income tax continuation generates to fix the roads? Is it accountable for the funds we give them and have given them? Will the money ever be enough for them? And does this have anything to do with the city's pension obligations and all the money that will need to be paid out to pensioners in the next fifteen years?

Farage also looks at the list of donors to Fix Our Roads and sees groups of people who stand to benefit directly from the rebuilding of the roads: engineers, construction companies, city hall employees. He does not believe that the city will use a closed bid process when contracting for these repairs. Closed bids do nothing to prevent waste and kickbacks.

Ed Kettle of FORGR believes that the city has been very responsible with the income they've taken in from taxpayers. The reason for the state of the roads is not due to irresponsibility, corruption, or an insatiable desire for funds. The situation is complex, he says, and largely due to factors outside of the city's control. The long decline of the auto industry, the offshoring of industrial jobs, and economic collapse of 2008 created a tax revenue vacuum. The state, starved for money, discontinued all revenue sharing not legally required. Michigan cities depended on that income sharing to repair their roads. Without it, and minus property tax revenues due to falling real estate prices, they had nothing to work with.

Kettle says Michigan is in recovery, but the damage has been done. The city must have more money to address the problem, and after much study a group of citizens and experts recommended that the best and most fair way to create those funds would be a continuation of the income tax the votes previously authorized. These funds will be put into a dedicated and restricted fun, a lock box of sorts, over the next fifteen years and will generate enough income to do the work that needs to be done in a methodical way. He has no qualms about the "connections" of the donors to FORGR - they are citizens too - but does question why Americans for Prosperity is giving money to the GRTA.

Ultimately, it is up to us, the taxpayers to decide who is trustworthy and responsible with the money we do or do not give them. As a city resident I have my own questions. This is yet another ballot proposal in a long line of ballot proposals including ones for The Rapid (Spring 2011), Grand Rapids Public Schools (Fall 2011), GRCC (2012), and the city's parks (2013). This election is being held in May, obviously because voter turnout will be lower and the group who sponsored this initiative can count on mobilizing its supporters and not meeting as much opposition resistance from taxpayers who would be in the ballot box in August or November voting on other issues.

Property taxes are already noticeably higher for Grand Rapids taxpayers. Our elites and city boosters might want to make our hometown more attractive to knowledge workers and the creative class, but many of the rest of us have experienced the economic downturn personally and either struggle or can't afford to pay higher taxes.

Is there another way for us to fix our roads, then, or is authorizing the city via our tax dollars the best way to go about it? You can help make the decision by voting on Tuesday.