News flies by so fast that chances are stories go under-reported or even completely unnoticed. Unfortunately, there are always some eyebrow-raising items that don't receive as much attention as they should. Here's a rundown of stories in 2014 you know, some you might have missed, but all of which are worth highlighting again.
1. More to Detroit's bankruptcy story than meets the eye
While Detroit's municipal bankruptcy was in full swing, frequent Metro Times contributor and American Civil Liberties Union investigative reporter Curt Guyette wrote a lengthy investigation on just how the bankruptcy came to fruition. There's more to it than the narrative portrayed by other media outlets. For example, lawyers from Jones Day, the city's bankruptcy law team, published a paper in 2011 that said municipal bankruptcy may allow cities to forgo paying retiree pensions. And if pensions could be impaired in Michigan, where the matter is enshrined into the state constitution, then it's fair game anywhere. In Detroit, pensions were cut through bankruptcy, costing some retirees tens of thousands of dollars over their remaining years.
2. Hunting fee increases
It wasn't just drastic snowfall that caused an issue for the annual firearm deer season in Michigan. Some hunters were forced to cough up twice as much cash for a license this year. As the Detroit News reported, a new license cost $11 for adults, with other licenses jumping from $5 to $10. Michigan's Department of Natural Resources contended the new fee structure was more fair "and helped create a way to improve the hunting and fishing habitat," the News said. The fees pushed by Gov. Rick Snyder's administration cost some hunters as much as $50 for two deer tags, as Michigan Radio previously reported. The net result? The state sold the lowest number of licenses in 2014 than in recent years.
3. Michigan's wolf hunt was built upon falsehoods
Yes, this thorough investigation from MLive dates back to late 2013, but it was entirely relevant in 2014, with two ballot proposals pertaining to Michigan's controversial wolf hunt up for a vote. Surprisingly, MLive's thorough debunking of the supposed need for a wolf hunt never resurfaced. And it probably should have: For example, MLive found that incidents cited by officials as the impetus to initiate a wolf hunt never happened. Anti-wolf hunt proponents put two ballot proposals on the general election in November to stop the hunt, but Republican lawmakers circumvented that whole process and nullified both. So, voilà! The wolf hunt built upon a false foundation remains legal. Isn't that something?
4. 48217 is still the most polluted ZIP code in state
In 2010, the Detroit Free Press produced a detailed report on what life was like for those living in 48217, which includes parts of southwest Detroit and neighboring Dearborn, the most toxic zip code in the Michigan. Still, it's worth noting, the zip code is still polluted as hell. With the Marathon refinery looming nearby, life can be downright awful for some residents. As ThinkProgress noted earlier this year, the 1.6 million pounds of chemicals annually released into the air causes 48217 to have the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in Michigan, as well as high rates of lung cancer. Just as true, if not more so today, asthma rates in Detroit are problematic: A recent study by the Michigan Department of Community Health found city zip codes produce three to six times higher asthma hospitalization rates compared to the rest of the state.
5. It's easier to get initiatives on the ballot in 2016
Many observers were quick to, rightly, point out that voter turnout in the November election was abysmal. But there's a silver lining to that bummer of a situation: Now there's a lower threshold for signature-requirements to get an initiative on the ballot in 2016. As MT's News Hits reported earlier this month, for upcoming elections, roughly 160,000 signatures will be needed to place a referendum up for vote to repeal a state law (e.g., the 2012 petition to overturn Michigan's emergency manager law), roughly 160,000 signatures will be needed; about 256,000 will be needed for an initiative to create or amend legislation (e.g., the 2008 Michigan medical marijuana law); and about 320,000 will be needed for a constitutional amendment (e.g., the 2012 push to prevent right-to-work laws from being passed in Michigan).
6. Michigan doesn't have to educate children well
Nationally, TruthDig picked up on this, but it appears only the Michigan Citizen reported about this peculiar case on the local level: A state appellate court ruled this year that the state has no obligation to provide quality public education to public school students in Highland Park. The ruling, according to the Citizen, reversed a lower court decision that said there is a "broad compelling state interest in the provision of an education to all children." As Kary L. Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, put it: "This ruling should outrage anyone who cares about our public education system."
7. Water problems in Highland Park, Pontiac, and Flint
Well, we do like the guy, because he does such outstanding, original work: In a series for the Michigan Citizen, Curt Guyette showed Detroit wasn't the only city experiencing problems with its water service. For example, in Flint, water rates have risen as high as $150 a month — twice as much as Detroit's average payment. Highland Park struggled for years to maintain its service at an affordable level, but eventually had to use Detroit's system for services. Now, Detroit claims its neighbor owes $18 million. In Pontiac, the water system was privatized, which, for some conservatives might seem ideal. But, as Guyette noted, the system faces "crushing" infrastructure repairs, the likes of which Pontiac may struggle to make happen.
8. Metro Detroit's public transit is still abysmal
Sure, if you've driven the region's dilapidated, potholed roads, you probably agree we need to pony up additional funds to smooth things out. Snyder has been clamoring for roughly $1.5 billion to do just that — except he's gotten nowhere. At the same time, even with the M1 Rail project breaking ground and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has gained steam, the fact our public transit remains a mess seems to have flown under the radar. Elected officials, notably Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, have highlighted this need, yet regional planners don't seem to have anything more than a loosely cobbled together idea on how to make things right. The RTA has to go before voters in 2016 to seek approval of a new tax to support public transit operations. That's only 18 months away, and it'll be here before we know it. And yet no one seems to have figured out the answer to this basic question: What the hell would we be taxing ourselves for?
9. Privately held Starbucks opens in Campus Martius
Soon after the announcement came that Starbucks opened up in Campus Martius, the narrative quickly became that it was a sign of Detroit's revitalization. One funny point stuck out on that, however: It's a licensed location, meaning it's not corporately owned by Starbucks, like the one at Woodward and Mack. As the Detroit Free Press reported, a spokesperson told the newspaper the location was owned by a group of unidentified individuals. By the looks of the requirements listed on the Starbucks website, it seems as if any business owner in good standing can license a store. Perhaps we're being nitpicky, but it's worth mentioning: Can a privately licensed Starbucks really be attributed to Detroit's comeback? It seems a bit disingenuous, especially when we're left in the dark as to the identity of the actual owners.
10. Incinerator finally reaches breaking point
For years, the hulking municipal waste incinerator near the intersection of I-94 and I-75 has caused a multitude of issues for residents in the nearby neighborhoods of Midtown and Poletown.
But now, with an ever increasing population in and around Wayne State, the smelly incinerator finally met its match: a vocal group fed up with the toxic odors emanating from the facility every summer. MT's Ryan Felton zeroed in on the issue and found earlier this year that complaints filed with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have spiked in recent years, the facility's owner Detroit Renewable Energy has received over a dozen violations for the odor, and the state was looking to issue thousands of dollars in fines with the company.
MT's cover story on the issue led to a class action lawsuit. But it was only when when Attorney General Bill Schuette announced the fines and consent agreement, a legal document that lays out obligations for the company to fix the odor problem, did other outlets pay attention to the matter. If all goes according to plan and Detroit Renewable Energy doesn't mess around with their orders, the odor issue should be resolved within the next two years.
11. Detroit regional water authority facts misleading
Plenty of observers were thrilled by the announcement of a new regional water authority to oversee Detroit's water system, in part because $50 million would be paid by Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties annually, solely for repairs to the system. The problem? That narrative was wrong. The city of Detroit actually will pay $17 million of that $50 million. Also: The $4.5 million would be contributed annually by Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to help low-income customers in the entire system pay their water bills was seen as a positive. But, as MT contributor Curt Guyette previously noted in the Michigan Citizen, roughly 15-20 percent of the entire populace in the eight-county region served by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) lives below the poverty level — of which roughly 70,000 are in Detroit. As Guyette noted, if you only take into consideration the Detroit residents, that $4.5 million will barely make a dent in anyone's water bill: provide about $64 annually for Detroit's neediest — and that doesn't take into consideration DWSD's remaining three million customers.
12. Education Achievement Authority falls off the tracks
Thanks to the dogged reporting of Guyette in a Metro Times cover story this fall, he exposed just how bad the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) has been at its job. A creation of Snyder, the EAA was tasked with overseeing 15 of Detroit's lowest performing schools. Guyette's reporting revealed a number of issues: Students were used as guinea pigs for flawed software, whose creators wanted to peddle to other districts. Woefully inexperienced teachers were hired when they shouldn't have been.
13. Amid new, mostly white-owned businesses thriving in Detroit, black-owned businesses in the city are doing good too
In 2014, to no surprise, the New York Times spilled some ink over Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, something MT's Michael Jackman did in fine fashion earlier this year. There was one problem with the Times piece: It featured only white-owned businesses. But not only were the businesses owned by white people, the photos the Times ran included only white people. Jackman, in a lengthy piece on MT's website, made a point to highlight this glaring problem because, you see, black-owned businesses in Detroit are doing good too!
14. Detroit retirees take huge cut to health care
As observers of Detroit's long-winded path through bankruptcy court, it struck us as odd to see how much attention was paid to Detroit's pension obligations, and how little was said about retiree health care costs. Yes, local outlets reported the fact that Detroit's bankruptcy-exit plan would slash $4 billion in health care obligations, but the finer points were, more or less, discussed as an aside.
Under Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr's orchestrated plan to exit bankruptcy, retirees would no longer be enrolled into a health insurance plan where they pay 20 percent of the costs and the city picks up the rest. Now, the majority of retirees receive a $125 monthly stipend, with some receiving up to $400, to cover insurance costs. For some retirees — all of whom are on a fixed-income — health care costs jumped by as much as $500 a month.
And while the city's ability to exit bankruptcy has been seen as a positive turn in Detroit's history, this piece of the puzzle has been diminished publicly as a footnote. By the time U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Detroit's bankruptcy-exit plan, this nitty-gritty reality lodged in stories of 2014 have been lost to the Internet. It was the biggest chunk of Detroit's debt slashed in bankruptcy, and yet many would likely struggle to explain why.
15. Michigan's proposed statewide 2,000 walk and bike trails
Let's end on a brighter note: First proposed in late 2012, one of Snyder's most interesting proposals since taking office is a 1,259-mile hiking trail and 774-mile biking trail that would stretch from Belle Isle in Detroit to the Michigan/Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula. If all goes according to plan, the entire trail should be complete by 2017. In the meantime, following a contest earlier this year, the name of the trail is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
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