Benton Township to provide trash pickup carts

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Trash pickup carts will become a common site along the streets of Benton Township.

Trustees unanimously voted Tuesday night to pay $144,529 for 3,000 95-gallon trash carts that can be distributed to residents who pay the township for trash removal services.

Superintendent Kelli Nelson said the move was meant to enhance their service and limit the amount of trash that gets blown into township streets.

“The township has provided refuse service for a number of years,” she said. “People are forced to use their own trash carts or set their bags on the side of the road on pickup day. We decided to push for buying these carts because the township has issues with trash carts getting broken, or trash being blown away.”

The township will use its general fund to pay for the 3,000 trash carts, which will be made available by April 1.

Trustees then passed a resolution to increase the trash collection rate by $1. The current rate for residential homes is $15 a month. The rate increase will take place June 1, two months after carts are made available to residents.

If commercial property and nonprofit organizations need a second cart, under the new rate Nelson said they would pay $32 a month.

Nelson told trustees the rate has not been increased since October 2008.

“It is deemed necessary to offset the capital investment in the refuse collection carts,” Nelson said. “We expect a return on investment within five years.”

Public Works Supervisor Andy Jordan told trustees he favored the purchase because the township would offer a better service.

The last two trash trucks the township bought have a cart tipper on the back that would work with the influx of carts.

“Personally, I don’t like to see Best Way and Reliable (trash carts) outside houses,” Jordan said. “We should be picking up for residents, and the carts will help with that. Our service is better. We have no limit on what we’ll pick up. It will just be a special pick up.”

Best Way Disposal and Reliable Disposal are two trash pickup services based in Watervliet and Stevensville, respectively. They are a common choice in Berrien County to remove trash.

Treasurer Debbie Boothby said the township’s prices are lower than most in the area. However, she said more residents weren’t as interested in the township’s service due to the lack of trash carts.

Nelson said residents would like this because most pay water and sewer bills at the township hall. By signing on with the township, they could pay the trash pickup fee at township hall along with the rest of their utilities.

Under the new resolution, Nelson said any additional bags that don’t fit in the 95-gallon trash cart will be billed extra. She said the township won’t leave any trash behind. However, there would be an incremental charge of any “excess haul.”

The next board meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Benton Township Hall.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2017)

The plight of less snow: For some, snow removal is more than supplementary income

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Drew Maier is owner of King Chop, a landscaping and snow removal business, based in Stevensville. Snow plow drivers and landscaping companies are seeing less revenue this year thanks to warm winter weather. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Drew Maier keeps a close eye on the weather for his job.

As owner of King Chop in Stevensville, Maier’s profession is dependent on the weather – regardless what season. In the warmer days, Maier runs his landscaping business. In winter, he plows snow.

Whenever there’s a chance for accumulation, Maier’s crew gets group texts as a form of notification to ensure they are ready to go the night before. When the snow falls, they sometimes start as early as 4 a.m. That way, their clients’ driveways and parking lots are clear before the first cup of coffee is made.

However, snow has been scarce the last few months in Southwest Michigan.

“I’ve learned over the years you have to plan for something like this,” said Maier, who has run his business for 12 years. “You are not guaranteed snow. There are years when you get a ton of snow. Then there are times when you’re paid to plow less than 10 times and you question why you are doing this when you have expensive equipment sitting idle.”

Snow plow drivers and landscaping companies are seeing less revenue coming in this year at the expense of warmer weather.

The business venture can be pretty costly each year, regardless of how many inches fall.

With three plows in his fleet, Maier said adding a new plow to a truck can be as expensive as a used car – and maintaining this fleet doesn’t come cheap.

Like most landscaping businesses in the area, the majority of Maier’s revenue comes during summer and spring.

During winter, landscaping companies plow snow to keep busy in what are referred to as “down months.” But when there’s no snow around and the ground is too frozen for work, Maier and others must wait.

Maier said his company normally gets paid to plow 20-24 times a winter. Part way through the last snowy month, Maier said they’ve plowed fewer than 10 times.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but it helps with the cash flow in the winter,” Maier said. “Even if we don’t keep pace in the summer, it still helps in the winter when everyone has bills coming in.”

Normally, the plowing side of his business was responsible for about 12 percent of yearly revenue. With a winter like this, Maier said they’ve lost about 6 to 7 percent for the season.

“You either pray for some snow or an early spring,” he joked. “With this mild winter, it’s also gotten more people thinking about projects than earlier. We’ve gotten more requests for land proposals in January than ever before. So, there’s a silver lining in this.”

Rainy revenue

With his eye on the weather trends, Maier said this winter hasn’t had its lack of precipitation.

According to data collected from the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, Berrien County’s snowfall was just under 30 inches – the majority of which took place over the course of one week in December.

Meteorologist Geoffrey Heidelberger said the county received nearly three times that amount during the last three-month cycle of December, January and February.

In contrast, the area has seen about 5.34 inches of rain through December and January.

“It’s ironic that our temperatures were spiking when there was precipitation,” Maier said. “Had it been 32 (degrees) or lower, we would have feet of snow. For every inch of rain, it’s 10 inches of snow because the volume is that much greater.”

Travis Nelson owns Nelson’s General Construction in Millburg, which focuses on home repairs, custom woodworking and snow plowing.

Like Maier, Nelson focuses on the weather on a daily basis. In addition to snow removal and his construction business, Nelson also bartends at Buffalo Wild Wings in his off time. To his recollection, Nelson said this has been one of the worst years for snow removal in the last decade.

“Compared to the last five or 10 years, it’s been horrible,” Nelson said. “I even still have updates on Facebook about 20 inches coming down during this month – four years ago.”

The timing of the unusually warm winter has been bad for Nelson, as he hasn’t been able to do much with his construction company after recent knee surgery. On top of that, he had to invest about $5,000 into the plow truck for a new transmission.

He first got into snow removal in 2008, when the recession began to hit the country.

“I was in high-end construction and the housing market fell out from underneath us,” Maier said. “I needed fast money, and at that time we were getting tons of snow. I thought this would be a good way to get myself out from under that pile. Snow plowing kept us afloat when the (construction) business closed.”

Nelson would then pair up with a local contractor, where he would help plow heavy snow for commercial and factory properties. His normal clientele is residential now, where the majority of his business comes from word of mouth.

But business has been slow this year, as Nelson estimated he’s lost about half of what he would normally make in the winter.

“It can be hit and miss,” Nelson said. “There are times when I’m in my truck plowing for 18-20 hours if it snows enough. It comes with the job.”

The good news for such businesses is there are five more weeks of winter, and that can be followed by a snowy spring.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2017)

Card skimmers beware: Banks, police offer tips on spotting credit card skimmers

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Credit card skimmers can be placed over any ATM or card reader. Credit card skimming is a form of credit card theft in which crooks use a small device to steal credit card information. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

It comes when you least expect it, and sometimes at the worst possible time.

Drawing some money from an ATM or paying for gas at the pump can sometimes lead to skimming.

Credit card skimming is a form of credit card theft where crooks use a small device to steal credit card information in what would seem like a legitimate credit or debit card transaction.

When a credit or debit card is run through a skimmer, the device captures all the details stored in the card’s magnetic strip.

The thief then comes back to the compromised machine to pick up the file containing all the stolen data. These instances happen everywhere, including Southwest Michigan.

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the county tends to see skimmers come through the area in spurts.

“Normally, a group comes thorough and puts them in at various spots,” Heit said. “It’s been about four to six months since the last string occurred. It is something to be aware of, but it happens at different times.”

Heit said in addition to ATMs, gas stations closer to highways seem to be targeted most by skimmers because it’s where most visitors stop and leave.

Heit said it varies on how long the scam artists keep the skimmers in place. However, it’s always best to be mindful of anything suspicious.

Randy Reimers, who serves as the Fifth Third Bank community president in Southwest Michigan, said the small device that draws information off a credit card is normally left at a specific location for less than 24 hours.

By doing this, the perpetrators are less likely to get caught.

Reimers said the best way to avoid falling victim to a skimmer is to pay for gas inside the store or draw money from inside a bank. However, if it’s later in the day and the customer’s only option is to use a machine outside, there’s another thing to look for.

If a customer is about to use an ATM or card reader outside a gas station that they are familiar with, it’s best to look for any subtle differences.

“If anything looks out of place on an ATM or something appears to have changed from what it normally looks like – avoid using it,” Reimers said.

The typical ATM skimmer is a device smaller than a deck of cards that fits over the existing card reader.

When approaching an ATM, check for obvious signs of tampering at the top of the ATM, near the speakers, the side of the screen, the card reader itself and the keyboard.

If something looks different, such as a different color or material, graphics that aren’t aligned correctly, or anything else that doesn’t look right, don’t use the ATM. The same is true for credit card readers.

Reimers said most fraudsters will apply their skimmer on the farthest pump from the entrance to the gas station to avoid being caught on camera. Plus, those are the gas pumps that are regularly used.

“The scariest thing I was told was the card numbers could be held for up to a couple years and then a few years later they start using them,” Reimers said. “You might not know your card has been comprised. If you see unauthorized activity, alert your credit card company and get it canceled.”

Even if the credit cards have a chip, the data will still be on the card’s magnetic strip in order to be compatible with systems that won’t be able to handle the chip.

Now, months after the U.S. rollout of EMV cards, some merchants still require customers to use the magnetic stripe.

Even if there are no visual differences, a simple push or prod on the machine’s facade can ensure everything is legitimately working.

ATMs are solidly built and don’t have any loose parts. An illegal skimmer is meant to come off quickly when its owner comes back to retrieve it. So, by giving a quick pull of protruding parts like the card reader or seeing if the keyboard is attached, the cardholder can ensure they aren’t being scammed.

“The one thing to remember is don’t be embarrassed if it happens to you,” Reimers said. “We have seen videos and the crooks are really good at what they do. The way some of these skimmers work, as a banker for 30 years, I would not have known it was on the machine.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 4, 2017)

Report: Whirlpool CEO on Trump’s ‘Manufacturing Council’

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Donald Trump’s White House administration revealed the full membership of its manufacturing council this week.

The council has 28 business leaders, including Whirlpool Corp. President and CEO Jeff Fettig.

Whirlpool spokeswoman Juliet Johnson confirmed Fettig’s involvement with the more than two dozen CEOs, whom Trump has chosen to help create recommendations to grow the American manufacturing sector.

“I can confirm that Jeff Fettig has a role specifically with the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative,” Johnson said in an email. “In that capacity, he will be providing input and advice to the president and his administration on ways to strengthen U.S. manufacturing competitiveness to create jobs in the U.S.”

Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris was assigned to lead what’s being called the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, along with support from Elon Musk – making this the second Trump administration advisory group that the Tesla CEO belongs to, including the Strategic and Policy Forum, which advises on economic matters.

Musk isn’t the only tech executive on the manufacturing council, however.

Other members include Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Dell CEO and founder Michael Dell, and Ford CEO Michael Fields.

Dennis Muilenburg from Boeing, Wendell Weeks from Corning, Jeff Immelt from General Electric and Marillyn Hewson from Lockheed Martin are also council members.

The group convenes at a time when Trump pledged to cut corporate taxes while also taxing companies that outsource manufacturing jobs.

News of Fettig’s involvement comes after he and other business leaders first met with Trump on Jan. 23, a few days after the president was sworn in.

At the January meeting, Trump promised to wipe out at least 75 percent of government regulations that he alleges hinder businesses, fast-track plans to open factories and cut taxes. However, Trump also threatened to impose a “substantial border tax” on companies that move production out of the country.

Whirlpool has shown an interest in finding an edge over foreign competitors. The Benton Harbor-based company celebrated an anti-dumping ruling that was made against LG and Samsung in January.

The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled the two companies caused injury to the U.S. appliance industry by selling China-produced washing machines in the U.S. for less than they cost to make.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 4, 2017)

Gov. Synder to be keynote speaker at Cornerstone event

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Gov. Rick Snyder will deliver the keynote speech at the Business Recognition Breakfast next week.

The annual event, co-hosted by the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce and Cornerstone Alliance, takes place at 8 a.m. Thursday in the Lake Michigan College Mendel Center.

Snyder’s speech will include the benefits of doing business in Michigan with hundreds of guests gathered to recognize the accomplishments of Berrien County’s businesses and entrepreneurs.

“Michigan is a top state for business attraction and expansion thanks to the hard work of the Snyder Administration to create a pro-business climate,” Rob Cleveland, Cornerstone Alliance president, said in a news release. “We welcome Gov. Snyder to the Business Recognition event as we celebrate the innovation, growth and successes of Berrien County businesses who produce world-class products and services.”

Last year was the first time the Cornerstone event was held in the morning, which was turned into a business breakfast through the recommendations of Cornerstone members and investors.

Snyder has kept busy this week with trying to bolster Michigan business. Snyder wrapped up his mission to Israel on Thursday after spending time Wednesday with business executives and government leaders, discussing opportunities for increased trade and investment between Michigan and Israel.

The governor concluded his trip by joining a separate delegation of business leaders from nine Michigan companies to discuss their meetings with prospective business partners, distributors and buyers.

Chris Heugel, Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce president, said communication between the Chamber and the governor’s office began a month go. It wasn’t until a few days ago that the Chamber got confirmation of his presence.

“Since it is a celebration of business, we thought why not reach out to the governor?” Heugel said. “We contacted his office and were honored he accepted our invitation too speak.”

This will be the first time a governor will participate in the signature event, Heugel said.

Last year, it was Dr. Brian Long, director of supply management research at Grand Valley State University, who headlined the event by speaking of the West Michigan economy.

“We’re going to leave the talking points up to (Snyder),” Heugel said. “He’s perfectly aware it’s a business event. People there will be interested in the state of business in Michigan.”

Tom Wilbur, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, confirmed the congressman would also be at the business event to introduce the governor for his speech.

Tables are still available for the event, which includes $200 for a table of 10 and $25 per individual seat. The deadline to buy tickets is Monday.

Tickets can be purchased online at http://bit.ly/2kucGl0.

For more information on the event, contact Patricia Muellen at pmuellen@cornerstonechamber.com or by phone at (269) 932-4040.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 3, 2017)

Analysts project favorable job forecast

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Mackenzie Scott, a senior, works on a project in the welding lab at Lakeshore High School last month. The manufacturing sector added more than 300 jobs to the area in 2016, and is expected to have another increase in employment for 2017. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Nearly all Southwest Michigan industries can expect a bump in job growth, economic analysts say.

Rick VanIttersum, talent development manager with Kinexus, took a look at the numbers and trends from last year in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties to get a better idea of how 2017 will take shape for various businesses and industries.

“For the Tri-County area, we primarily focus on our four in-demand, high-growth industries that drive our economy,” VanIttersum said.

These four industries that hold the largest impact on the area include manufacturing, health care, hospitality and agriculture.

Jobs in the hospitality sector increased by 6.8 percent, adding about 700 jobs for a total of 11,312 for the region in 2016 – compared to the national increase of 2.6 percent.

Employment in the manufacturing industry, the Tri-County’s largest sector, increased by 1.8 percent adding 316 jobs for a total of 17,993 over last year.

The health care sector showed a 2.9 percent increase in employment in 2016, adding 255 jobs for a total of 10,757 in the region. The agriculture sector showed a 1.2 percent increase, adding 70 jobs for a total of 5,216 jobs.

VanIttersum said employment in the business services sector decreased by 5.6 percent, for a loss of 542 jobs between 2015 and 2016.

This was considered a “localized trend” compared to the national 4.6 percent increase in jobs between 2015 and 2016 in the business services sector.

“Although there is nearly a 10 percent gap between local and national data, this is not a major concern as most of the decline is within the employment services industry, a component of the business services sector,” VanIttersum said. “This suggests many temporary or contract employees in 2015 became permanent employees during 2016.”

Looking ahead

Growth is expected for all four high-demand industries across the region in 2017, VanIttersum said.

Hospitality is expected to increase by 2.2 percent, for a growth of 242 jobs in the Tri-County region.

Additionally, health care is projected to grow by 1.1 percent, adding 114 jobs. The region’s largest sector, manufacturing, is estimated to grow by 1.4 percent in 2017, with an increase of 242 jobs. Agriculture is also expected to grow by 0.6 percent, adding 29 jobs to the work force.

Overall, employment is expected to grow by 0.9 percent, adding 923 jobs to the Tri-County area in 2017.

The statewide forecast calls for an overall 1.1 percent increase in employment for 2017. For the state, there is a slight decline in manufacturing jobs – about a 0.3 percent drop statewide – which will be surpassed by job growth in the service sectors including hospitality, construction and trade transportation.

“Our region’s labor force participation rate currently stands at 61 percent,” VanIttersum said. “More than 1,700 people entered the labor force in 2016, which includes anyone who is currently working or actively seeking employment.”

The labor force participation rate is recognized as the labor force as a percent of the population.

While January 2017 employment and labor force numbers are still being compiled for Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, VanIttersum said they shouldn’t be that different from where things left off at the end of 2016.

When monthly unemployment numbers are released, Kinexus compares the local unemployment rate to the state and national figures, reviews historical data for that month from a one- to five-year period, and looks for long-term trends among the four targeted industries.

These factors could suggest shifts within various industries and the overall labor market, VanIttersum said.

“A dramatic change in the unemployment rate from one month may indicate seasonal factors, not a change in the Tri-County economy,” VanIttersum said. “For example, unemployment rates are higher in January and February due to winter layoffs in the construction and hospitality industries.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 2, 2017)

Jobless rate inches up to close out 2016

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Jobless rate inches up to close out 2016

In the last month of 2016, jobless rates were somewhat stable in Southwest Michigan as the work force declined seasonally.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, seasonal retail hiring lessened in December 2016 after the peak of the holiday shopping season, and some temporary cuts in education jobs came with the onset of winter break in area schools.

Labor markets recorded typical seasonal job cuts in sectors such as business services, construction, and leisure and hospitality.

Because of this, unemployment rates either decreased slightly or remained the same in Southwest Michigan labor markets.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate – the lowest in the region – rose from 3.3 percent to 3.4 percent in December. Berrien County increased its jobless rate from 4.4 percent in November to 4.6 percent in December, and Cass County remained the same at 4.3 percent.

Van Buren County’s jobless rate rose from 4.7 percent to 5.5 percent – making it the highest unemployed county in the Southwest Michigan region.

Michigan finished with a 4.4 percent unemployment rate in December, while the U.S. produced a 4.5 percent jobless rate.

Only Berrien and Van Buren counties had higher jobless rates than the state and the country.

A look at Berrien jobs

Berrien County lost 800 non-farm payroll jobs in December, primarily from seasonal employment reductions in private education and health services and in leisure and hospitality.

Professional and business services also cut 100 positions over the month. Total non-farm payroll jobs in Berrien County were estimated at 62,000 in December 2016.

Since December 2015, Berrien County gained 400 new positions in goods-producing industries, but lost the exact number of jobs in the service-providing sector. All goods-producing employment advancement was in manufacturing.

A 200-job addition each in the service-providing industries of leisure and hospitality and government were offset by employment reductions in professional and business services, private educational and health services, and other private services.

Current non-farm payroll employment in Berrien County was flat since December 2015, and was still considerably below the pre-recessionary level.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 2, 2017)