Pensions, retiree health care comes at a cost for municipalities

Former county employee, Sharon Evenson, works on paperwork at her temporary desk May 4 at her home in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Former county employee, Sharon Evenson, works on paperwork at her temporary desk May 4 at her home in Port Huron. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Sharon Evenson is in a unique position when it comes to her retiree benefits.

Evenson retired as a full-time county employee in 2000 while continuing part time as a secretary for St. Clair County Community Mental Health. She also receives a small pension from Port Huron for working as a secretary in the city clerk, treasurer and planning departments.

The Port Huron resident is grateful to have worked when she did, and doesn’t want her pension to be touched.

“In my years working I did not have the ability to put money into a 401(k),” she said. “The loss of my county pension would be devastating because I live alone. I don’t want something given to me, but at the same time I want what I have earned.”

As the need to trim costs for unfunded liabilities in St. Clair County and its cities continues, employers in both the public and private sectors are dealing with a hard truth.

After switching to a 401(k)-type plan in 2008, Port Huron is still feeling the burden from retirees through its former pension plan.

Port Huron is liable for more than $100 million in unfunded liabilities, with annual payments exceeding $7 million.

The Port Huron pension is underfunded by $54.4 million, while the city’s healthcare is underfunded by $47 million.

“It’s called an unfunded liability because there is a deficit,” said Richard Dreyfuss, an actuary and business consultant for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a conservative nonprofit that conducts research on public policy issues. “It’s an amount owed from the pension system or the retiree health care system. Those are the two most common forms of unfunded liabilities.”

According to Dreyfuss there are an estimated $4.7 trillion in unfunded pension plan liabilities across the country. These costs are crowding out government services and causing public employees to wonder about their government’s ability to meet financial obligations.

Dreyfuss said there are three main reasons why municipalities and companies that still offer pension plans incur unfunded liabilities.

Investment rates on assets have not met the expected rate of return within the pension plan.

Actuary contributions are not being made on a consistent basis.

Benefits are added that were not planned when the pension first began.

“These pension and retiree health care costs become due and if you don’t have the assets on hand, it can lead to bankruptcy,” Dreyfuss said.

St. Clair County Administrator Bill Kauffman said the county has done much better in comparison to six years ago when the money it had invested was caught up in the crash of Wall Street.

“Our actuary tells us we are in better shape than most municipalities in the state,” Kauffman said. “Anyone who had money invested in Wall Street in 2008, probably lost about a quarter of it in 2009.”

Based on its 2013 valuation, the county’s pension plan is 87.1 percent funded with an unfunded liability of $19.4 million.

The county began closing its defined benefit pension plan and retiree health care plan to new hires in 2009.

New county employees are eligible to participate in a 457 plan — a government version of the 401(k) — where the county matches up to 8 percent of the employee’s contributions.

Community Mental Health and Road Commission employees are also eligible to participate in the county’s plan. However, the two entities are responsible for funding their portion of each plan.

Kauffman said the amount of unfunded liabilities will continue to be a burden for at least the next 30 years as there are still a lot of active employees who are eligible with the original pension plan.

Out of the county’s current full-time employees, 437 are eligible for the defined benefit pension plan that was closed six years ago. Evenson is one of the 442 county retirees who are covered by the previous pension plan.

401(k) versus pension plans

The state of Michigan began shifting new employees off of its pension plan in 1997 under former Gov. John Engler. The move has saved up to $4 billion.

There are still pension systems for teachers and many local municipal workers. The unfunded liability just for teachers is $24.3 billion.

Dreyfuss said using a 401(k) has become the primary retirement plan for incoming employees because it eliminates future liabilities. That’s why more than 70 percent of businesses use this model, which costs an employer 4 to 7 percent of payroll to operate, Dreyfuss said.

“401(k)’s cannot have unfunded liabilities,” he said. “You have to fund your obligation as they are earned. If you agree to match it dollar-for-dollar, then you have to match that in real time.”

A pension, however, is like offering a long-term promise and hoping for the assets to grow, he said.

“Funding a pension system has a low rate of return because there is nothing tangible to point to,” Dreyfuss said. “Very often you have to cut a program or raise taxes in order to meet that commitment.”

Dan Casey, chief executive officer for the St. Clair County Economic Development Authority, said businesses can cancel their pension plans whenever they want to and are not obligated to maintain benefits like the government is.

“That’s why it’s less of a problem with the private sector,” Casey said. “It is protected by the state constitution so the government’s hands are tied.”

David Ladd, spokesperson for IAC — an automotive parts manufacturer in Port Huron and St. Clair — said the business offers a 401(k) because it is more convenient.

“It’s substituted what were traditional pension plans of yesterday for the private sector,” he said. “Huge legacy debts have driven some Fortune 500 companies into bankruptcy. We don’t what that.”

Port Huron City Manager James Freed said the amount of unfunded liabilities has gradually increased in the last decade despite switching to a 401(k) format.

Freed said it is one of the reason’s Port Huron is trying to cut $1 million in its next budget.

Port Huron’s proposed budget would also provide an additional $500,000 down payment from its fringe benefits fund, on top of what it already pays toward unfunded liabilities. The additional payment would increase the city’s percentage funded, which currently sits at 62 percent.

“(Our pension) is outpacing our growth revenue because our taxable value has dropped,” Freed said. “For every dollar I pay an employee, I have to put 70 cents toward legacy costs.”

Port Huron, like the county, has active employees who have yet to retire who fall under the previous pension plan. Port Huron’s pension troubles can also be traced to its decrease in city employees from 421 in 2002 to 239 in 2014.

With fewer employees to help cover retiree costs, the city becomes more underfunded.

“Our employees have been paying a tremendous amount for health care and pension costs,” Freed said. “Their wages have been frozen. It’s not the employees we have today that are the problem.”

Dreyfuss said the pension model forces cities to become reliant on new hires to pay for old debts.

“Some retirees may have been underfunded while they were working,” Dreyfuss said. “When they pass away, they are no longer collecting any more benefits — unless their spouse does — and the cycle can end.”

A municipal breakdown

Municipalities meet with their actuaries to determine how much they should be distributing toward unfunded liabilities based on the current market value.

Dreyfuss said if a municipality reaches a point where it is unable to make payments, they are required to change the benefits or change the way the program is funded.

Anthony Minghine, associate executive director for the Michigan Municipal League, said local governments statewide have had to make changes to their pension plans because of the dramatic decline in property values and federal funding.

He said business owners can generate revenue by selling more or increasing prices. The government does not have the same ability.

Minghine said the challenge for local government is that change can be very slow, so any existing problem with legacy costs will be around for a while.

“Change is hard for local government because the only management tool they have is to cut services. Every time you cut services, you make the community a somewhat less desirable place to live,” Minghine said. “Residents move away, which has a negative effect on property values and decreases funding. You go into this death spiral.”

Kimball Township, Port Huron Township and Yale never offered retiree health-care or pension plans.

Port Huron Township Treasurer Nancy Collins said the township uses a defined contribution plan because the township does not have many retirees.

“When you have more retirees than those who are working, a pension can get pretty big,” Collins said. “We did not want that huge debt hanging over our heads.”

Marine City and Marysville closed their pension plans in 2011 and 2013, respectively, to incoming employees and now offer a 457 plan.

Fort Gratiot and St. Clair still provide pension plans to its employees but have made changes to their plans to accommodate growing expenses.

St. Clair has 74 total participants in its pension plan — 26 are still active, 40 are retired and the other eight are vested former members.

Superintendent Mike Booth said the city has considered making the switch to a 401(k) plan and will continue to look at ways of addressing its pension obligation.

“We have an obligation and have to see where we can make changes to the plan itself to bring down the liability,” Booth said. “We’ve made some changes — the new hires brought in still receive a pension, but it is a lesser plan.”

Fort Gratiot Clerk Robert Crawford said the township pays up to 9 percent into its employees’ pension plan.

The township has made an effort to decrease its amount of unfunded liabilities through reductions in healthcare costs to current retirees.

“At one point it was a 40/60 split for health care costs between the employee and the township,” Crawford said. “Now it is just a $250 reimbursement each month for employees who purchase a Medicare supplement policy for themselves and their spouse.”

This benefit is offered only to those hired prior to 2012. Crawford said the switch lowered Fort Gratiot’s other post-employment benefits obligation from $3.1 million a year to about $634,000.

Port Huron resident Betty Kline receives retirement benefits from the county because her husband, Frank, worked as a maintenance worker for a county children shelter.

One month after Frank retired, he passed away. However, 20 years later his pension and other retiree benefits still go to Kline.

At 82 years old, Kline said she would not be able to keep her home if she had to pay out-of-pocket for her health insurance.

“As far as prescriptions, I am thankful for what I’m getting as a retiree spouse,” she said. “I’m on a fixed income with my pension and social security. If I didn’t have it, I don’t know what I would do. I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.”

Evenson said she too wishes her health-care coverage was better, but is still appreciative of the money she receives.

“I know there are more out-of-pocket expenses now,” she said. “I just had surgery and paid almost $1,000. While I wish there was a cost of living adjustment in the pension, I have to be grateful.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 9, 2015)

Advertisements

Marine City residents speak out against tax increase

A resident speaks out against the special tax assessment during a Marine City Commission meeting Thursday. (Tony Wittkowski |Times Herald)

A resident speaks out against the special tax assessment during a Marine City Commission meeting Thursday. (Tony Wittkowski |Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Residents had more than a few words for Marine City Commissioners during the Thursday night meeting.

While the public hearing on an up to 5-mill tax increase through a special assessment to fund public safety was canceled, residents used public comment to get their point across.

Marine City resident Janet DeMist spoke during the 40-minute public comment session, where she asked commissioners to “stop throwing taxpayers under the bus.”

“We cannot handle tax increases,” she said. “We learned the meaning of a budget in grade school. Please review the budget and be frugal.”

The commission scheduled a special meeting at 7 p.m. May 20 for a public hearing on the special assessment that was attached to the proposed budget.

The meeting was scheduled by a vote of 5-2 with Commissioners Lisa Hendrick and Raymond Meli voting against it.

“We are asking you to invest in your city,” said Commissioner Dianne Lovett to more than 25 members in the audience. “There has been less and less coming in for the city. We have been cutting and cutting and cutting. There is no money in the budget. I personally enjoy having our own police force.”

Meli addressed the crowd after the public comments, saying he was not in favor of the special assessment because crime has gone down and felt an added police shift was not needed.

“I want a quote from the sheriff’s department on policing our area,” he said. “I don’t think the city has to pay for its own police department, let alone another shift.”

Mayor Raymond Skotarczyk said he doesn’t believe the special assessment will put anyone in the “poorhouse.”

“We are trying to keep this city moving forward. As a homeowner I don’t want increased taxes either,” Skotarczyk said. “But this is necessary. I wouldn’t do this unless I thought there was a major benefit to plug the hole in the bucket.”

Commissioner Hendrick said she was happy with the amount of people that showed up and hoped this will convince the rest of the commission to make cuts.

The special assessment had been discussed by the city commission, but at a lower rate than listed in the public hearing notice.

In early April, the commission included in its budget a 3.045 mill special assessment for public safety; a 2 percent raise for most city employees; and a 5.15 percent increase in water and sewer rates, as well as $100 a year ready-to-serve fee for water and sewer.

That $2.9 million budget is still set for a May 21 public hearing.

The 3.045 mill special assessment included the cost of an added 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift in the police department.

Some residents called for a third party to come in and take a look at the budget.

Heather Warner, a Marine City resident who started an informal petition against the special assessment, asked commissioners to cut the 2 percent raises and to not include the additional police shift.

“I’m asking you make cuts on the budget,” she said. “I attended the town hall meeting last month. I feel there were great ideas discussed. I feel we were heard but not listened to.

“Take this into consideration before casting your vote. We will take this to a legal level if the commission passes the increase.”

Residents like Robert Blanchard thanked the commissioners for their service, but felt there was more to be done within the proposed budget.

“I realize budgets are tight, but I don’t think going forward with this PA33 is the answer to the problem,” Blanchard said. “I’ve worked for three different counties and each one has had to take budget cuts.”

Police chief and acting city manager Don Tillery was not present for the meeting, as he was attending his son’s graduation.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 8, 2015)

St. Clair to receive $70,000 grant for street repairs

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

The Department of Environmental Quality announced the recipients of $2.8 million in grants Wednesday that would go toward rubber-modified asphalt projects.

The city of St. Clair was one of 21 recipients and will get $70,000 for its efforts.

Mayor Bill Cedar said the plan is to use the funding to repair Hawthorne Road, South Ninth and Orchard streets.

“Just like everyone else we have road issues,” Cedar said. “Anytime we can pick up some monetary help is great news.”

The DEQ grant is a reimbursement grant, which will cover costs for what is paid on the rubber-modified asphalt projects.

Cedar said there is not an exact date for the projects, but said the city hopes to begin this summer.

“We wanted to address one street in each ward,” Cedar said. “They take these scrap tires, grind them up and use them to patch road surfaces.”

The grant covers road projects that use rubber-modified asphalt in construction and repairs to improve existing Michigan roadways.

They are also awarded to research projects that find new ways to incorporate scrap tire rubber into asphalt and concrete, and equipment projects that find new ways to create commodities from scrap tires.

Michael Marshall, scrap tire program coordinator for the DEQ, said St. Clair was chosen because of the project’s size.

“St. Clair has never received a grant from us and we had a bunch of grantees that had gotten at least one before,” Marshall said. “A lot of grantees were asking for money to cover half a million dollar projects. We tried to help smaller projects so we could award more.”

According to Marshall, the scrap tire grant program has been around since 1992.

“Every year we issue cleanup grants and then whatever is left over out of the appropriation we hand out for these developments,” he said.

Cedar said the idea to apply came when a resident sent him an article about it.

The mayor said he met with Superintendent Mike Booth to discuss which roads could be included in the project.

“If this works out and the process is compatible with what we are doing, we are going to be looking for more grants like this,” Cedar said. “With the way roads are we have to be on that.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 8, 2015)

Lawmakers look for alternatives to Proposal 1

With an overwhelming amount of voters striking down Proposal 1 Tuesday, legislators are faced with the challenge of finding another source for repairing Michigan’s roads. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

With an overwhelming amount of voters striking down Proposal 1 Tuesday, legislators are faced with the challenge of finding another source for repairing Michigan’s roads. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

After the overwhelming rejection of the Proposal 1, state lawmakers are back to the drawing board.

Had the state amendment passed, Michiganders would have not only seen an increases state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, but an increase in registration fees for vehicles and an increase in the state’s gas tax from 19 cents per gallon to about 42 cents.

More than 89 percent of St. Clair County voters rejected the tax increases.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, said he believes there needs to be cuts elsewhere in the state’s budget to raise the additional $1.3 billion needed to repair Michigan’s roads.

“We need to find a solution without raising taxes. It’s going to be about reprioritizing our $53 billion budget. We need to look at whether we need those programs that don’t return an investment and aren’t a priority for citizens.”

Proposal 1 was produced in late December after talks failed to generate a consensus between the House and Senate over how to raise additional taxes for roads.

Lawmakers looked at everything from raising gas taxes to massive hikes in vehicle registration fees and small-dollar revenue generators, such as slapping truckers and electric vehicle owners with additional taxes.

Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, said the starting point should be taking the sales tax that goes elsewhere and commit it to roads.

“People want to see the solution to roads to be concentrated on roads,” Lauwers said. “We had to improvise with other parties at the time. I hope everyone gets the message from the voters.”

That message, according to Lauwers, was that an increase in funding should only go toward roads.

Speaking with voters, Lauwers said they were either confused by the language, they did not want a tax increase or they felt Proposal 1 involved too many programs and funds.

Proposal 1 contained multiple triggers to increase the sales tax, fuel taxes and registration fees to boost revenue for road repairs, education, municipalities and provide a tax credit for low-income families.

Lauwers said it could take more than one attempt to get a road funding solution that voters will accept.

“If you are going to increase funding it has to be strictly for roads. It cannot include tax credits for other government budgets,” Lauwers said. “Hopefully, we can get other parties to agree and not get bogged down by special interest groups interested in roads.”

Kirk Weston, managing director for St. Clair County Road Commission, said he expected the proposal to fail because it was slated as a roads issue, but had other items that made it hard to explain to the voters.

“Hopefully when Lansing meets again, they take the time to look a little closer and understand what the real issues are,” Weston said.

Weston said the road commission will not be affected immediately, but he does foresee a problem with future roads projects.

“We are starting to see increases in prices that we haven’t seen before — especially projects that include drainage, bridge or culvert structures,” he said. “Material cost and the cost to do work are starting to climb.”

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley took to Facebook Wednesday to give his thoughts on the downfall of Proposal 1.

The next steps Calley has in mind for developing a plan to fix roads would be to limit the solution to transportation, lower the size of a potential increase in taxes and make it as simple as possible.

“I’ve seen a lot of interpretations regarding the outcome of Proposal 1, but with that kind of margin of loss, it is clear that multiple reasons came together to bring about the result,” he stated. “Interestingly, the resolve to find a roads solution seems stronger now than it was a year ago, which is encouraging.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 6, 2015)

Port Huron to hold public hearing on proposed budget

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Monday’s city council meeting will showcase three public hearings for Port Huron residents.

The floor will be open to those who wish to comment on the $21.2 million proposed budget that City Manager James Freed introduced to council members on April 27.

The proposed 2015-16 budget includes cutting the city’s firefighting staff by more than 12 percent and billing residents $35 a year to maintain trash and recycling services.

The budget includes:

Reducing the fire department staff from 40 to 35, through early retirements. The public safety’s fire division is slated to take more than $575,000 in cuts, bringing its overall budget to about $4.7 million.

Eliminating the city manager’s assistant position, through early retirement, creating a savings of $50,000.

Adding a $35 annual fee per residence to pay for continued trash and recycling services, generating about $300,000 annually.

Providing an additional $500,000 down payment toward unfunded liabilities.

Cutting $75,000 to McMorran for capital improvements, as well as cutting $25,000 in city dollars for capital improvements for the parks and recreation department.

Capital improvements coming from funding outside of the city’s general fund revenue.

Freed said he expects a lively debate from residents on the proposed cuts.

“The budget hasn’t been balanced in four years,” he said. “This is truly balanced without the use of subsidiaries. That came at the result of difficult decisions.”

Council will also listen to comments on the proposed capital improvement plan as well as the proposed budget for the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

City Engineer Bob Clegg said the state requires all municipalities to prepare a six-year capital improvement plan that lays out some of the larger projects it wants to undertake.

Projects on the list are expected to have a value of $20,000 or more with the life expectancy of at least 10 years.

Improvements in the plan will include water main replacements, road and building improvements, and bridge and street repairs. Among these projects will be the improvements proposed for Lakeside Park.

“It’s a list of needs from professionals within each department,” Clegg said. “It takes vision, you’re talking six years. State requirement or not, it is good public policy to have a plan in place.”

Port Huron’s DDA plans to use the majority of its funding to address the city’s crumbling streetscape.

Of the DDA’s nearly $150,000 budget, $100,000 has been budgeted to the downtown’s infrastructure, including items like crumbling curbs and missing walkway bricks.

A special meeting for council members to discuss the budget will be held later in the week at 6 p.m., Wednesday in Conference Room 408.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 10, 2015)

Voters deny Prop 1, rebuke lawmakers, Snyder

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

Michigan voters soundly rejected Proposal 1 Tuesday, with many voicing anger at the lack of focus of where the money would be spent and what the state has done with the money it already has.

More than 89 percent of the about 33,299 votes tallied in St. Clair County were against the proposal.

More than 94 percent of voters in Emmett voted against the proposal. St. Clair residents showed it the most support, with 17.66 percent in favor.

About 86 percent of Port Huron voters cast ballots against it.

Eighty-eight percent of Sanilac County voters rejected the proposal.

“I voted no,” said Tim Lamar of East China. “There’s plenty of places they can take the money from to fix the roads.

“They just have to do what we do in our homes and use common sense budgeting.”

Proposal 1 would have raised nearly $1.3 billion extra for roads, increasing the state sales tax from 6 to 7 percent, taking the sales tax off fuel sales and hiking fuel taxes.

When fully implemented, the tax hikes would have also generated about $200 million a year more for schools; $116 million for transit and rail; send $111 million more to local governments; and give a $260-million tax break to low- and moderate-income families through restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

“It’s essential that making Michigan’s infrastructure safer remains a top priority,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement. “While voters didn’t support this particular proposal, we know they want action taken to maintain and improve our roads and bridges. The ‘relentless’ part of relentless positive action means that we start anew to find a comprehensive, long-term solution to this problem. Doing nothing isn’t an option as the costs are too great. Michiganders need to be able to get behind the wheel and not worry about dodging potholes or seeing plywood to catch crumbling concrete under overpasses. We appreciate that this bipartisan plan was supported by so many groups – business leaders and unions, public safety officials and local governments, teachers, and the list goes on. I plan to work with my partners in the Legislature on a solution that gives Michigan residents the safe roads they need and deserve and bolsters our growing economy.”

Local voters didn’t like the promise the tax increase would fix roads, yet so many dollars would fund other issues.

“I feel when they put it out as a road tax, it should be used for the roads,” said Tim Danielson, who cast his ballot in St. Clair. “They put too much other stuff in it.”

He said the state increased license plate fees several years ago with the goal of increasing road funding.

“That was supposed to be for fixing the roads, and nobody’s fixing the roads,” he said.

Carl Norton, 58, also voted against the measure.

“There’s enough money in government,” the Kimball Township man said. “I don’t understand why we’re having to raise taxes to pay for something that should already be taken care of. And the money should go straight to the roads. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a ‘No.’ You don’t raise the taxes and then disperse the money everywhere else if it’s a road tax.”

Larry Stineman, 72, Port Huron, did not support the tax increase.

“If this is all they could come up with then they need to go back to school and learn how to approach the public because we elected them,” he said. “They got money stored away somewhere we can’t see.”

Robert Atkinson, 53, of Kimball Township, said voting the proposal down was a difficult choice for him.

“People are torn. We want the roads fixed but we don’t want to be taxed anymore. I think taxpayers are getting really tired of being taxed to death,” Atkinson said.

Lydia Vozza, 47, of Kimball Township voted no because she said it was too unclear.

“It’s hiding something. If they had a straight bill that said 100 percent of it is for the roads that would have been great,” Vozza said.

Joe Trzasko, 81, of Kimball Township said the lack of focus on where the dollars would be spent also resulted in his vote against it.

“They pushed that it was for the roads. But there were so many loopholes, so much money that went to other places. The roads need to be fixed. You know that, and I know that, but…they don’t tell you about everything else that’s going on. In a small way they do,” he said.

Retired road construction worker David Sermo, 58, turned out to Kimball Township offices to vote down what he called an enormous tax increase even though he agreed the roads need repair.

“This is something that should have been addressed 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “The roads are terrible. We’ve got the highest allowable weight in any state for trucks…it just tears up the roads and with our weather.”

Amy Hamlin, a 32-year-old Marysville resident, has had her mind made up since the proposal was first introduced.

“I don’t think raising taxes will help our situation,” Hamlin said. “I think they need to take an overall look at the money pool. The rest of us have to live on a budget, why can’t Lansing?”

John Ritter, a 69-year-old Marysville resident, said he voted against Proposal 1.

“There’s too many add-ons,” he said. “If it was strictly roads then it’s not a problem. But when you include all those add-ons, it don’t mean squat to me.”

Marysville resident Gery Ureel, 52, said he is voting against the state amendment because he doesn’t want an increase in sales tax.

“I don’t want the sales tax increase to go through,” he said. “Not everything is going to the roads. Prices for everything are going to sky rocket.”

Lois and Don Fordt, of East China Township, had just finished voting at the township hall around 8:15 a.m.

“It’s your duty to do that,” Lois Fordt said. “We always vote. You might not like what you’re voting on, but you have to make a decision.”

Neither of them wanted to say how they had voted

“If you don’t like the way things are running, you try to change them,” Don Fordt said.

Karen Schneider, of St. Clair, wouldn’t say how she voted in the city’s Ward 1 — but she clearly didn’t care for Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I’m concerned about what Snyder’s doing,” she said. “I’m not happy with the governor.”

Mandy Rhadigan, also of St. Clair, said she was surprised Proposal 1 was the only thing on the ballot.

“I voted no,” she said. “I don’t agree with all the taxes they want to increase.

“My whole family is voting no: We even got the one who just turned 18, and he’s voting no.”

Kristy Alexander, of St. Clair, said she was going to vote no on Proposal 1.

“It’s malarkey, it’s ridiculous,” she said.

“I vote to have a voice,” Alexander said. “If we don’t speak up for what we believe in … who will?”

Mike Coe, 73, of Marysville, said he voted in favor of Proposal 1.

“It’s the best that they can put out there,” Coe said. “I don’t agree with a lot of it, but we need to have the roads fixed. It doesn’t look like the legislature is going to do anything else.”

The main reason behind his decision stems from the current state of roads.

“Everybody knows that we have to do something with roads,” Coe said. “After manufacturing and agriculture, out biggest industry is tourism. If we expect people to come into the state, we need to present ourselves well. It’s this or nothing.”

Reporters Syeda Ferguson, Bob Gross and Nicole Hayden contributed to this report.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 6, 2015)

Port Huron man gets 3 to 15 years for drunken shooting

Charles Kelly listens to the victim’s father address the courtroom Monday during his sentencing. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Charles Kelly listens to the victim’s father address the courtroom Monday during his sentencing. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

A 23-year-old Port Huron man will spend the next three to 15 years in prison for fatally shooting 40-year-old Nellie Jo Pearson.

Friends and family members of Pearson and Charles Joshua Kelly filled Circuit Judge Michael West’s courtroom for Kelly’s sentencing Monday.

“Alcohol and firearms don’t mix — ever,” Circuit Court Judge Michael West said before sentencing Kelly.

“I don’t think it’s a case where guidelines should be exceeded. But I disagree with the recommendation. It is on the low end of the guideline. This is the grossest of gross negligence.”

Kelly pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm while under the influence causing death, a 15-year felony, and using a controlled substance, a one-year misdemeanor. The recommended sentence was not made part of the court record.

Pearson died after being shot Sept. 13 inside a Rural Street home.

“There are many things that have to be considered,” West said. “Maybe this is the beginning of the healing process. I just don’t understand the mentality of anyone at that age to think that a firearm, loaded or unloaded, is something you play with.”

Kelly addressed Pearson’s family alongside his lawyer before his sentence was handed out.

“I just want all of you to know how sorry I am,” he said to a tearful courtroom. “Nothing I say will make it better. But if I could do something to take it back, I would.”

Pearson’s father also spoke.

Gerald Paeth described finding his daughter on a gurney at the morgue and giving her a kiss goodbye.

“I’m still waiting for my daughter to drive into the driveway,” he said. “Judge, I have no idea what the sentencing should be for this man. I think everybody involved should never be able to handle a handgun for the rest of their life. You have to squeeze a trigger to make a gun go off.”

Thomas Bales, Kelly’s lawyer, said he has been working with his client since the beginning and knows how hard it has been on his family.

“This case breaks my heart. He’s a good kid,” Bales said. “He’s got a baby he has to take care of. We’ve talked about what he is prepared to do. He has a lot of family support and there are no priors on his record.”

Senior Assistant Prosecutor Mona Armstrong said the word that kept coming to mind for this case was “devastating.”

“I’ve spent time with her family and quite honestly, that word does not do justice,” Armstrong said. “This is a tragic death that did not have to happen.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on May 4, 2015)