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Donald Betlem bought this home for $5,000 in 2008. He had to convince Detroit it wasn't worth ten times as much. Photo by Kate Davidson.

ANN ARBOR — Property values have plummeted across the region.  That means cities and towns have watched their tax revenue plunge as well.  But many homeowners and businesses think their property taxes are still too high.  The result is a double hit.  Local governments are in fiscal crisis.  And the tax courts of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are clogged with people who want refunds.  

People like Donald Betlem.

Betlem’s been knocked hard by the economy.  His auto work dried up.  He lost a home, has tons of debt.  But in 2008, he saw an ad for a 667 square foot house in Detroit.

“I just happened to find it in the Sunday classifieds,” he says.  “And they only want five thousand.”

So he bought it.  But a year later, the city told him his house was actually worth $50,000 on the market, and he had to pay property taxes at that level.

“I told myself, I can’t just walk away from this now.  But I was really wondering what I would do, to prove that I’m being overcharged,” he says.

With some help, Betlem appealed his assessment all the way to the state’s administrative tax court, the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

Property assessment appeals can cover anything from a single family home to a shuttered plant. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Many Michiganders found themselves in similar situations when the market crashed.  They watched the true cash value of their homes (what they could actually sell for) fall faster than their taxable value (the amount used to calculate property taxes).

Kimbal R. Smith III chairs the Michigan Tax Tribunal.  He sums it up like this:

“As the economy in the state of Michigan, and for that matter nationally, went in the tank, the number of filings at the Michigan Tax Tribunal have increased substantially.”

Smith says the tribunal has more than 40,000 pending cases.  For comparison, homeowners and businesses filed 5,449 property assessment appeals during fiscal year 2000 (see small cases here and large cases here).  Last year, the tribunal received 24,199 property appeals.  Smith says those numbers aren’t even final, because the tribunal is still counting appeals that were filed last summer.

The same trend is playing out regionally.  The Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board is working through about 30,000 pending cases.  The Ohio Board of Tax Appeals reported more filings last year than in almost two decades.  Officials in both states say that staff cutbacks have made matters worse.

But the backlog isn’t the only problem.  Property assessment appeals can cover anything from a single family home to a General Motors plant.  So refunds can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of millions of dollars in the biggest cases.

Flint's assessor William Fowler says Delphi wants to reduce the taxable value of this vacant lot by more than a million dollars. Photo by Kate Davidson.

It all comes down to a property’s taxable value, the actual amount you pay taxes on.  Bob Daddow is the deputy county executive for Oakland County, which he says has $3.9 billion in taxable value in dispute at the tax tribunal.

“We aren’t gonna lose the full 3.9 billion,” Daddow says.  “But we aren’t gonna lose zero.”

If that number seems huge, it is.  Oakland County has already lost billions of dollars in taxable value.  Now the county has put about $12 million aside, in anticipation of tax refunds.  Officials in Flint and Lansing say those cities are also saving money.  But Bob Daddow worries other governments will be caught unprepared.

“Most people don’t recognize what’s going to happen,” he says.  Even when the residential market starts to come back, “The commercial and industrial losses, the significant losses, haven’t yet been felt.  So about the time they’re gonna feel comfortable that things are starting to return to normal, these losses are gonna start flowing back in again.”

Losses that could stress local governments even further.

In the case of Donald Betlem, the laid-off engineer, he got some much needed relief.  Detroit eventually agreed that his little house was worth not $50,000 but $7,500.  He’ll get a tax break of hundreds of dollars.

Donald Betlem knows he'll never strike oil. He's driving a cab now to make ends meet.

It helps.  Donald Betlem knows he’ll never strike oil.

“If you remember the Beverly Hillbillies, it’s not a mansion in California,” he says.  “But it’s home for me, so.  I’ll try to make the best of it.”

But it’s not quite over.  Donald Betlem recently got his 2011 assessment in the mail.  Somehow, his home’s value shot back up, to $40,000. 

In the end, this case is probably headed back to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.






Collective bargaining rights for public and private sector employees are a hot button issue in our region. On Tuesday March 8, Changing Gears hosted a region wide call-in show and live chat discussing the issues facing workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s IdeasNetwork joined Changing Gears partners Michigan Radio, WBEZ and ideastream Cleveland for the one-hour show, hosted by Steve Edwards of WBEZ.

Steve Edwards, WBEZ

Changing Gears Senior Editor Micki Maynard and NPR’s David Schaper were in the Chicago studios with Steve. We also heard from Gary Chaison of Clark University, Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell, Ohio labor leader JoAnn Johntony and Ed Buker, a retired Michigan CEO.

Callers weighed in on both sides of the collective bargaining issue and discussed the economic, political and social issues at play.

Miss the show? Take a listen and let us know what you thought. Should we do more shows on this topic?

The battle over public sector unions is loud and visible. Are private sector unions far behind? Getty Images

ANN ARBOR — The labor battle seizing the Midwest right now is focused on the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees. But the fight over breaking these unions may have cracked open another door: the one labeled “right-to-work.”

So, let’s recap some of the big labor news that’s unfolded in recent weeks. Thousands of protestors flooded the capitals of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and, of course, Wisconsin.

Also – and this didn’t make headlines — In Grand Rapids, Jared Rodriguez began moving into a new office.

“In fact, I was unpacking boxes when you called,” he said.

On his cell phone — no landline yet. That’s because Rodriguez is president of a brand new group called the West Michigan Policy Forum.

“[Right-to-work is] not the only thing that’s going to bring companies here, but it could be the single most important change that Michigan makes,” he said.

In fact, the West Michigan Policy Forum has marching orders from its supporters to turn Michigan into a right-to-work state. It’s a priority the local business community basically voted on in 2008. That’s when 600 business and civic leaders as well as community advocates came up with an agenda. Their first directive: Repeal the Michigan Business Tax. Their second: Establish a right-to-work status for the state.

“Where are companies choosing to locate and why is Michigan losing out?” Rodriguez asked. “It’s not just taxes, it’s not just our weather. There are some other reasons and one of those reasons being a hostile labor environment.”

Now in this region, the cradle of unionization, those are tough words. So what exactly is this so-called “right-to-work”?

“The labor folks would say, by the way, right-to-work, versus right-to-work for less,” said Mike Smith, a labor historian at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.

So say you’re in Michigan or Illinois or Ohio and you get a job in a place that’s unionized.

“You must join that union,” said Smith. “You must pay dues …. In a right-to-work state, you do not have to join, even if a union’s in place, you do not have to pay dues.”

Unions argue that when workers don’t pay dues, they still benefit from the gains of collective bargaining, while weakening unions themselves.

Proponents argue that right-to-work laws spur job growth. And the right-to-work South certainly got a lot of big plants from foreign car companies.

But in a new paper from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, Gordon Lafer says the evidence doesn’t back up the job growth claims. The paper’s authors also warn that it’s difficult to isolate the impact of a single policy like right-to-work from the slew of other factors that contribute to a state’s business climate, including tax policies, transportation infrastructure, the cost of real estate, and the educational level of the workforce.

Gordon Lafer adds that the next state to adopt right-to-work laws will do so in the era of globalization, when everything’s up for grabs. Most of the 22 right-to-work states passed their legislation decades ago.

“In 2011, manufacturers who are looking for lower wages are going to China or Mexico, they’re not going to South Carolina or Arizona,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Michigan state senator John Proos, a Republican. He’s introduced a bill that would allow municipalities to create right-to-work zones. He says think of it as a pilot project.

“If in fact it is proven that it did nothing to increase our job capacity, it did nothing to increase our competitiveness, then we can answer that question once and for all and assign that one to a good idea that we tried it that didn’t work,” he said.

Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder has said that he intends to work with unions. And in Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels asked that a controversial right-to-work bill be set aside for further study. Some Democratic lawmakers actually fled that state to avoid voting on it.

Still, Mark Gaffney, president of Michigan’s AFL-CIO, says the right-to-work door has opened in the Midwest. To him, it’s a purely political conservative movement.

“They well understand that unions and our allies in the Democratic party are their political opponents, and the only thing standing in their way of basically one party rule that benefits the wealthy, benefits corporations, to the detriment of the middle class.”

So is right-to-work imminent in the Midwest? No. But will Jared Rodriguez install a landline so he can lobby Michigan lawmakers for its passage? The answer is a definite yes.

Training the next generation of care providers becomes increasingly important as the population ages. Photo by Kate Davidson.

ANN ARBOR — Nursing is a hot career. The federal government says the field will create more new jobs than any other profession this decade — almost 600,000 jobs by 2018. But there’s a bottleneck. Schools in our region can’t keep up with all the people who want to become nurses or other health care workers. In the first of two stories, Changing Gears is examining some of the high tech tools schools are using to help ease the training crunch. Emily Morris is 24. She’s from Michigan and always wanted to be a nurse, but was turned away from an increasingly competitive four year program. So in late 2008, she applied to the nursing program at Schoolcraft, a community college in Livonia, Michigan. She says she was told to report for class more than two years later. 

In Michigan, Emily Morris would have spent more time on a waiting list than in her nursing program. Photo courtesty of Emily Morris.

“At that point, I was so discouraged and so frustrated,” she said. “The waitlist … I mean there’s nothing that could discourage me more.” 

But she didn’t give up. So while she waited for the fall of 2011, Morris finished her nurse aid certification. She worked in real estate and even on a dude ranch. She says she kept checking the list, but never got bumped up. 

“Not enough people dropped out I guess.” 

Finally, a hospital in West Virginia offered Morris a job and the chance to attend a nearby school with no waitlist. She took it, even though it meant leaving Michigan. 

“It’s the only career field that I could really see myself being happy in for a long time,” she said. “And I know that it’s good job security. It’s just that getting there is very frustrating.” 

So why the wait? One of the big factors is a shortage of qualified nurse faculty. But it’s also a finite number of hospitals and other clinical sites where students can train. Every future nurse, every physical therapy assistant and every radiology tech has to spend time with patients. 

Katherine Howe says it's important to protect patient safety while educating new nurses. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Katherine Howe is associate Dean of Nursing at Henry Ford Community College. At times, there have been more people on the waitlist there than in the two-year program. 

Howe says patient safety is key.  There are limits to the numbers of students that teaching hospitals can safely accommodate. 

“Is it really fair to have one group of students there for eight hours,” she asked, “another group of students there for another eight hours, and then even on midnights and weekends?” 

Craig Morea is training to be an occupational therapy assistant. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Many health specialties experience clinical shortages, not just nursing.  At the Crestmont Healthcare Center in Fenton, the occupational therapy room is bright and cheerful and looks like a conference of grandparents, in wheelchairs.  This facility only takes one student at a time. 

For two months, that student was Craig Morea. He’s a second year student at Mott Community College, training to be an occupational therapy assistant. On the last day of his rotation here, Morea was warming up the shoulder of an elderly patient, Shirley Teffner. 

“This sounds crazy but I fell out of bed,” she said. “And when I fell, I hit on my shoulder.” 

Shirley Teffner tucks her weak arm close, the way a bird favors a broken wing. She likes Craig Morea. He’s gently coached her to get out of bed by herself again. 

“The joy that I could see in her face and her smile,” he said, “it was very rewarding, to me.”

It’s also a crucial part of his education. 


So the question remains: How to safely get more students like Craig Morea into more clinical settings like Crestmont? Well, a few years ago, a group in Oregon asked itself the same question. And it came up with a Web based tool called StudentMAX, which matches nursing schools with open clinical sites. While faculty used to arrange rotations through old fashioned relationships and tons of inefficient calls and emails, they now just enter their needs online. Versions of the software have been deployed in the greater Cleveland and Chicago areas, as well as southeast Michigan. Here, the tool is reported to have helped open up about 20% more clinical slots. 

Still, clinical space is a finite resource. So some nursing programs are making greater use of simulation — as in high tech dummies that sweat, speak and even give birth. 

We’ll bring you that story in our next report.

Changing Gears invites you to come to the University of Michigan TONIGHT at 5 pm for our event, “Don’t Go!” And TOMORROW, tune in to WBEZ, Michigan Radio and ideastream at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT for our call-in show, “Power and Performance.” We’ll host a live chat HERE during the show.

TONIGHT: “Don’t Go!” is at the Blau Auditorium at the Ross School of Business, which is our co-sponsor for the event. We’ll be talking about how to encourage students to stay in our region after graduation. Joining us will be Mike Miller, a U-Mich grad and the director of Google’s Ann Arbor office; Sara Jones, a 2010 U-Mich MBA who owns a jewelry business called Heart Graffiti; Donald Grimes, U-Mich economist, and Luke Song, a Michigan native and the owner of Mr. Song Millinery (best known as the designer of Aretha Franklin’s inaugural hat.)

We’ll hear from them, and hear from you. It’s open to everyone. (Can’t make it? There will be a web stream here.)

TOMORROW: Tune in to Changing Gears stations at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT for “Power and Performance,” a live-call in show that looks at leadership across the Great Lakes. Can a strong mayor change a city by sheer will? Is quiet determination a better course of action? Listen and participate in our live chat, here at The CG team will be on hand and we hope you’ll take part.

Here’s the microphone! Changing Gears has three programs this week where you can tell us what matters to you.

On the Air Listen to our leadership series, and then take part in Power and Performance, a call-in show this Thursday at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT on Michigan Radio, WBEZ and ideastream. It’s produced by Sound of Ideas, the daily public affairs program at ideastream. We’ll be broadcasting a toll-free number where you can dial in and participate.

On the Web We’re hosting a live chat here at during our call-in show. Tell your friends, and bring your ideas. The entire CG team will be here.

In Person Come to our event this Wednesday afternoon at the University of Michigan. We’re presenting, “Don’t Go!” with the Ross School of Business. We want to talk about the reasons why students don’t stay after they graduate — and what might keep people here.

Changing Gears joins forces on Feb. 16 with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan to present, “Don’t Go! What Will Keep You Here?” It’s a 90-minute panel discussion and conversation aimed at college students, who come to our region’s universities by the thousands each year. But many of them leave after graduation to find their fortunes elsewhere.

The program will feature speakers Mike Miller of Google Ann Arbor, Luke Song of Mr. Song Millinery, a Michigan native who came home to design world-famous hats,  and Sara Jones, a 2010 Ross MBA who founded Heart Graffiti, which is taking a unique twist on graduation jewelry. We’ll also hear from Donald Grimes, a University of Michigan economist, who’ll have numbers tracking  the student exodus. I’ll be moderating.

The public is welcome to participate in the event, which will be held at 5 p.m. at the Blau Auditorium at the Business School (701 Tappan Street, between Hill and S. University).

Changing Gears will present its first one-hour documentary, Reinventing Our Cities, next Thursday, Dec. 16. The special will run at 2 PM Eastern, 1 PM Central on our partner stations — WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and ideastream in Cleveland.

We’ll spend the hour visiting cities across the region, talking to experts, and talking to you.

Throughout the hour, we’ll be featuring thoughts and ideas from our listeners on making our Great Lakes cities better.

Here’s how you can be a part of the broadcast. Call 1-888-YOUR-NPR (1-888-968-7677) or fill out the form below if you are willing to be interviewed on the air.

We’ll give you more details about the special over the next few days. There also will be a live chat here at

Please join us for Reinventing Our Cities.

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  3. Will you call us at 1-888-YOUR-NPR? Or should we call you?||
  4. Tell us what you think:
  5. What makes you want to live or stay in one of our cities? We want your story of what makes you proud.
  6. What’s not working where you live? How would you fix it?
  7. Which Great Lakes city gets it right? What do YOU think is our biggest success story?

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DETROIT, Mich. – Inner city Detroit has been called a food desert. Many of the city’s residents have trouble finding fresh fruit and vegetables in their local stores, a problem that’s also shared by residents of Chicago, Cleveland and other urban places across the region.

That’s ironic, because Detroit is also a major hub for some of the best agricultural products in the country, thanks in large part to the Detroit Produce Terminal. Built by the railroad in 1929, the terminal market comes to life in the middle of the night, when the streets of southwest Detroit are otherwise desolate. It’s safe to say many Detroiters don’t even know that it’s here, just a few blocks from the Ambassador Bridge.

Dozens of trucks arrive at the market on work days (or rather, work nights), carrying produce from all corners of the nation and the world. The market in turn supplies wholesale dealers, chain stores and the greater metro area’s thriving independent markets, like The Produce Station in Ann Arbor. Some, like Popa Joe’s in Rochester Hills, are destination locations.

It all starts very very early in the morning. You might not want to get up at that hour, so Changing Gears did it for you. Click on the slideshow below to meet the Michigan workers who help put Thanksgiving on our plates, and enjoy your holiday.

ReinventionRecipesIf Julia Child had specialized in seafood, she would have been Mike Monahan. He has taught a generation of people in Ann Arbor, MI, how to cook fish, including me.

Growing up, my fish experiences were limited to Fridays and fish sticks. But once I discovered Monahan’s Seafood, in the Kerrytown Market, an entire world opened up. Monahan’s sells everything from Lake Superior whitefish to Copper River salmon to a lobster salad that rivals any you’ll find in Maine.

His shop also carries a full line of smoked fish from Durham’s Tracklements, another Kerrytown shop that’s known nationwide for its quality products.

Along with those ingredients, Monahan’s provides recipes, and lately, it has been cooking fish for its customers. Its small cafe is always busy with diners sampling his chowder, stir fries, fish dishes and the special of the day.

His most popular special is easily his Baja Fish Tacos, available on Mondays. It’s a generous plate, at $8.95, featuring batter-dipped fish, with a slaw made from cabbage, yogurt, sour cream and cilantro. Some folks add hot sauce. Some others add a side of fries. Every Monday, Monahan’s sends out a tweet saying the tacos are ready. By 2 o’clock, they’re gone.

The Changing Gears team descended on Monahan’s recently for lunch and watched Monahan prepare fish tacos. Here’s a look at the video that Niala Boodhoo produced (the recipe follows).

Baja Fish Tacos from Monahan’s Seafood in Ann Arbor, MI
1 1⁄2 cups shredded cabbage
2 limes (1 cut into wedges)
1⁄4 red onion, thinly sliced
2T Sour cream
2T Plain yogurt
1 1⁄2 tbsp. kosher salt + pepper to taste
2 tsp. chili powder
1 package Drake’s batter mix (available at the market)
1 12-oz. bottle beer
1 lb. boneless, skinless red snapper, pollack, cod or mahi-mahi cut into 2″ strips
Canola oil, for frying
8 flour tortillas
Cilantro, chopped
Mexican hot sauce (we like Cholula)

1. In a bowl, combine cabbage, red onion, juice of 1 lime, sour cream, yogurt, and cilantro; season with salt and pepper to taste (chill). In another bowl, mix together 1 1⁄2 tbsp. salt, chili powder, Drake’s (reserve a bit of the Drake’s for dredging) and beer to make a batter.

2. Pour oil into a 5-qt. Dutch oven to a depth of 2″; heat until a thermometer reads 375˚. Sprinkle fish with chili powder and salt. Dredge fish in a bit of dry Drake’s; shake off excess. Working in batches, dip fish in batter and fry until crisp, about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack or brown paper bag set inside a sheet pan; keep warm in oven.

3. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add tortillas; cook, flipping, until warmed. To serve, fill with some of the fish and cabbage, squeeze with lime, and garnish with more cilantro and hot sauce. Repeat.