Whitmer accused of favoring urban areas over rural

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Retired state Sen. Mike Green, second from right, of Mayville, listens intently with others during the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners Special Meeting in Caro on March 19.

Caro — In a crowded Tuscola County boardroom, a Caro pastor started a special meeting a week ago with a simple invocation: “Lord, change the heart of our governor.”

The plea came less than a week after the Thumb region was rocked by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plans to halt construction of a $115 million psychiatric hospital in Caro and reexamine its century-old home in the community. More than $3 million had already been spent on the new facility, a project the city won after months of letter writing, research and legislative intervention.

Community members say the relocation of the facility, which employs roughly 350 people, would devastate the region, disrupt patients and break promises made by the previous administration. 

This is the Caro Center Administration Building. Michigan Republicans are accusing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of prioritizing urban areas over rural to reward those regions that voted for her, citing proof of the abandonment of Caro Center psychiatric facility.

What’s more, critics argue the Democratic governor's move is part of a pattern of seeking to shortchange traditionally GOP-held rural areas and reward urban Democratic strongholds. Other policy shifts criticized by Republicans include Whitmer's rejection of a planned immigration detention center on vacant prison property in rural Ionia and diversion of part of a proposed 45-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase into a new funding formula that rewards Michigan's most traveled roads, which typically lie in urban areas.

“I think it’s her little political agenda because people vote Republican up here,” said Jill Milostan, a nearly 20-year employee of the Caro Center. “It stinks.”

Whitmer’s administration denies political motivations, pointing toward policies beneficial to Michigan’s rural residents such as trying to increase statewide broadband access, testing rural drinking water sources and a tripling in the number of literacy coaches across the state. The governor's website says she is "committed to solving problems for Michiganders across the state."

The East Lansing Democrat's first bill signing Thursday seemed to punctuate that commitment, a Republican-backed bill that would allow Menominee County to retain a judge in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula community.

“We owe it to everyone in our state to get this right,” Whitmer said last week. “And there are some legitimate concerns about getting the qualified providers to Caro, luring the talent.”

Bad luck in rural Michigan

While Caro officials scramble to find ways to keep the facility at the site in neighboring Indianfields Township, other rural communities are smarting over perceived slights by the governor.

In February, Whitmer killed plans for the sale of the former Deerfield Correctional Facility to Immigration Centers of America, which planned to use the Ionia location for a facility to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

The land deal, which was initiated under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, fell through when the Whitmer administration demanded a guarantee that the facility only house single adults who were not separated from other family members after they arrived in the United States.

The “impossible” demand snuffed the company's plans for a $785,100 purchase of the property and the 225 jobs that would have resulted from the facility after the site has remained vacant for more than a decade. But "the governor believes that building more detention facilities won't solve our immigration crisis, and she also believes that separating families doesn't reflect our Michigan values," spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said at the time.

This sign at the site of the proposed new hospital states 'State of Michigan, New State Psychiatric Hospital, MDHHS-Caro Center. Total Project Cost $115,000,000 By The People of The State of Michigan.'

An Ionia councilman said he was "disappointed" the city wasn't allowed to make a decision on the property. The governor's rejection "was about appeasing her political base and taking a swipe at President Trump,” Republican State Rep. Thomas Albert of Lowell has said.

Whitmer's office responded by noting the roads in his district that would receive additional funding through her proposed gas tax increase and the more than $300-per-pupil increases the Belding, Ionia and Lowell school districts would receive through her proposed budget. 

"The governor is focused on solving problems that will make a difference in people's lives right now, like fixing our roads, cleaning up our drinking water and making sure every Michigander has a path to a high-wage career," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

While Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax increase has raised eyebrows across the state because it is a 171 percent increase from the current 26.3 cents a gallon, the proposed distribution of the revenue has fueled more worries in rural areas.

Instead of distributing the funds through the existing formula known as Public Act 51, Whitmer’s plan would divert the additional revenue to the most traveled roads, which tend to be urban thoroughfares. The outdated, 68-year-old PA 51 road funding distribution is in part responsible for “great roads” in rural areas and “crummy roads” in heavily trafficked areas, Whitmer argued.

“I’ve made some of the legislators mad because their districts have benefited from this,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is where the people live, where business is done and where the heaviest damage is, that’s where we’ve got to prioritize.”

While attributing the decisions to political winds may be a cynical and somewhat oversimplified explanation, it also is true that Whitmer doesn’t stand to lose much political capital in Caro, said David Dulio, head of the political science department at Oakland University.

In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Whitmer's Republican opponent Bill Schuette won Tuscola County by a margin of 22.5 percentage points and Caro by a slimmer margin of 2.9 percentage points. Trump carried both the county and city by double-digit margins in 2016.

“She’s not winning those votes anyway,” Dulio said. “She didn’t in 2018 and she’s probably not going to in 2022, regardless of where that hospital goes. Even if she doubled the investment in Caro, I wonder how many votes it’d get her.”

Fight to keep Caro Center

Even after Snyder signed the 2017-18 budget securing $115 million for the 200-bed Caro Center, former Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, knew the battle was far from over.

"I always had a feeling in the back of my brain, saying I’m not sure this is going to happen," said Green, whose son Rep. Phil Green is now tasked with fighting for the Caro facility.

Founded as a farm colony for epileptics in 1914, the Caro Center later became one of the state’s largest psychiatric hospitals, designed to support a population of 3,000 patients on a sprawling campus containing nearly 50 buildings.

N. Main Street in  Caro, Mich.

When former Gov. John Engler closed most of the state’s mental health hospitals in the 1990s, Caro Center survived and even now can treat up to 150 patients. The facility usually has a wait list of about 25 and still uses eight to 10 buildings on the site.

The site in Indianfields Township is now speckled with abandoned, dilapidated buildings. It sits across the river from another site the state abandoned, the Michigan Department of Correction’s Camp Tuscola.

Sen. Green and former Rep. Edward Canfield were the primary advocates for the Caro Center and pushed back against state Department of Health and Human Services officials whom Green said “wanted to move it” at the start of discussions.

The arguments against the site then are the same as today, he said. The state has said families have to travel too far to visit patients, psychiatrists are unwilling to work in the area and the water system is problematic.

The arguments have sparked frustration, edging on hopelessness, among county officials, who said they’ve already answered those questions. 

"The likelihood of it coming here is probably next to zero," Tuscola County Commissioner Dan Grimshaw said. Without a clear idea of what other information the state is seeking, he cautioned fellow commissioners against hiring lawyers to represent the county in Lansing. 

"Be cautious and very careful in wasting money on pursuing attorneys to go to Lansing at $400 an hour to do what? Take them to lunch?" Grimshaw said. "...Until we know what the fight is, let’s not be Don Quixote and start chasing after the wind mills."

Dealing with issues

The Caro Center serves the entire Upper Peninsula, northeast Michigan and the Thumb, stretching as far south as Macomb County. In 2017, 123 of the 149 patients were from a county adjacent to Tuscola County, according to data compiled by Green and Canfield.

Given the large service area, the center’s current location makes as much sense as anywhere else, officials argued, noting that there are few central locations between the Upper Peninsula and Macomb County.

The center had 3,876 visitors in 2017 and 3,852 in 2018, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. With an average of 145 patients, the totals would compute to about 26 visitors per patient in 2017 and 2018.

Up to 70 percent of the center's employees live within 30 miles of the facility, Green and Canfield said.

A lack of psychiatrist candidates is a challenge statewide, but employees say state officials have stalled employing people in Caro. Earlier this year, the state approved the hire of 50 employees, but recruitment has been slow, said Matt Campbell, a union leader and Caro Center employee.

"The state has dug their feet on hiring those 50 people," Campbell said. "We just started hiring last week 25 of the 50. They won't say why they won't do the other half."

Caro Center currently has its own water tower on site, but the new construction would require upgrades, said Tuscola County Administrator Mike Hoagland. 

The county proposed upgrading the onsite system and then taking ownership of the infrastructure so the state could “get out of the water business,” Hoagland said. The county planned to take out bonds for the roughly $1 million in upgrades and then recoup the cost through water rates charged to the state.

Whatever the motivation is for halting construction in Caro, officials say the potential result is the same: The doubling of the county's unemployment and the loss of a century-old legacy that has an estimated annual economic impact of $54 million.

"Its been there for a 100 years and it worked," Hoagland said. "This is our second time having to fight for this, and we surely don’t understand why.”


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