What’s Your Federal Stimulus Good For?

Also, county board asked to consider eliminating "felony box"

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners working session (April 8, 2010): Two presentations at Thursday’s working session were tied to the community’s health: how federal stimulus dollars are being spent, and how former prisoners are being helped, with the goal of reducing repeat offenses.

Portion of a Washtenaw County employment application

Washtenaw County employment applications ask about felony convictions.

Mary King, coordinator of the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative of Washtenaw County, told commissioners how the MPRI is attempting to reduce the county’s high prisoner recidivism rate – a problem dating back several years. She also urged them to consider eliminating a question on the county’s employment forms that asks about an applicant’s felony history. Such questions can be barriers to employment, she said, and the biggest cause of parole failure is lack of a job.

Leaders of two county departments – Mary Jo Callan of the Office of Community Development, and Patricia Denig of Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) – gave an update on how some of the county’s $22.69 million in federal stimulus funds are being spent. Those two departments alone have received $13.22 million for a wide range of programs, from job training to low-income housing.

Federal Stimulus Spending in Washtenaw

Mary Jo Callan, director of the joint county/city of Ann Arbor Office of Community Development, started with an overview of federal stimulus funds, noting that $321 million had been awarded to entities in Washtenaw County through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. About half of that has been awarded to the University of Michigan, she said. Washtenaw County government has received $22.69 million.

Thursday’s presentation focused on the $13.22 million received by the OCD and ETCS departments, in the categories of family support, community building and workforce development.

Stimulus: Funding for Family Support Services

Several programs have been funded by $1.067 million to support families, said Patricia Denig, interim executive director for ETCS. Of that, the largest amount –  $925,193 – was awarded through the Community Service Block Grant program. Funds have been used to hire additional ETCS staff, increase existing services – like the county’s emergency financial assistance programs and foster grandparent program – and expand efforts like the Washtenaw Literacy Coalition, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program, and microloans offered by the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development (CEED).

Senior nutrition services received $61,554 and has expanded the number of meals served by 20,000 to a total of 245,000 meals over 15 months, delivered to 2,200 people in the county. Delivery has been expanded to areas not served before, Denig said, and Saturday delivery was added.

The county’s emergency food assistance program received $17,000 in stimulus funding, Denig said. For this program, the county partners with the nonprofit Food Gatherers, which supplies local food pantries. The federal funding is helping provide emergency food for an additional 1,400 households annually.

Finally, the county received $46,285 for human services via the Community Development Block Grant program, which is administered by the Washtenaw Urban County. These funds were allocated in two ways, Denig said: 1) to Northfield Human Services to provide transportation for low-income residents, and 2) to the Fair Housing Center, which helps alleviate barriers for low-income residents and to advocate for those facing housing discrimination.

Stimulus: Funding for Programs to Strengthen Communities

Three programs in this category got a total of $7.578 million in federal stimulus funds, Callan told commissioners: weatherization, neighborhood stabilization and infrastructure projects.

Of that, the county’s weatherization program received $4.29 million, and 100 projects are in progress and another 70 applications have been approved. Though only about $1.8 million has been committed to projects at this point, the county has until the spring of 2012 to spend the funds, Callan said. The program has hired five new employees, trained six inspectors and has 12 contractors approved to do weatherization work.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) received $3.024 million to acquire foreclosed or abandoned houses. The county has worked primarily with Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley and Community Housing Alternatives to buy 17 homes so far, Callan said. The NSP funds are also paying to demolish blighted properties in Ypsilanti – primarily in the Water Street area – and in Ypsilanti Township. And a portion of the money will be used to redevelop 144 units of rental housing at Parkview Apartments in Ypsilanti. [These funds are overseen by the Washtenaw Urban County – see Chronicle coverage: "Urban County Allocates Housing Funds"]

The remainder of the funding in this category – $262,282 – is being used for infrastructure improvements in low-income areas, including road work in Ypsilanti Township and sidewalk repair in Pittsfield Township.

Stimulus: Funding for Workforce Development

Washtenaw County received $4.578 million for workforce development programs to help dislocated workers and unemployed adults, as well as for a summer youth jobs program.

Denig said that whenever possible, the ETCS staff tries to enroll people in both the dislocated worker and adult worker programs, which received a combined $1.463 million in stimulus funding. Those funds helped pay for the training of 97 additional participants in the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) adult program, and an additional 189 people in the WIA program for dislocated workers – people who are transitioning to new careers after their jobs have been eliminated. These services are offered at the county’s Career Transition Center in downtown Ypsilanti, which opened last fall.

The summer youth jobs program received $1.957 million. Over 600 young people between the ages of 14-24 worked at 120 sites across the county, Denig said. The program’s goals include giving employment opportunities to youth that they might not otherwise have had, and to help develop good work habits, financial literacy and social skills. One of the program’s participants, Leslie Minor, was selected by the Michigan Works! agency as its Alumni of the Year, Denig said.

Stimulus: Challenges Faced

Callan concluded the presentation by saying they were very proud of their accomplishments and that they’d been good stewards of the money. But she also acknowledged how “extremely challenging” it has been to manage this stimulus funding. It’s an unprecedented national program that’s heavily scrutinized, and the funding comes with a lot of strings attached. Reporting requirements are very detailed – “some might say onerous,” she said – which entails considerable staff time.

Ramping up the programs is another challenge, Callan said, whether it’s hiring and training new staff for the weatherization program or finding employer partners for the summer youth jobs program. Another challenge is knowing that these are short-term dollars, she said, though demand for these services continues to grow.

One of the things that will have a lasting impact, Callan noted, is the paradigm change that’s happening between the Office of Community Development and ETCS. They’re working together to try to find the best way to provide the services they offer – it shouldn’t be the case that residents just get the services that are available from the office that they happen to enter, she said.

Callan cited weatherization as an example – those services are offered through both departments. Together, they’ve entered into a joint contract with the Clean Energy Coalition, a nonprofit that will provide training for contractors and subcontractors in energy efficiency and weatherization. Both departments will share the costs for CEC to develop the training curriculum, Callan said.

They’re committed to looking beyond departmental silos, Callan said. In general, the goal should be to collaborate and have a “permeable boundary,” within county government and throughout the community.

Stimulus: Commissioner Questions, Comments

Several commissioners had questions for Callan and Denig. Barbara Bergman asked whether there was any movement toward consolidation among nonprofits that the county worked with in the community, quipping “or is that a bad question that we’ll discuss in private?”

It’s a question that many people are asking, Callan said. Her office works with about 70 nonprofits, and those groups are trying to do things differently and collaborate more. But just like jurisdictional cooperation between local governments, it’s challenging. The Office of Community Development isn’t interested in supporting new nonprofits, she added, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in new ideas and new approaches.

Responding to a question from Wes Prater, Callan clarified that the federal funding didn’t always align with the county’s own fiscal year, which runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. They are rolling funds, with grants given over a minimum 15-month period. Verna McDaniel, the deputy administrator who’s been hired to replace retiring county administrator Bob Guenzel next month, said it was the county finance department’s job to account for the funds within the county’s budget.

Prater asked whether the new contractors being hired for these expanded programs are complying with the Davis Bacon Act, which requires that public works projects pay prevailing wages. It was important to have rigid enforcement of that, he said. Denig said they’ve recently hired a contractor who’s an expert in Davis Bacon, who’ll help with compliance issues. Aaron Kraft, who supervises the weatherization program, said that new contractors weren’t all familiar with Davis Bacon, so there’s been a learning curve.

Prater also asked how many of the contractors being hired are from Washtenaw County – it was important to him that those jobs stay local. Kraft said they’d get that information to him.

Mark Ouimet wanted to know whether the senior nutrition program included delivering meals to senior centers as well as the homebound. It did, Denig replied. Ouimet said that the program was important not just for the food, but for socialization as well.

Bergman asked about the senior nutrition program, too. She noted that federal and state funding for the Area Agency on Aging has been cut, and she worried about that vulnerable population. She wondered if it would be possible to use neighborhood providers for preparing meals, or whether that would run counter to public health code. Denig said the program achieves economies of scale by using one provider for food preparation, but that they can look at how to expand delivery services. The federal stimulus funds have allowed them to serve more people who’ve been on a wait list on the eastern side of the county, and to increase delivery in rural areas on the western side.

Jeff Irwin asked about a comment that Callan had made during her presentation about the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and how it was sometimes difficult to acquire foreclosed houses because of competition from the private sector. He asked her to elaborate. The competition comes from buyers who are able to respond more quickly than the county can, she said, and who can pay more for the property. Using federal funds, the county can’t pay more than 1% below the appraised value – so the county must get an appraisal and funding together before moving forward. In contrast, some buyers can act quickly and are willing to pay cash.

Responding to a follow-up from Irwin, Callan said there are different types of buyers. Some are speculative, having faith that the market will turn. Others are acquiring the houses as rental properties. And to a lesser degree, some are actual homeowners making purchases. Irwin pointed out that on the positive side, it meant that there are people out there willing to invest.

He also asked Callan to clarify the difference between the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) and the Community Development Block Grants-Recovery (CDBG-R) program. NSP funds focus on foreclosure reclamation, Callan said, whether through demolition of blighted property or acquisition and rehab. The funds can be spent in a limited geographic region, designated by low-income population. CDBG-R is used for housing development, public instructure improvements, and to a limited degree, human services programs.

Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative

Mary King, coordinator of MPRI of Washtenaw County, began her presentation by noting that Michigan spends nearly $2 billion annually for its corrections systems. It costs $30,000 to incarcerate a prisoner for a year, and $45,000 if the prisoner is mentally or physically ill. [Similar information was discussed at a recent forum on MPRI at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. See Chronicle coverage: "Panel: MPRI Transforming State Corrections"]

Washtenaw County has the highest recidivism rate in Michigan, King told commissioners  – as high as 75%, depending on whether it’s calculated over two or three years. One of the biggest factors contributing to repeat offenses is a lack of employment, she said. It’s extremely difficult for parolees to find a job, especially in this economy – and given the fact that an increasing number of employers require background checks, no matter what the job.

Nationwide, 82% of employers now do background checks, King reported, and only 12.8% will hire someone with a felony conviction. It’s ironic, she said: The very thing that would make a community safer – finding employment for parolees – is the thing that’s most frequently denied. “You could make the case that we’re actually creating the very thing that we fear.”

Because it addresses this and other problems of transitioning from prison to the community, MPRI “is a crime reduction program,” King said.

The program begins when a prisoner is incarcerated, she said, but intensifies 60 days prior to their release and continues for six months following their return to their community. Services vary, depending on need, but include help in finding housing, transportation, clothing and other basic needs. Employment training and family counseling are also available. The nonprofit Catholic Social Services is the lead agency for MPRI locally, but its steering committee includes representatives from county law enforcement and corrections, faith-based groups and other nonprofits, and former prisoners.

About 350 people each year return to Washtenaw County from prison. Of those, 32% are from Ypsilanti Township, 25% from Ann Arbor, 19.5% from Ypsilanti, 8.5% from Superior Township, 2% from Pittsfield Township and the rest from other parts of the county. Those statistics are important, King said, because the program has made a commitment to help settle former prisoners back into the communities where they previously lived.

The local program is just in its third year, so there isn’t yet data on recidivism to show MPRI’s impact. King said that other sites in the state, which have been using MPRI for a longer period, are showing roughly 30% reductions in recidivism. The goal had been a 10% reduction, she said, so it’s “beyond people’s wildest expectations.”

With employment being a major challenge, King said the program offers “juicy” incentives for employers to hire former prisoners. Employers can “try out” a worker for eight weeks at no cost – MPRI acts as the employer-of-record and pays all wages. Up to $2,400 in tax credits are available for each new hire, she said, and employees are bonded for up to $25,000.

But the biggest barrier is the felony box on an application, King said – many employers automatically discard applicants who check “yes,” regardless of skills, work ethic, or experience. ”It puts everyone into the same box, which is if you have a felony, you’re not welcome here.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the rejection of all applicants with criminal records, but it happens all the time, she said.

King laid out several reasons for “banning the box.” People of color are arrested, convicted and sent to prison in disproportionate numbers, compared to the overall population, she said, and are at a disadvantage when they return to the community. The county could serve as a model for employers in other governments and the private sector – King pointed out that one of the board’s stated priorities is to “support programs which result in successful reintegration of persons who have come through the criminal justice system.” [Jason Smith, an intern with MPRI, elaborated on reasons to ban the box in an essay published by The Chronicle on Jan. 27, 2010.]

Background checks are also an issue, King said. While they should be used for certain sensitive jobs, it shouldn’t be an across-the-board practice. Often there are inaccuracies in the report, and applicants aren’t given a chance to see it or respond. If background checks are conducted and result in the applicant being denied a job, the applicant should at least be allowed to see the report and verify its accuracy, she said.

King said that MPRI is providing a template for a resolution that local governments can modify to address these issues. She encouraged commissioners to take action, saying it would level the playing field for former prisoners. In Michigan, Battle Creek was the first community to ban the box, and Kalamazoo has now done the same.

“We’re hoping that Washtenaw County might like to be third,” King said.

MPRI: Commissioner Questions, Comments

Leah Gunn recalled that the mayor of Battle Creek had come to the board and discussed that town’s experiences with eliminating the felony box. She said if it works there and in Kalamazoo, “I don’t know why it wouldn’t work here.” Former prisoners have served their time, she said, and the board should consider banning the box, especially if it helps reduce recidivism.

Barbara Bergman has previously raised the suggestion of banning the box. She commended King for getting “water from a rock,” noting that the state hadn’t kept all of its promises regarding MPRI. She said that although there should be exceptions – for example, for employees working with children – in general, eliminating the question about felony convictions is the “only humane and smart and money-saving thing to do.” The county should also require its contractors to do the same, she said.

Jeff Irwin said he wanted to get feedback from the county’s human resources staff, as well as department heads and other employees. It’s the board’s responsibility to float the idea within the organization, before acting on it. He commended King for making the suggestion, and said that reducing recidivism is key to dealing with the state’s criminal justice problem.

After King’s presentation, Diane Heidt – the county’s human resources director – told The Chronicle that currently, applicants aren’t eliminated from consideration if they’ve been convicted of a felony. And background checks aren’t conducted until after an offer has been extended, she said.