New millage would aid Muskegon County youth

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — On Tuesday, voters in Muskegon County will see an unusual ballot proposal. If passed, Muskegon County would become just the third community in Michigan to pass a countywide youth and family millage.

If passed, a committee of stakeholders will make recommendations to the county Board of Commissions on how the money should be spent. However, by law, it could only be spent on programs aimed at helping families and youth age 21 and younger.

“We have services, but we definitely have gaps in services,” Muskegon County Circuit Court Administrator Sandra Vanderhyde said.

Vanderhyde said the numbers demonstrate the need:

  • 28 percent of Muskegon County youth live in poverty.
  • 12,000 youth have a mental health condition, but as of 2015, just 796 were receiving services from Muskegon County’s Community Mental Health Agency, HealthWest.
  • Muskegon County has high rates of childhood abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.

Supporters want to use the millage to address these issues in several ways including employment help, after-school opportunities and programs to prevent youth violence.

“Our goal would be to make it so that they never even get involved in our (court) system,” Vanderhyde said.

She pointed to a 2009 study by Vanderbilt University that shows preventing a 14-year-old from a life of crime saves between $2.6 million and $5.3 million.

Right now, one of the high costs for Muskegon County is residential treatment.

“All we have is the juvenile transition center, and we sometimes put the wrong youth in there and only expose them to a life of crime,” Vanderhyde said.

Two other options for at-risk youth have disappeared in recent years. Child Haven for abused and neglected children shut down in 2013. Webster House for homeless and runaway youth closed in 2015.

Currently, the county sends some at-risk children to programs in other parts of Michigan and out of state at an average cost of $106,000 per year.

“They do great when they are out there. They’ll be out there for maybe a year, two years. They graduate, come back home to Muskegon County, get put right back into the same environment when they left, nothing else has changed from their home environment. It only takes a matter of months before they are right back in the same patterns that caused them to go to residential treatment in the first place,” Vanderhyde said.

Instead, Muskegon County plans to open its own facility in the dorms on the old Baker College Campus along Apple Avenue. The county already owns the buildings.

“The goal of this is to keep Muskegon County youth in Muskegon County where we can focus on them and we can focus on their families,” Deputy Court Administrator Alisha Riedl said.

The facility could also help older teens transition into independent living.

Millage funds would also be used to expand a program that is already seeing success in three school districts. A grant funds the Systems of Care program at Reeths-Puffer, Orchard View and Muskegon Heights schools. Program staff identify at-risk students and families and help connect them to community services to solve a range of problems.

“They are looking at the youth and families that are having issues in the school and trying to find their barriers and help them overcome those barriers,” Vanderhyde said.

Supporters say the millage funds would bring in matching grants, raising the money available for services beyond the millage’s $6.2 million mark.

The millage proposal does have critics. Some point to an August budget letter from Muskegon County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth. In discussing budget concerns, the letter notes that the county is dealing with higher than expected jail costs and says a consultant looked at ways of freeing up cash in the general fund to address that and other problems.

“The consultants report recommended that the County explore special millage options to support specific services to alleviate the need for the General Fund to subsidize these operations,” the letter reads in part.

It points out that the largest appropriation is the $4.8 million, which goes to the county child care fund.

Vanderhyde admits that if the millage passes, some of the money from the child care fund will go back to the general fund, but said it would be used to prevent cuts to other county services and programs and not for the jail.

“They already have funds to pay for the jail, so none of these funds that we would give back are earmarked for payment of the jail,” she said. “The jail is going to get paid for regardless of whether this millage passes or not.”

The proposal is for 1.5 mills in new property taxes for the next 10 years. For a home worth $100,000 ($50,000 taxable value), that comes out to about $75 per year in additional property taxes.

In Michigan, only Ingham and Eaton counties have passed similar millages.

Supporters point out that if the millage passes, the budget for youth and family programs will be guaranteed and can’t be cut if county officials run into budget problems.

“We are really ensuring that we’re going to have the necessary programming for youth here in Muskegon to make them the most successful, resilient adults they can be,” Riedl said.