State Spends $660 Million In Public Debt, But For What?

Nearly 30 years on, we’re still not sure what that money bought

The abandoned building that used to be Howard's Radiator in Jackson.

Editor's Note: Janelle Cammenga was an intern this summer at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. One of her projects was to track down the projects financed by the Michigan Quality of Life bonds that were issued in 1988. The state is still making payments on those bonds. In this article, Cammenga recounts some of the difficulties she had in tracking down some of these projects to see what taxpayers are getting for their payments nearly 30 years later.

 

I knew that Michigan spent $74,198 on a cleanup site called “Agnes Gleason #1.” I knew it was located in Clare. But that was all I knew.

Ten Google searches with differing terms yielded nothing. The cleanup site did not exist on HomeFacts.com or CityData.com, real estate sites that list all brownfields in a given county. A search for “Agnes Gleason DEQ” only came up with several reports (such as this one) from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but none of them included an address.

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This site is just a small part of a larger issue: the lack of transparency in Michigan’s Quality of Life bond issue. In the 1988 general election, Michigan voters approved Proposal C, which authorized the state to borrow $660 million and use the money on parks and recreation and environmental cleanup projects like Agnes Gleason #1.

The worth of publicly funded programs like this one can often be evaluated by a simple question: Did it do what it set out to do? In the case of the Quality of Life bonds, that question is hard to answer, since tracking down all the project sites is almost impossible.

To find out what state park projects the bond was spent on, I started with a list of first-year Quality of Life projects obtained from Jim Blanchard’s gubernatorial archives. I called 26 of the state parks on the list about the most obvious projects as a starting point. After 18 days of calling, emailing, and following up, I emailed the Senate Fiscal Agency to find out why many of the projects were never completed. A representative told me that our list was likely not final.

A month after my initial question, the agency was still not able to provide a final list of state park projects, but it was able to compile a list of local recreation projects that were also funded by Quality of Life debt.

I turned to environmental projects, the other stated purpose for the bonds. The 2016 Environmental Cleanup Report, where I found Agnes Gleason #1, gave me a list of funded projects, along with the county they were located in as well as the amount of money spent.

Many of the project names in the DEQ list did not match the actual names of the companies and sites they were describing. Detroit Coke’s real name was Allied Corporation Detroit Coke Plant. Parcels at Poplar and 23rd street was actually named Thornapple/Tillman Parcels. While these names are similar to their official titles, the ambiguous nature of the reports made the task of connecting expectations with outcomes difficult.

One site, the Federal Avenue Bulk plant, proved just as impossible to find as Agnes Gleason #1. I went through the same channels as before, but this time I found an address for something called Fuller Oil Bulk Plant on CityData.com. Because it was on Federal Avenue, I assumed this was the same site. When I found the address on Google maps, it was impossible to tell if it belonged to a nearby company or to several empty lots. Later, I discovered this address matched a different site on the list.

Other sites yet to be located are named things like “Dry Cleaner Former,” “Dixie and Maple Roads Resident” and “Dump Near Wick Elementary School.” Whoever wrote those names surely had a specific location in mind, but those names are far too general to lead me to the correct locations after so much time has passed.

If $660 million in public funds are going to a project, the public should be able to know how those dollars are spent. The 1988 Quality of Life bond issue has a long way to go before it reaches the level of transparency the public deserves.


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