2013-02-07 / News

State Offers $30,000 Aid For Struggling Homeowners Through County

By Paul Gingras

Thirty thousand dollars in assistance for homeowners struggling to pay mortgages and property taxes is available through a program called Michigan’s Hardest Hit, and area residents are encouraged to apply, announced Mackinac County Treasurer Nora Massey, at the county board of commissioners meeting Thursday, January 24.

Ms. Massey signed an agreement in January with the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corporation, enabling the local government to take part in the program, also known as Step Forward Michigan, which went into effect January 15.

Relief money for homeowners is provided through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which received $207 million from the federal government for the program. The federal government distributed funding to the 18 states hardest hit by the economic downturn, Ms. Massey said.

The assistance covers delinquent as well as current taxes, she added.

Applications are available online at www.stepforwardmichigan.org.

Homeowners having trouble with the application can contact Ms. Massey for help. Assistance with the application is also available through Mackinac County’s Housing Opportunities Made Equal office (HOME) at 643-6239.

Area residents receiving hardship extensions are good candidates for the program, Ms. Massey said.

The assistance is offered at 0% interest and 0% repayment for homeowners that remain in their homes for five years. Homeowners who sell their homes during that time repay a portion of the assistance provided.

“It’s a great program,” Ms. Massey said. “If you know anyone who is struggling, have them contact me or get a hold of HOME.”

Judge Carmody Offers Update on Local Court Functioning

In an address to the commission, William Carmody, chief judge of the 11th Circuit Court, described how the economic downturn is affecting the local judicial system.

Judge Carmody reported that the state government has entered its third phase of a project to make the judicial system more efficient and less expensive. It amounts to the reduction in the number of judges, sharing courts to administer cases, and increasing video proceedings to cut traveling costs.

Traveling is a notable expense for Judge Carmody, who has jurisdiction over Luce, Mackinac, Schoolcraft, and Alger counties.

The first stage in cost reduction means the state is “trying to do more with less,” he explained.

For the past three years, Michigan has been in a process of “judicial restructuring,” to reduce the number of judges, through attrition, by 47.

Since legislation leading to the reduction went into effect in 2011, about half of those judges have retired, District Court Judge Beth Gibson told The St. Ignace News.

There are about 540 judges in the Michigan’s district, circuit, and probate courts, including five local judges: Judge Carmody, Probate Court Judge Clayton Graham, Judge Gibson, and, serving Alger and Schoolcraft counties, District Court Judge Mark Luoma and Probate Court Judge Charles Nebel.

There is legitimacy to reducing the number of judges, Judge Carmody explained.

“Caseloads are going down. As caseloads go down, [the state government] believes we don’t need the number of judges we previously had.”

Locally, this means that when Mr. Luoma retires, Judge Nebel will absorb his docket, which “will cause us to have to manipulate the entire circuit,” he said.

Cutting costs through attrition also means Judge Carmody will spend less time in Mackinac County and Judge Graham and Judge Gibson will have to pick up more of his docket.

“This is down the road,” Judge Carmody said. “Judge Luoma doesn’t plan to retire for some time, and neither do I.”

Judge Gibson is working with the Michigan Supreme Court, as part of the 14-member Judicial Resources Advisory Committee, to determine the number of cases judges should administer.

The second stage in cost reduction involves new “performance objectives” for judges. The state has developed a formula defining how long it should take to process criminal, civil, and probate cases.

Depending on the matter, if a case is out longer than the formula suggests, judges receive a call from the state requiring them to provide an explanation.

There are a number of variables that slow cases down, notably DNA testing, Judge Carmody said. There are only a few DNA testing labs in the state, and the amount of evidence shipped to them is enormous. Further, certain cases receive priority; murders receive quicker responses than home invasions, for example.

Despite such challenges, the state court administrator’s office considers local courts to be on schedule, Judge Carmody reported.

The third stage in cost reduction involves “concurrent jurisdiction,” which requires judges to share courts when necessary.

“This is what we’re dealing with now,” he said.

“We all have cross assignments,” Judge Carmody explained. “Our courts are open to each other.”

The state wants judges to formalize this process. Locally, judges are waiting to do so until they see how this project, which is “in its infancy,” he said, plays out elsewhere in Michigan.

Part of concurrent jurisdiction includes using video proceedings to cut traveling costs for judges. It works, to an extent. For arraignments on someone’s first charge, video proceedings do cut time. In many situations it isn’t feasible, however, especially when parties come to court to argue complicated matters involving witnesses.

Population affects how the court system works.

“In our district, there are about 35,000 people,” Judge Carmody said, and all four counties are suffering declining numbers.

A number of variables affect the flow of cases locally. Mackinac County is seasonally directed, has a high traffic level, and, owing to its geographical location, its biggest issue is drug trafficking.

“You’re on the crossroads to everywhere,” he said.

Owing to local bridge traffic, Mackinac Island traffic, and movement between the U.S. and Canada, the centrally located county is in a position similar to how Chicago relates to the flow of drug traffic along I-94.

When authorities become aware of a specific drug transfer, it is easy to catch traffickers at the north side of the Mackinac Bridge, Judge Gibson told The St. Ignace News.

In general, the massive flux of summer residents and transient workers increases the local caseload beyond cases generated by the base population, Judge Graham added.

Illegal prescription drug use is a notable factor in caseloads. Judge Carmody described it as a serious, common problem that transcends demographic lines.

On the day he addressed the county board, he had sentenced a 20- year-old girl to four years in prison on drug charges. She was a star athlete from a good home, he said.

The consequences resulting from the legalization of medical marijuana is also a notable factor in local caseloads.

He described a recent case involving four Illinois men sentenced to decades in prison for a violent armed robbery at a remote medical marijuana facility in Alger County. They held the common perception, he said, that the Upper Peninsula is so scarcely inhabited that the robbery would proceed easily.

Defying stereotypes, three of the men had minimal criminal records. The leader of the operation received 30 years in prison. Each accomplice received at least 10. The result amounts to costs Judge Carmody called “exorbitant” for the local government.

It takes about $30,000 to house one inmate for a year, he said.

The extent of drug trafficking does not reflect on the local population, he added. The costs to incarcerate drug traffickers here is no higher than in other high traffic areas of the United States, he explained.

Judge Carmody encouraged the commissioners to attend judicial proceedings. Although proceedings can be intimidating, it enables area residents to understand how the system works, he said, and what it’s dealing with.

Mackinac County has a strong bench, he contends, that provides the efficiency the system needs to prevent cases from coming back, and that serves to keep costs down.

Unfortunately, many of the medical marijuana cases do come back to his attention.

“I’m always waiting for court of appeals decisions,” he said.

Courts throughout the state are bogged down by medical marijuana cases, and although federal law trumps state law on drug matters, the federal government is not enforcing its rules against medical marijuana.

“It’s a mess,” Judge Carmody said.

He expects more states to legalize marijuana “just to keep control of it.”

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