Macomb residents, Rep. Levin share fears of Trump budget cuts

Apr 13, 2017

Pamela Brooks was a homemaker who was married for 37 years.

Then, her husband divorced her. The 59-year-old Shelby Township woman found Michigan Works! through a food bank and got on a path to landing a job.

"I was desperate. I couldn't feed my daughter," said Brooks.

Brooks was one of nearly two dozen people who shared their stories Thursday with U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, who went on  a prearranged federal budget tour around Macomb County, talking with residents whose lives have changed thanks to various programs that all or in part have been funded with federal dollars.

Most, if not all, of the programs are subject to budget elimination or cuts under President Donald Trump's proposed budget  released last month. The budget, which calls for cuts in a variety of programs to pay for a proposed 10% increase in military funding, still must undergo scrutiny by Congress, which will have the final word.

The Free Press was invited to attend the roundtable discussions organized by Levin's office so the congressman could hear from participants and officials with some of the programs that are proposed to have federal funding cuts or elimination. This was his first tour, and he wanted to hear firsthand how the programs benefited people and how they and the programs would be impacted if the cuts occurred.

Brooks said through tears that she got back on her feet and started working this week in an administrative support job thanks to  programs at Michigan Works!,  which receives federal funding to provide services and support to the state's workforce development system.

Funding that provided a job training program for people age 55 and older, such as Jill Oxendine, 59, of Harrison Township, who reinvented herself and obtained a full-time job at Macomb County Friend of the Court after being laid off from working 37 years in a day program for special education adults.

Funding for programs that helped Russell Hicks, 26, who was incarcerated for three-and-a-half years, go to trucking school and have two pre-hire opportunities with companies. Funding for programs that helped Keenan Tenant, Heather Fecteau and Jodi Champlin train to become nurses, assisting with everything from tuition to transportation.

"And people question where all this money goes," Levin told the roundtable at his stop at Michigan Works! in Clinton Township, later adding: "a dollar bill is much more than a piece of paper."

Neena Buttignoli, 45, a mother of four boys, said she survived physical and mental abuse from her now ex-husband, whom she was married to for 17 years.

She relied on Turning Point, which has provided emergency support and preventative services for domestic and sexual violence in metro Detroit for 37 years, for help ranging from shelter to counseling for her and her sons. She also used Lakeshore Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm serving Macomb and Oakland counties, with her divorce and personal protection order — for free.

Buttignoli and other domestic violence survivors said they continue to rely on Turning Point years later for support, even if it's a 3 a.m. phone call to the 24-hour crisis line because of a nightmare or flashback.

"Turning Point has been the turning point of my life," Buttignoli told Levin during a stop in St. Clair Shores.

Levin's first stop  was at North Clinton River Park in Sterling Heights, where he discussed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which he said has received $2.2 billion since 2010, implementing 3,400 restoration projects, including 760 in Michigan.

Trump's budget calls for the elimination of funding to the initiative and a 31% cut to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Clinton River Corridor Habitat Restoration Project is being done with a $4.5-million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant that will, among other work, stabilize the riverbank, make riverbank repairs and build habitat structures along miles of the Clinton River with trees and logs cleared from the waterway, said James Burton, vice president at Hubbell, Roth & Clark.

Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool told Levin that the project "for us as a city is so important. Waterways are an important asset; it's all about the quality of life."

Vanderpool said the $4.5-million grant helped lead to a $45-million city millage approved by voters for parks and recreation improvements in Sterling Heights, the state's fourth-largest city. The millage money, in part, will help to build a canoe and kayak livery next summer that will allow people to enjoy the river from the water.

And, Vanderpool said, an approximately $20-million development is planned near the park, in part, so occupants can jump on the bike path and enjoy the park and river.

A river that Matt Einheuser, a watershed ecologist with the Clinton River Watershed Council, pointed out was "one of the most polluted in Michigan" before the Clean Water Act in 1972. A river that he said is now home to steelhead, brown trout and sturgeon. Today, a Canada goose bobbed up and down in the quickly moving water near the bank, honking where Levin and the group stood in the drizzle.

When Levin asked the group what its reaction was to the proposed Trump budget and cuts, Burton said, "Can I swear?"

Levin told the group that he thought the proposal was "misguided and speaks to the lack of understanding of the environment in Washington."

Levin then traveled to Michigan Works, where he heard from more than dozen people whose lives benefited from several programs.

The Senior Community Service Employment Program for those age 55 and older  would be eliminated in Trump's proposed budget, said Bernice Kerner, MIS and special projects coordinator at Michigan Works!. The program has helped more than 80 people — including an 89-year-old, said Teresa Brittentine, career planner for the program.

There also could be cuts to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which Kerner said helps about 100 people a year and a youth program that has helped 450 youths in Macomb and St. Clair counties.

"That's horrible," said Joann Cullen, who has benefited from the senior program. "We're all capable of working. We should all have a chance. A lot of us are very capable."

Turning Point CEO Sue Coats said the impact of possible federal cuts to her Macomb County-based organization, which has a nearly $3-million budget, "is not a done deal" and there will be a call to action to prevent the cuts and make sure "the safety net built over the last 25 years is not compromised and weakened because we've saved too many lives."

Coats said that any cut, even a 10% cut, "is gonna be devastating." Areas that could be cut, she said, could be at the 52-bed shelter, the most expensive program that is always full. The 24-hour crisis line, she said, handled about 12,000 calls last year.

Under Trump's proposed budget, funding to Lakeshore Legal Aid would be eliminated. Levin said Michigan received $11 million through the Legal Services Corp., with $4 million going to Lakeshore Legal Aid. Officials there said that about 1,300 people were assisted in the family law area last year, with more than 4,000 people helped overall.

Levin said people need  "to understand the lives behind the dollars" that are spent on federal programs and how they impact families and kids.

"When people talk about cutting budgets because of fraud or misuse, they should learn firsthand at home what use of the dollars are," Levin said.

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