Street Talk

Street Talk: Political learning curve

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September 1, 2017
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West Michigan has an unusual connection to geopolitical maneuverings in the Asia-Pacific region, which will be in the spotlight when the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan hosts its 68th anniversary luncheon later this year.

As captain of a small ship of a nation, the Republic of Palau, Grand Valley State University alumnus Tommy Remengesau Jr. has to make the best use of his tough geopolitical situation. His strategic and tactical decisions are particularly important, as Palau operates in the center of major potential conflicts brewing in the Pacific and across the globe. Palau is an island nation consisting of approximately 340 individual islands located in the western Pacific Ocean.

President Remengesau’s visit will shed light on topics ranging from U.S. strategic defense in the Pacific and U.S.-China relations, to ecotourism, reef preservation and climate change.

“My personal opinion is Palau will become a more important player in the Pacific with a deeper alliance with the United States. It’s already a Defense Compact partner with us,” said Dixie Anderson, executive director of the WACWM. “That area of the world is becoming very important strategically to our country — think North Korea, China, South China Sea, Japan, etc.”

Anderson said Remengesau couldn’t visit at a more critical time for both the U.S. and Palau defense strategies. Palau is a key player in this country’s long-term national defense and strategy for current and emerging threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

She said Palau is an excellent example of how small nations can be key players in U.S./China relations. Though Palau maintains diplomatic relations with the R.O.C. (Taiwan), as does the United States, Chinese tourists pump more revenue into Palau’s most important economic sector, which is tourism.

A global ecotourism leader — with some of the top diving spots in the world — the country has one of the world's highest marine biodiversity populations, with 1,300 fish and 700 coral species. Anderson said Remengesau received worldwide recognition for his leadership in aggressively responding to illegal fishing in his country’s waters. His country’s systemic approach to searching out poaching in waters surrounding Palau is becoming a model for others to use to save the world’s oceans. Remengesau was awarded the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for his work. He previously served as Palau’s president from 2001-09 and was re-elected to another four-year term in 2013.

The country’s most “critical issue,” according to Anderson, is climate change. Palau is threatened from below and above. Rising sea levels due to melting polar ice caps has put the nation in peril. She said Remengesau’s leadership on the issue of climate change earned him a prominent role at the 2015 Paris Accords.

Mark Schaub, chief international officer at GVSU’s Padnos International Center, will engage with Palau’s president during a moderated discussion at the event, which is set for Nov. 1 at the L.V. Eberhard Center on GVSU’s downtown Grand Rapids campus.

A big step

Treasurers from three counties in the region want to make sure Michigan homeowners know about a financial rescue program.

The federally funded Step Forward Michigan program can provide no-interest loans to homeowners behind on property taxes, mortgage payments or condominium fees.

Since 2010, the state has helped 2,770 homeowners in Kalamazoo, Kent and Ottawa counties through the program, according to the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp., which oversees the program along with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

About $40 million still is available for new loans to assist around 6,000 eligible Michigan households — those affected by a large medical bill, home repair, layoff, divorce, death in the family or other qualifying hardship — through 2020.

“If you’ve been hit with a hardship, you could get an interest-free loan of up to $30,000 to get caught up on property taxes, mortgage or condo payments,” MSHDA Executive Director Earl Poleski said. “Even better, if you stay in your home for the next five years, the loan is forgiven, and you don’t have to pay it back.”

Kalamazoo County Treasurer Mary Balkema, Kent County Treasurer Ken Parrish and Ottawa County Treasurer Brad Slagh said any homeowners facing foreclosure should investigate the program. Residents can see if they are eligible by answering a short list of questions at stepforwardmichigan.org or by calling (866) 946-7432.

Parrish said that in the past seven years, Step Forward Michigan has helped 1,699 homeowners in Kent County get over $15 million in loans to help them hold on to their homes, making Kent County the fourth-largest user of the program.

“We take no pleasure in foreclosing on homes here in Kent County,” Parrish said.

Kalamazoo County has had 593 homeowners qualify since 2010. The program has loaned $5.5 million in the county.

Ottawa County has had 478 homeowners use the program since 2010, totaling $4.5 million loaned.

For assistance on applying for the program, area homeowners can turn to a number of local agencies, including Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services, Community Action House in Holland, Neighborhood Housing Services in Grand Haven, and Inner City Christian Federation and Home Repair Services in Grand Rapids.

PACE setters

Coming this fall, Grand Rapids will roll out a new program to facilitate the process to secure financing for sustainability efforts.

The city commission recently adopted a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which will act as a financing mechanism for commercial developers to secure loans for the purpose of building energy-saving enhancements and installations. The way it works is property owners will agree to a loan with the lenders to be paid back through a special assessment, which remains with the property and is prioritized the same as tax and assessment liens in cases of non-payment. Each PACE project will be regarded as a district.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss called PACE a “critical tool” for the property owners and its rollout “an exciting step toward our sustainability goals,” as the city pursues its Grand Rapids 2030 District project.

The program won’t be financed via city funds and will be independently administered by Lean & Green Michigan to match property owners with prospective lenders.

“PACE is a tool that solves the disconnect between current financing mechanisms and the long-term payback of an energy improvement project. It matches the two for the first time,” Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said.

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Government Affairs Josh Lunger said there has been interest from members of the business community in a PACE program and applauded the commission for providing another avenue for businesses to invest in sustainability.

City staff will host a launch event in October to share details on how to apply for the PACE program.

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