New robotics practice space unveiled in St. Clair County

Port Huron Times Herald
AP Member Exchange
PORT HURON — The arms of a dark blue robot unfurled and lifted up a disk with Velcro edges. Carefully, it maneuvered to a tall tower with circular holes cut into it. The driver carefully manipulated the machine to place the disk over one of the holes, sticking it onto the tower.
U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township, visited the practice space for the Blue Water Area Robotics Alliance, which held its grand opening on a recent Tuesday.
Ahead of Mitchell’s arrival, students from nine area robotics teams manned their work stations inside the space. The space itself is provided by P.J. Wallbank Springs. Teams began moving in back in February, but the facilities have come a long way since then.
Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School juniors Alex Kerry and Avery Forra, both 16, said they had been using the facility for about seven months, and were excited to enter the coming season.
“It really gives us a chance to test our designs and communicate with other teams,” Alex told the Port Huron Times Herald.
Both said they were introduced to engineering through robotics, and intend to pursue it as a career.
“I had never even thought about it before,” Avery said. “Just a great hands on experience.”
Where tape was used to mark the field on the floor, now stands a fully equipped practice field in accordance with FIRST robotics regulations. The field cost about $23,000 to build. The largest donor to the project was the AT&T foundation, St. Clair County Economic Development Alliance CEO Dan Casey said. The Community Foundation of St. Clair County and the Economic Development Alliance also chipped in.
Casey said FIRST Robotics provides valuable skills to young people, and facilities like this one offer valuable hands on experience.
There are still a few items to add to the practice space, Casey said. Computer systems with computer-aided design software, better known as CAD, drill presses and file cabinets are also on the list.
Casey said he would like to see similar hands-on educational opportunities offered in fields beyond engineering, naming nursing as an example.
“We know it’s the right thing to do, we want to do more of it in other industries,” he said.
Mitchell toured the facility and spoke with students, mentors and others in attendance for about 45 minutes before offering a few remarks to the crowd.
He thanked Chris Walbank and P.J. Wallbank Springs for providing the space.
“This is cool and fun stuff, and I think it’s wonderful for our young people,” Mitchell said.

Bedbugs found on campus

FLINT (AP) — Mott Community College officials say bedbug-infested chairs have been removed from a student lounge on the Flint campus.
The college says the chairs were removed for treatment to kill the insects after they were found Thursday on the chairs in the Mott Memorial Building’s student lounge. reports that the bedbug find on the Flint campus follows the discovery of bedbugs earlier this month in a high school classroom in the Carman-Ainsworth Community Schools, which is also in Genesee County.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all consider bedbugs a public health pest.
But unlike most public health pests, bedbugs are not known to transmit or spread disease.

Michigan allows prison inmates to seek college financial aid

DETROIT (AP) — Michigan’s prison inmates are now allowed to apply for college financial aid through a state program that had long excluded them but was changed under the state’s 2020 budget.
Michigan’s Tuition Incentive Program , or TIP, is a state-funded program that reimburses tuition expenses for Medicaid-eligible students at participating public and private institutions.
Terrell Blount, a program associate with the Vera Institute of Justice, told the Detroit Free Press last week that expanding the program’s eligibility to inmates is a “big win” for Michigan, where college subsidy opportunities for prisoners are limited. He added Michigan is now among 18 states that do not prevent incarcerated students from receiving the state’s financial aid.
The Michigan Department of Treasury will administer the $64.3 million allotted to TIP from the 2020 budget.
“It makes a statement saying that … education changes lives. It reduces recidivism,” said Blount, who worked with state agency officials and policymakers to change TIP’s eligibility. “Everyone agrees people should be held accountable for what they’ve done or committed, but that doesn’t mean that they should be deprived and have their educational opportunity taken away from them.”
An early estimate shows that less than 3% of inmates will be eligible for the program because of age restrictions, Blount noted.
The program requires that students apply before Aug. 31 of the school year in which they graduate from high school or earn their GED certificate. Applicants must graduate or get their GED before age 20, and their eligibility will end six years later.
There are three Michigan schools — Delta College, Jackson College and Mott Community College — offering courses to incarcerated students through the federal Second Chance Pell pilot, which allows 67 schools nationwide to experiment in awarding Pell grants to students in prison. A provision of the 1994 federal crime bill barred inmates from receiving Pell grants, and advocates for prison education are pushing Congress to overturn that ban.
Altogether, a little more than 700 inmates within the Michigan Department of Corrections are enrolled in post-secondary education classes.

Detroit-area men who sent millions to Yemen spared prison by judge

Associated Press
DETROIT — A group of Detroit-area men opened bank accounts to move millions of dollars to Yemen, their war-torn native country. Their crime: They didn’t register as a money transfer business.
Their luck: They drew a sympathetic judge.
One by one, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn declined to send them to prison, despite guidelines that call for a few years or more behind bars. He noted that Yemen’s financial system is a mess and its residents desperately need help. Defense lawyers have praised the judge for educating himself about the poorest country in the Arab world and understanding cultural traditions.
“Only people without compassion” would object to the light sentences, the 95-year-old judge told The Associated Press.
“As I’ve been here longer,” Cohn said, “I’ve come to the realization that the rules are flexible — at least to me.”
The Detroit area is believed to have the highest U.S. population of Yemenis, a demographic that has risen amid war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions more with food and health care shortages.
Money sent from abroad is critical. The World Bank estimates that Yemenis received at least $3.3 billion in 2018, a figure some experts consider conservative. Cash from expatriates is “hugely important” and remains a “mainstay for many households and the national economy,” said Sheila Carapico, a professor of global studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Since 2018, federal prosecutors in Detroit have charged nine people in an investigation of cash transfers to Yemen. Bank accounts were opened in the names of shell businesses, then used to deposit and wire roughly $90 million over a seven-year period, according to plea agreements filed in court.
“Much of the currency originated from bodegas in New York City and from businesses and individuals in the metro Detroit area and was sent in a manner to conceal the true ownership of the currency, place it outside reach of law enforcement and evade income taxes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Wyse said.
The “evil” is the lack of records to precisely track the cash, he said.
All nine men have pleaded guilty to failing to register money transfer businesses or making false statements to agents. One, Fahd Samaha, said he charged people only 1%, much less than typical financial service providers. The government said he moved $13 million to Yemen.
“There were no victims. … He used the extra money to live and take care of his family,” said Samaha’s attorney, Jalal Dallo.
The cases were assigned to Cohn, who has been a federal judge since 1979. During a September hearing, he described the conditions in Yemen as “horrendous” and noted that sending men to prison can cause hardship in conservative Muslim families where wives often don’t work outside the home.
It’s unfair to “shed the traditions and practices of your homeland,” Cohn told Hazem Saleh, who possibly faced five years in custody for handling $22.6 million.
Judges don’t have to follow sentencing guidelines, and Cohn rejected prison terms. He placed Saleh and five others on supervised release, a form of probation. Three others await sentencing.
“Please look at me as you would look at your own son,” Ahmed Al-Howshabi told the judge in July. “I can truthfully say I did not understand the laws and regulations of operating such a business.”
Prosecutors said they had no evidence the scheme was anything more than sending money to relatives and possibly avoiding taxes, but they believed sentences within the guidelines were appropriate.
“Sometimes judges agree with us and sometimes they don’t,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider told the AP.
Defense attorney William Swor, whose grandparents emigrated from Syria, said people of Arab descent appear to be under greater scrutiny than others in the U.S.
“In the post-9/11 world, the government says it wants to know who’s transferring money out of the country. We’ll assume that’s a legitimate concern, but it’s not inherently a dangerous activity,” Swor said.

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An Ithaca cider mill becoming a hidden gem in its area

Morning Sun
AP Member Exchange
MOUNT PLEASANT — Motorists exiting U.S. 127 in Ithaca might whiz right by a unique hidden gem tucked in behind two other East Center Street businesses just off the expressway.
The Apple Barrel Cider Mill, owned by Chris and Marla Buerge, offers a variety of fresh fruits, homemade bakery treats, and its award-winning cider, among many other items.
Although locals know where it’s located it might be a bit more difficult for first time visitors to find the cider mill, located behind Subway and Auto Value on the south side of roadway.
Chris Buerge, a lifelong Ithaca resident, acknowledged the location was somewhat of a disadvantage but more and more travelers have been stopping in.
“People are still finding us,” he told the Morning Sun. “Every year our sales have gone up. We get a lot of people off the expressway.”
But there are also some advantages.
“We’re the first exit where services are offered north of Lake Lansing Road,” Buerge noted.
A number of gas stations and fast food restaurants are located nearby.
“We also have 12 acres here and when the time is right we will be able to expand,” Buerge said.
He and his wife opened the business in 2010.
“I’ve been raising apples since 1997 when I planted a small orchard at our home,” Buerge explained. “We always thought about putting in a cider mill somewhere. Then we had this property offered to us and the idea just evolved. It’s fun but it’s been a lot of work.”
Their Apple Hill Farm on Alger Road now has about 30 different strains and varieties of apples that are sold at the cider mill.
Of course, fall is the busiest time of year when the mill employs 13 to 14 mostly part-time workers.
Wife Marla, a Middleton native, is at the cider mill most every day but Chris, along with his brother Kim, also own a local contracting business, Buerge Insulation & Windows.
“That keeps me pretty busy,” Chris said. “And fall is the busiest time for both.”
The couple’s son, Corey, makes the cider in an apple press. The entire process can be viewed by patrons through large glass windows.
“It’s pretty popular,” Buerge said. “We make it on Wednesdays and Saturdays and people enjoy watching.”
Corey is a certified cider-maker and his apple cider took second place at the Michigan Cider Contest held at the Devos Center in Grand Rapids.
However, the cider-making took place on a recent Friday due a funeral the family had to attend the following day.
Apple Barrel offers many varieties of apples and other fresh fruits, as well as homemade doughnuts, pies and fudge, mums, hanging baskets, bedding plants, pumpkins and squash,
All of the baked goods are made from scratch daily.
In addition, there’s a gift shop that features various types local crafts, honey and other items.
The building’s interior has a rustic atmosphere that has been decorated using re-purposed old siding and beams from eight local barns that were being torn down.
The business also sells small prefabricated cabins and sheds that can be purchased on a “rent to own” basis.
“That’s been kind of a big thing,” Buerge said.
The Apple Barrel Cider Mill is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday year-round.
“There aren’t many (cider mills) that operate all year,” Buerge said. “But being in town we can do that because we still get local people coming in during the winter.”

School lifts costume ban

CHARLOTTE, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan elementary school has lifted its short-lived ban on students wearing costumes to school for Halloween following an outcry by parents.
Galewood Early Elementary School pulled its Halloween ban Friday, less than a week after announcing that classroom parties and costumes wouldn’t be allowed this Halloween.
The school’s Halloween parade was also canceled, but all of the Halloween festivities will now be permitted on Oct. 31 at the school in the mid-Michigan city of Charlotte.
The Lansing State Journal reports several parents complained that the school’s Halloween ban wasn’t consistent with what other district schools planned for this Halloween.
Parent Eric Frederick says he’s pleased the Halloween events have been reinstated. He says school officials listened to parents, reconsidered their decision and “we got what we were asking for.”

2 pedestrians struck, killed

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Two people have been struck by a car and killed during a hit-and-run crash on a western Michigan street.
Grand Rapids police say a preliminary investigation shows the man and woman, both age 56, were walking within a crosswalk after 11 p.m. Saturday when they were struck by a car which drove through a stop sign.
The victims were pronounced dead at the scene. Both were Grand Rapids residents. Their names were not immediately released.
A tip later led police to the driver of the car who was arrested Sunday morning.

GM workers to stay on picket line until vote on new contract

DETROIT (AP) — Striking General Motors workers will stay on the picket lines for at least another week until they vote on a tentative contract with the company.
Factory-level officials from the United Auto Workers union voted to recommend the agreement to members at a daylong meeting in Detroit Thursday. But they also voted not to return to factories unless members approve the deal.
About 49,000 workers have been on strike for more than a month, paralyzing GM’s U.S. factories and costing the company an estimated $2 billion.
On Wednesday, the company and the UAW reached a deal that would give workers a mix of pay raises, lump sum payments and an $11,000 signing bonus. In return, the contract allows GM to proceed with factory closures in Lordstown, Ohio; Warren, Michigan; and near Baltimore.
Details on the four-year pact were posted Thursday on the UAW website as factory level union officials met to decide if they’ll approve the deal. Workers went on strike Sept. 16, crippling the company’s U.S. production and costing it an estimated $2 billion.
The Detroit Hamtramck plant, which GM wanted to close, will stay open and a new electric pickup truck will be built there. Meanwhile, the Lordstown area will get a new battery factory that is expected to employ 1,000 workers. In addition, a company called Lordstown Motors could also set up an electric commercial vehicle factory that would initially employ 400 workers. But neither of those would come close to the shuttered Lordstown assembly plant, which two years ago employed 4,500 people making the Chevrolet Cruze compact car.
The deal shortens the eight years it takes for new hires to reach full wages and gives temporary workers a full-time job after three years of continuous work. Workers hired after 2007 who are paid a lower wage rate will hit the top wage of $32.32 per hour in four years or less. The deal also provides a $60,000 early retirement incentive for up to 2,000 eligible workers.
The tentative agreement between GM and the UAW now will be used as a template for talks with GM’s crosstown rivals, Ford and Fiat Chrysler. Normally the major provisions carry over to the other two companies and cover about 140,000 auto workers nationwide. The union hasn’t decided yet which company it will bargain with next, and it’s not clear if there will be another strike.

State OKs raising age for adult prosecution

Associated Press
LANSING — State lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to bills that would end Michigan’s status as one of just a handful of states where 17-year-old offenders are prosecuted as adults.
Starting in October 2021, 17-year-olds would be handled in the juvenile system. Prosecutors could still try 14- to 17-year-olds as adults for violent offenses such as murder.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the overall goal of the legislation and was reviewing changes that were made as part of a compromise in the Republican-led Legislature.
“There has been little good to come out of prosecuting our children as adults, and I look forward to them returning back into their schools and workplaces instead of a state prison,” said Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.
Another sponsor, Republican Sen. Peter Lucido of Macomb County’s Shelby Township, said the legislation is long overdue, saying 17-year-olds cannot vote, sit on a jury, join the military or enter into binding contracts. Locking them up with adults ensures “they’re learning how to become better criminals,” he said.
For four years, the state would pay the full amount of counties’ additional juvenile justice costs associated with handling an additional 7,500 cases.
Beginning in October 2025, the costs would be incorporated into the traditional 50-50 split arrangement between the state and counties.
The nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency estimates that the state would incur additional costs of between $19.3 million and $54.3 million annually in today’s dollars.
The main measures were passed 35-3 in the Senate and 104-6 and 101-7 in the House.
If Whitmer signs the legislation, three states — Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin — would still have a maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction of 16. Missouri’s law increasing its juvenile age to 17 takes effect in 2021.

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Workers celebrate deal with GM, show union power in industry

DETROIT (AP) — On the picket lines at a General Motors transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio, passing cars honked and striking workers celebrated a tentative contract deal by munching on 10 pizzas dropped off by a supporter.
They had carried signs for 31 days and demonstrated the muscle the United Auto Workers union still has over Detroit’s three manufacturers.
Details of the four-year pact weren’t released, but GM’s latest offer to end the monthlong strike included wage increases and lump-sum payments, top-notch health insurance at little cost to workers, promises of new products for many U.S. factories and a path to full-time work for temporary workers.
That’s a big difference from what GM wanted going into the talks: to slash total labor costs at its factories, which are about $13 per hour higher than at foreign automakers in the U.S.
Terry Dittes, the UAW’s chief bargainer with GM, said the deal offers “major gains” for 49,000 union workers who have been walking picket lines since Sept. 16. They’ll stay off work for at least a couple more days while union committees decide if they will bless the deal. Then workers will have to vote on it.
The deal shows that the union, with less than one-third of the 1.5 million members it had at its peak in 1979, still has a lot of clout with GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
“I think economically the UAW will do just fine in this agreement,” said Art Schwartz, a former GM negotiator who now is a labor consultant in Michigan. “The union certainly still has power in this industry.”
President Donald Trump called UAW President Gary Jones on Wednesday night, but union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said he did not know what the men discussed.
The strike immediately brought GM’s U.S. factories to a halt, and within a week, started to hamper production in Mexico and Canada. Analysts at KeyBanc investment services estimated the stoppage cut GM vehicle production by 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles. That’s too much for the company to make up with overtime or increased assembly line speeds. Analysts say the costs to GM will hit around $2 billion.
Workers, on the other hand, lost north of $3,000 each on average, the difference between their base wages and $250 per week in strike pay from the union.
“It’s nice to see there’s a deal, but without knowing the details I’m a little skeptical because we don’t know the highlights or the lowlights,” said worker Nick Kuhlman, who was among the strikers huddled around a burn barrel on a blustery, gray Toledo afternoon.
“I just hope it gets done,” said Toledo worker Mark Nichols, who thought the strike would last only a week or two and was ready to get back to work because his savings are running low.
GM apparently was able to close three of four factories that it wanted to shutter to get rid of excess capacity in slow-selling cars and components. The Detroit-Hamtramck plant will get a new electric pickup truck and stay open, but factories in Lordstown, Ohio; Warren, Michigan; and near Baltimore are to be closed. The Lordstown area will get an electric vehicle battery factory, but it won’t have nearly as many workers as the assembly plant that for years made compact GM cars.