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Kalamazoo County OKs Contentious Health Fund

Andy Robins

Kalamazoo County commissioners have approved funding for a controversial first-of-its-kind health program by the narrowest of margins.

The YWCA's Reproductive Health Fund is contentious because it includes abortion. The pilot program will also provide transgender transition services, care to fight high Black infant mortality, and HIV prevention to low income residents.

The YWCA spokesman Demetrius Wolverton says it will serve people who have nowhere else to go.

"Folks are not getting access to the services that they need, and they are not living their whole and authentic lives, because institutional racism has prevented that."

But the vote in favor of providing the funding on Tuesday, April 6, was six-to-five. County Commissioner Francine Bruder Melgar, a pro-life Democrat who's also a pediatrician, was the swing vote. Melgar says she supported the funding only because of a change that prevents public money from being used for abortions.

"I think the two parts separated out from the third part wouldn't be the obstacle to passing. It's a fine line for people who feel strongly about that."

That didn't satisfy some other commissioners, including Republican Jeff Heppler. He voted against the request despite the amendment, saying it was a "shell game."

"We're saying we took the money in for this and we're doing this over here, but, oh well, we got enough over here so we're going to do that. I can't support abortion, I'm sorry."

Kalamazoo County will provide $44,000 for the pilot program. Grants of similar size will also come from two national organizations.

New Justice Complex

Kalamazoo County's new proposed Justice Center will be the largest and most expensive construction project that it has ever undertaken. And commissioners needed proof Tuesday that the people who build it will mostly be local residents.

Project manager Jerry Vanderveen says the vast majority of the construction of the $95-million court complex will be done by local firms.

"Ninety percent, by dollar volume, is going to be awarded to local bidders. And we define local bidders in this area as Kalamazoo, Calhoun, and Van Buren counties."

County commissioners voted to move ahead with the project. The vote came despite reservations by some commissioners like Democrat Zach Bauer, wanted detailed assurances that most of the construction contracts will go to local companies and workers.

"I feel like we are not being provided with the information that we need to judge whether we are fulfilling the promises we gave our residents, period."

In the end, though, only Republican Dale Shugars voted against moving ahead with the project.

"As a group, we lack fiscal discipline. I don't know that the consequences of COVID-19 are going to be in the long-term."

The new courthouse in downtown Kalamazoo is expected to open in 2023.