Cuts Are Painful, But Necessary

April 24, 2005
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Bert Bleke and Kurt Kimball arguably are the two most unpopular men in Grand Rapids

Call them Public Enemies No. 1 and 1A.

The superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools and the city manager of Grand Rapids are in the midst of trying to balance budgets that, simply put, are out of whack. Way out of whack.

The facts, however, show that these men are not alone.

Nearly every major West Michigan employer has announced layoffs in the past five years. Every employer has been forced to restructure, eliminate waste and find new revenue sources.

A struggling Amway laid off 20 percent of its work force before reinventing itself as Alticor. The commercial furniture industry took a dive. Meijer cut away a full layer of management.

More recently, Rogers Department Store and Steelcase announced closings and layoffs. Whether through lean concepts or a new identity, corporate cultures were changed. Sacred cows were killed.

Officials like Bleke and Kimball, however, make those sacrifices in front of a very watchful, and judgmental, public.

But painful as it may be, some of those fatted calves have to go, most notably the Cadillac benefits enjoyed increasingly only by public servants.

Bleke is justified in privatizing transportation and janitorial services for the school system. If direct education can be spared the knife, at least for the time being, then this is the right route to go. No one likes to see jobs cut, whether they are bus drivers, janitors or vice presidents.

These are decisions, not choices. There are very few choices left. The city's public school system must right the financial ship if it is to survive, and any cuts that don't directly affect the classroom are the first places to look.

Likewise, Kimball's budget-cut "recommendations" to city commissioners will include recreation programs, city-run swimming pools, support for the arts, and several other areas enjoyed by the public. Although mention of hits to some key services, like firefighters, is troubling, Kimball is looking in the right direction to bring the city budget back in line. These are not pleasant decisions to make. But they are decisions that must be made for the long-term viability of the city and its public school system.

For their trouble, Bleke and Kimball are being second-guessed constantly.

"We're just about done," Bleke said of $15 million in cuts he's trying to administer to the school district's budget. "I defy anyone to go through this organization and tell me where (else) I can cut."

Unfortunately, people will tell Bleke and Kimball where else to cut in an effort to save their sacred cows.

That's not the mentality leaders in the city and schools should take.        

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