Bills Hurt Home Rule

June 18, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Why townships? Why not villages?

Gaines Township Supervisor Don Hilton rhetorically asked those questions at the last Grand Valley Metro Council meeting, when the regional planning agency rejected a series of state House bills that would transfer some basic functions from rural townships to counties.

Hilton pointed out that Cascade Township has a larger population than the city of East Grand Rapids, and he wondered why state lawmakers hadn’t considered having Cascade provide property assessments, elections management and other services for East.

“This issue is broader than what we are talking about,” said Hilton.

Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg sees the issue as broader, too. He views House Bills 4780-4788, which are known as the Township Services Consolidation Act, as a challenge to a basic tenant of democracy that provides a foundation for the governmental system the nation has employed for more than two centuries.

In 1787, Vanderberg said, the Continental Congress approved the Northwest Territories Act that sliced those lands into 6-by-6-mile squares. The thinking behind that action was to bring important government functions such as taxation and assessment services to the grassroots level.

“The idea was that, as someone goes about their daily business, they should know and see the people performing those services. It should be their neighbors that are actually on the governing board that are making those decisions,” he said.

“To change those things today, I think, requires a lot of deliberation, a lot of thought. I’m not saying that anything can be so sacrosanct that it can’t be changed. But I think the idea is, when it’s that rooted in our democratic policy, we should take extra care before we take some of those things away.”

Should the bills become law, Vanderberg said it will cost Ottawa County more to provide those services for the townships that fall under the bills’ guidelines. But the money isn’t the major concern for him. He mostly worries the legislation would push government further away from the people.

“Think about instead of going within that 6-by-6 square miles to argue your case before a board of review or an assessor, or maybe just talk to your township board, you would then have to go to the county level within 556 square miles — or even greater here in Kent County,” he said.

“You would not have the same opportunity to know the people as well that are actually deciding what your assessment is going to be on your home, or collecting your taxes, or running your elections.”

According to House Democrats, the consolidation act would create more efficiencies and savings among governmental units. The Metro Council disagrees and sent area lawmakers a letter saying that. It offered recommendations on actions lawmakers could take to bring efficiencies and cost savings to local governments.

“I, for one, believe we can wrap ourselves up in dogma and ideologue. I think we should struggle and strain to come up with better ways to do things,” said Kurt Kimball, Grand Rapids city manager, who added that the bills were repugnant to him.

Wyoming City Councilman Bill VerHulst said local units are in this sticky situation now because state lawmakers have consistently cut taxes for the past six or seven years. Hilton said county governments have enough to do without taking on more services.

The legislation defines rural townships as those with a population of less than 10,000 or those with fewer than 20,000 residents that don’t provide 24-hour police and fire protection and water and sewer services to more than half its residents.

Cascade Township Supervisor Michael Julian said rural townships have a difficult time providing services to residents because the townships don’t have enough money, and counties could offer those smaller governments some help. He said there should be some economies of scale in that proposed concept somewhere.

“We’re uniquely positioned in Cascade so we can do that,” said Julian. “But we’re always looking for better ways to do things.”   

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