County May Shift Zoo Funding

August 27, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County is looking at spending $5.25 million on capital improvement projects during the next fiscal year, which starts on Jan. 1.

That amount would provide enough funds for 27 projects including one that has been previously paid for by revenue from the county’s lodging excise tax.

The county has given the John Ball Zoological Society $400,000 a year from the hotel-motel tax receipts for years, and the society has used that money to build exhibits at the zoo. But starting next year, those dollars will likely come from the capital improvements fund because revenue to the lodging excise tax hasn’t kept up with the account’s obligations for the past five years.

“We are seeing less and less (revenue) available for other commitments,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

Those commitments total $6 million a year, with the yearly bond payment for the DeVos Place construction project accounting for $5 million of that total. Receipts from the 5-percent tax on room tabs have been coming in at a little more than $5 million, leaving the fund with a deficit of about $1 million each year.

“The collections are increasing, but not enough to meet obligations,” said Robert White, county fiscal services director.

The county has committed to fund the zoological society through 2010. Kent also made a five-year commitment to support the new West Michigan Sports Commission at $200,000 a year, and that money is supposed to come from lodging excise tax revenue.

Should commissioners adopt the capital improvements request “as is” this fall, the county’s general fund debt service will rise by roughly $1 million next year to nearly $7.2 million. That debt service would be 4.3 percent of the $167 million general fund targeted for FY08.

“It’s not a burdensome sum. It’s a good, moderate sum,” said White.

In other financial matters, county commissioners approved two bond requests last week and will likely announce a third in a few weeks.

Commissioners authorized $130 million worth of airport revenue bonds for a new parking ramp and other improvements at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. The bonds are for 30 years and the annual payment is expected to range from $7.5 million to $8 million a year, depending on the interest rate. The bonds are expected to be priced on Sept. 12. Airport officials said the payments will come from user fees.

“Everything we do supports the economy of West Michigan,” said James Koslosky, aeronautics director.

Commissioners also gave the Kent Hospital Finance Authority the OK to issue up to $225 million in bonds on behalf of Metropolitan Hospital. Metro plans to use the proceeds to buy a power plant, an MRI system and a topography scanner for its new hospital and to refinance the $135 million bond package it used to build the hospital. The hospital, at Metro Village in Wyoming, opens next month.

“It’s going to be a great addition for our residents,” said Richard Vander Molen, county commission vice chairman.

The county will announce next month that it will issue a $22 million bond package later this year. Proceeds will be used to make capital improvements on the Fuller Avenue campus and to build a new courthouse for the county’s 63rd District Court. A new courthouse allows the county to merge the court’s two current locations under one roof.

An exact site for the new courthouse hasn’t been chosen yet, but it will be built on East Beltline Avenue NE near 5 Mile Road or Knapp Street. The upgrades to the Fuller Avenue campus, including a new animal shelter, and the courthouse construction are expected to cost $21.5 million.     

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