Jail Issue No Bargaining Chip

July 28, 2008
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Mayors in Kent County’s five largest cities have been grandstanding in the 11th hour of a very big, county-wide millage vote to renew funding for the county jail and renovate two old areas of the facility.

There is no doubt the county must see passage of that millage renewal request on the Aug. 5 ballot, which also includes primary election candidate choices. If the millage does not pass, it is equally certain that the county will be forced into the early release of jail inmates.

The mayors of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville and Walker joined together to negotiate elimination of a county fee to each city, a fee charged to jail and house city ordinance violators. For every person charged by cities for a violation of a multitude of local ordinances, the county charges the cities $47.80 per day, though the cost to house that inmate is $74.97.

The mayors very recently decided — collaboratively — that fee is “double dipping,” reasoning that residents pay the countywide tax.

Using the rationale of the mayors, taxpayers could begin a revolt of their own and charge the mayors in any of the cities with “double dipping” for garbage collection and a multitude of other fees the various cities charge their residents.

In reality, there is no rationale for this deliberately ill-timed and ill-willed tantrum. The county board has been meeting with the mayors to hear their request, and even offered to compromise on the issue and reduce the charge to $38.24. Rather than continue the discussion for resolution, the mayors instead chose a form of blackmail, vowing to call on residents to defeat the millage should they not get their way, while at the same time conceding that the county needs the funding of the jail infrastructure and operations.

The wily gang’s spokesperson, Walker Mayor Rob VerHeulen said, “This lack of endorsement does not mean we do not see the need for funding of the jail infrastructure or operations. Rather, it means that we believe that the per-diem should be resolved before the vote is taken.” 

The mayors have even invented a gang slogan: “No For Now.” The mayors also suggest that the county “rushed” to put the millage on the primary election ballot, and cavalierly suggest the county simply schedule another election, presumably after they get their way. But to do so would cost the county $250,000 for a special election. The suggestion shows little regard for financial stewardship.

Kentwood Mayor Richard Root told the county that “the question is clearly about fairness.” The Business Journal sees no fairness in a bully.

Only one thing is sure: The mayors have befuddled voters at a critical juncture. And perhaps the voters have been prompted to think about the issue of “double dipping” as it relates to the cities in which they live.

County Commissioner Dean Agee said it best: “(The millage) is not a bargaining chip.” That is indeed what the mayors have attempted in an outrageous display of lack of leadership. Commissioner David Morren is correct: The millage is about public safety, even while the mayors have made it a political issue.

If the millage is not supported and approved, the mayors should rebuild the jails they tore down to hand off inmates to Kent County.

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