Dont Politicize Seek Compromise

August 12, 2008
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The primary election last week provided an overwhelming vote of confidence for the Kent County Board of Commissioners. Voters approved the renewal of the millage for the county jail, supported the tenure of Sheriff Larry Stelma as the Republican candidate for re-election in November, and gave Kent County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roger Morgan 70 percent of the third district vote to stay his leadership.

Leadership will be necessary as Morgan returns to the negotiating table with five city mayors who actively campaigned to defeat the jail millage because the county did not meet their demands to waive certain jail fees charged to cities. That said, much weightier decisions — and compromises — must be discussed.

That is not to say Morgan must sit with the mayors; he need not do so, especially considering the wide margin of victory given him last week. But true leaders work to build consensus on issues, and Morgan is that kind of leader.

Though the Business Journal suspected there might be more to the matter than the mayors conveyed, speculation would only have further clouded the decision necessary for the jail millage renewal. The real issue is the county’s refusal to budge off a decision made a year ago to limit participation in tax abatements for downtown development authorities. The jail millage and related fees became a back-door attempt by the mayors to punish the county board.

It is long past time for this generally respected group of community leaders to sit together with county commissioners and discuss a crucial piece of economic development — and future tax gains. The reductions in state revenue sharing to county (and city) governments have sparked such discussion across the state. It is the No. 1 tool used by economic development teams to build and rebuild communities. There is no doubt of the value of tax abatements, as was the case last week as Priceline.com decided to open a call center in Wyoming. The company won almost $5 million in state and local tax abatements and incentives. It has already begun hiring for the eventual 424 new jobs.

Jail fees charged to cities pale in comparison to the issue of tax capture by DDAs. Morgan comments in a story on page 1, “It doesn’t make any sense to me that (the cities) DDAs are capturing dedicated and voter-approved millage. I don’t think when people vote for a detention millage that they would actually care for the cities to capture that money.”

This might surely become a chicken-and-egg argument, and it serves all of West Michigan to discuss the pros and cons of county limitations on tax abatements, as well as the evidence built on the success of those abatements to lure new investment, and the resulting increase in tax base ultimately also serving the county. It is debatable as to whether the county afforded mayors and economic developers that opportunity when setting its policy last year.

Rather than spin the wheels of time on the lesser issue of fees, it is indeed time for the county to seek input on its decision to limit participation in abatements, and open the door to compromise on no less an issue than West Michigan’s continued economic growth.

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