Seven new members: most ever

December 29, 2008
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The single biggest transformation ever to take place on the Kent County Board of Commissioners will happen in early January.

The board will welcome seven new members on Jan. 6, the most since six new commissioners were added in 1997. New county leadership will also be elected that day. 

Later in the year, the Kent County Road Commission will add two more members and a new parks committee will likely be formed.

The seven departing commissioners — six who lost the election and one who is retiring — had a total of 128 years of service on the board; the changing of the guard is a 37 percent turnover of the 19-member commission.

Gone are Commissioners Fritz Wahlfield (34 years on the board), Jack Boelema (24 years), Marvin Hiddema (22 years), Paul Mayhue (18 years), David Morren (14 years), Harold Mast (12 years) and Nadine Klein (4 years). Only Hiddema retired from the board.

“It’s been an honor to serve with the former fellow commissioners,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees, who said he is now the commission’s elder statesman in terms of age, but not length of service.

The newcomers are Thomas Antor, Stan Ponstein, Keith Courtade, Bill Hirsch, Peter Hickey and Bob Synk. They are joined by former Commissioner Jim Talen. All will be sworn in Jan. 6.

The new commission will have eight Democrats and 11 Republicans. It will be less diverse than the previous one. There will be one African-American — James Vaughn — instead of two, and two females — Sandra Frost Parrish and Carol Hennessy — instead of three. White males will hold the 16 other seats.

New commission leadership will also be selected at the Jan. 6 meeting.

Commission Chairman Roger Morgan held the top spot for three years and the county accomplished some major projects during his tenure, capped by a new $27 million Human Services Complex being built on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and a new $9 million courthouse for the 63rd District Court going up in Grand Rapids Township.

On behalf of the commission, Vice Chairman Richard Vander Molen gave Morgan the shovel the county recently used to break ground for the new courthouse.

“You might want to hang this in your barn to remind you of the good job you did,” he told Morgan.

Vander Molen and Commissioner Dean Agee are running for the chairmanship’s post, an election that some have said may be decided by a single vote. Vander Molen was chairman in 1996. But another commissioner could end up with the top spot, as nominations will be accepted before any vote is taken.

Commissioners will expand the Road Commission next year by two members, bringing that board’s total to five seats. A 2006 state law gives counties the authority to take that step. County commissioners agreed to do so because they felt additional members would increase representation on the road board and make it more diverse.

“I think this is a good idea,” said Commissioner Brandon Dillon. “I hope we will still consider some people from the urban areas.”

Parrish said that “the more people that understand how government works is better for us. But it’s up to us to make it diverse.”

When commissioners enlarged the Road Commission, they also dissolved the three-year-old Millennium Park Community Committee.

“I don’t think we’ve done anything the past two years,” said Klein, who served on the committee.

Morgan said the committee didn’t fail; it just became unnecessary after the park’s master plan was completed. In place of that committee, Commissioner Ted Vonk suggested that another one be formed to oversee all 37 parks in the county’s system. Mast said that committee should have representatives from the cities because urban residents regularly use the parks.

“There is clear consensus to do a new committee,” said Agee.

The new commission will be facing some difficult financial situations next year. The general fund is projected to have a $2 million deficit in 2009 and possibly a $10 million shortfall the following year. Commissioners will also face a deficit of $19 million next year across all seven of the county’s funds, including the general fund deficit.

The new board will also have to decide whether to begin the bond process to make the scheduled improvements at the county jail, and whether to give Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Walker, Kentwood and Grandville a 25 percent discount on the per-diem and arrest-processing fees at the jail.

County leaders agreed to the deal with mayors of the cities, but the Finance Committee tabled its vote on the discount until March. Giving the cities the reduced price would cost the county from $525,000 to $600,000 per year.

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