Council heading to the state Capitol

April 18, 2009
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Members of the Grand Valley Metro Council’s Legislative Committee will finalize their plan this week for the agency’s first-ever legislative day in Lansing, which is set for May 5.

The event is expected to cost about $2,500 and will feature a luncheon hosted by the Metro Council for state lawmakers who represent the region. In addition, Metro Council members and their guests will take a tour of the Capitol building, see the House and Senate in session, and attend selected committee meetings.

But the event is more than just a field trip for the council, as GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula said his group hopes to accomplish at least two things from their Lansing trip.

One is alleviating the members’ worries over how the condition of the state budget will affect their counties, cities and townships. A dramatic decline in revenue to that budget has council members extremely concerned.

“The same type of problems we’re seeing at the local level, we are seeing at a huge scale with huge impacts at the state level in Lansing,” said Stypula.

The general fund deficit for the state is over $1 billion for the fiscal year, and growing shortfalls are also being reported locally.

Kent County is facing a $5 million deficit for this year, while next year’s general fund recently has been projected at being $15 million short.

After cutting expenses by $3.4 million for its current year general fund, the city of Grand Rapids still expects to end the year $1 million short. The city’s most recent projection pegs the deficit for next year at $8.4 million, and at $16.5 million in 2011.

Both the county and the city rely on revenue-sharing payments from the state, money that is generated by the sales tax. But state lawmakers have captured some of those dollars for the state’s general fund.

Kent County hasn’t received a payment for four years from the statutory pot, its only source of that revenue, but is scheduled to start getting those payments again in 2011. Whether it will remains to be seen. The city still receives the constitutional portion, but its statutory share has been cut to the tune of roughly $10 million a year for the past few years.

“So there will be a lot of conversation back and forth about that. About how we, together, as the state and its political subdivisions located here, are going to tackle that issue and bring jobs and prosperity back to Michigan with maybe some new policies. That’s the No. 1 issue,” he said.

The second front-burner requires changes be made to two state laws passed in 1967 that would make it easier for local municipalities to consolidate services, like police and fire, and lower expenses.

“We have to do that,” Stypula emphasized.

Stypula said language in both acts has to be amended. He said the key change, though, needs to be made to a requirement that demands the highest existing employee pay level be the level of pay when local municipalities agree to share a service. He added the six largest cities in the county are interested in coming together to consolidate some services, which would reduce the administration and delivery costs of those services.

“But, unfortunately, because Grand Rapids has, over an historic period of time, paid their employees higher wages with better benefits, the other communities just simply do not have an incentive to join a consortium that would include Grand Rapids,” said Stypula. “Even though, arguably, the city of Grand Rapids would benefit the most from a sharing of these services by reducing the upper levels of management — one director of public works as opposed to six, those types of things. That’s where you will see the cost savings.”

Stypula said the Metro Council wants lawmakers to change the pay scale from the highest of the consolidating units to an average pay level that would be calculated from the wages of all the municipalities involved in a consolidation effort.

“That issue is a major concern. It has been a top priority of the Metro Council for nearly two years now. We need to continue pushing hard on it. But keep in mind, with term limits, it is difficult for us to communicate the need for this with new legislators,” he said.

“They finally begin to understand what the potential is for doing this. Then by the time we start to get the votes together on the floor and we see things moving, they’re gone and we have to start all over again.”

A proposed constitutional amendment to ban a property’s taxable value from rising in a year that its assessed value falls is also being closely watched by the council’s Legislative Committee. The group is also tracking how the state will fund transportation and transit after the economic stimulus money is spent, along with a Senate bill that would allow for the creation of a county or municipal stormwater utility.

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