Council went looking for the light

May 8, 2009
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When the fictitious Mr. Smith went to Washington several decades ago, he came away with more from his trip than the members of the Grand Valley Metro Council did when they returned from Lansing last week.

“We arrived at the light and we found the tunnel,” said Kentwood Mayor Richard Root.

Root was one of about 20 Metro Council members who attended the first-ever legislative day held by the organization in the state capital, where they fed the region’s lawmakers lunch in return for the legislators’ full attention.

But the day-long event was unwittingly doomed to not be as rewarding as the council hoped it would be. The day it was held was the same day lawmakers decided to chop $41 million in revenue sharing to municipalities statewide to help balance this year’s version of the state’s general budget, which is about $1.3 billion short of being balanced.

“I believe we are due better,” said Root, who chairs the GVMC Legislative Committee.

Root said Lansing can’t continue to try to balance its spending plan on the back of local communities because these governmental units can’t continue to cut public safety and other core services. He argued that officials in cities, townships, counties and villages have made as many fiscal reductions as they possibly can.

“We’ve run out of options,” he said.

Walker Mayor Rob Ver Heulen said the state’s latest reduction to statutory revenue sharing is especially harmful because municipal officials incorporated those dollars into their annual budgets last year, and for many governments the fiscal year is nearly over.

He said many will end their year June 30 and have precious little time to either find additional revenue to cover the loss or remove an expenditure equal to that funding loss, or both. Ver Heulen said Walker would begin that process this week.

“We need to be talking to our reps and senators about what this is doing to us,” said Don Hilton, supervisor of Gaines Township. He added that continuous cuts by the state to local municipalities would entice even more college students to leave Michigan.

On top of losing more statutory revenue sharing, the same municipalities will be getting fewer dollars from constitutional revenue sharing because sales-tax receipts to the state are down. The 6 percent sales tax is the source for both sharing payments.

Root said the constitutional payment could fall by as much as 20 percent in the near future based on how consumer purchases have dried up during the recession. Before the recession, revenue to the state from the sales tax was about $6.5 billion a year.

GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula had an indication that the council’s long-planned day wouldn’t come off as he and others anticipated it would as soon as he saw the region’s legislative contingent.

“You could see on their faces they didn’t want to confront us after the way they voted,” he said.

Still, Stypula said, at least two good things emerged from the event. One, it cost less than expected. The council spent about $1,400 to pull it off, while the initial estimate was $2,500.

Two, the council got its message across. Stypula said the council didn’t go to Lansing to ask for money, but for tools. The agency wants lawmakers to amend a pair of 1967 state laws that would make it easier for area governments to merge services and shave expenses.

“The state can’t print money. The state can’t sell cars. But they can give us tools, and that’s where we have to put our effort from now on,” said Daryl Delabbio, controller and administrator for Kent County.

Stypula said the council would go back to Lansing next year, but in either February or March instead of May.

“If there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Root, “it’s going to be in West Michigan.”

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