Kent reviews Relationship with GVMC

December 28, 2009
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Although the 2010 Kent County general fund becomes effective Friday, there still remains one matter that may need to be ironed out in the budget.

County commissioners must decide what to do about their membership in the Grand Valley Metro Council, possibly by the end of September, which marks the end of the council’s fiscal year. But they also could take longer to make that decision.

The county has been a full member of the council since its inception in 1990 and has met the organization’s dues requirements every year since then. But members of the county’s Finance Committee balked last month at allocating the $71,000 the county’s administrative budget needs to sign the county up for another full year of council membership, which would run from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.

Finance Committee members didn’t advocate completely leaving GVMC at the Nov. 17 meeting, but a few questioned whether it was worth that much money to remain a member when revenue to the county is declining and jobs are being eliminated, especially considering what they felt the agency had accomplished.

“It really hasn’t done some of the things that it should have done. I’ve sat on the Metro Council and thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’” said Commissioner Richard Vander Molen then.

One difficulty the council has is that its decisions as a regional group on issues such as planning and zoning don’t have to be accepted and enforced by its member communities. Each local government has to separately approve a council decision for it to become an ordinance, and few have.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski also felt the county’s fee to the council, which is based on population, was too high because the county was paying for residents that other members, like the city of Grand Rapids, were also covering through their fees.

So the committee allocated $35,000 to the administrative budget, which is part of the general fund, for council membership. The full commission left it at that amount, which is $36,000 short of the full fee, when they adopted the general fund budget Dec. 15.

“We are full members of the Metro Council through the end of the Metro Council’s fiscal year, which is Sept. 30. After that, the board has budgeted $35,000,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

The dues the county has already paid the council came from the 2009 general fund, which becomes a thing of the fiscal past when the clock strikes midnight on Friday. So the funds for a fully renewed membership on Oct. 1 would have to come from the 2010 general fund, which will begin the year with a roughly $2.9 million deficit. Whether commissioners will reach into the reserve account and allocate the remaining $36,000 in 2010 for another year’s membership isn’t certain.

Delabbio said commissioners could decide to allocate the full amount, ask for a different formula for its membership fee, or just sign on for six months by using the money that has been allocated. The last option would take the county’s membership through March 2011 and then they could put their dues decision off until they adopt the 2011 general fund next December.

It’s certain the new commission chairman, who will be chosen next week, will discuss the issue with GVMC Chairman Jim Buck, also mayor of Grandville. Delabbio said a decision probably wouldn’t be reached until after those discussions are completed and a timeline hasn’t been established yet.

Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said he knew the county was considering either a payment reduction or possibly pulling out. Stypula also said any action the county would take, other than continuing its current membership at the current fee, would likely have a “domino effect” on other members.

The council has been fully aware of the financial difficulties its members continue to confront. Almost every local government is facing an operating deficit for the coming fiscal year, as income and property tax revenues drop and revenue-sharing payments from the state get smaller.

Because of that situation, the council is trying to help those units and, at the same time, make itself more valuable to its members by offering its land-use planning services to its 36 associate communities. “We are going to have to move quickly now to a new model of providing services,” said Stypula.

Since state law makes it difficult for counties, cities and townships to share services like land-use planning, GVMC is willing to make its planning department available to members, and the regional planning agency isn’t prohibited by a Michigan statute from doing so.

“This has to happen very quickly with declining revenues. The idea is to have the Metro Council provide planning services on a regional basis,” said Stypula.

Stypula said the first step to accomplish that is to revive the council’s former city-township cooperation board and start that group off with a clean slate. “We have absolutely no choice but to share those services,” he emphasized.

The council is also in the process of putting together a long-range transportation and transit plan for the metro area that will involve its planning department.

Abed Itani, the group’s transportation director, said he expects that funding for roads and transit services will be down in the coming years, so whatever plan is developed has to be one that is sustainable for at least 25 years. And with sustainability as the goal, that means the land-use planning department has to be part of the process.

“A sustainable transportation system reduces transit costs,” said Itani.

Itani said correctly incorporating land-use planning into the transportation plan would lower commute times and reduce carbon emissions, while giving a boost to economic development efforts in the metro area.

“Reducing emissions will help other industries get permits,” he said.

Itani and GVMC Planning Director Andy Bowman have begun meeting with elected officials to determine their needs, and they will collate all that data into a set of principles that could outline the long-range plan. Their goal is to present their findings by April 2011.

“How do you provide access for your citizens? The building blocks start at the local level,” said Itani.

“We need to lead,” said Stypula, “because we’re not going to see that from Lansing.”

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