Morgan steps down as commission chair

January 3, 2010
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After getting more than 500 resolutions approved the past four years, Kent County Commission Chairman Roger Morgan leaves that post this week.

Chosen as the board’s leader Jan. 3, 2006, and re-elected to the position for the next three years, Morgan declined to seek a fifth year as the county’s top commissioner. His replacement will be selected Tuesday. Vice Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish is being seen as the odds-on favorite to succeed Morgan.

The consensus is that the county accomplished a lot during Morgan’s four-year leadership, the longest in recent history, despite the economic turmoil that began affecting Michigan in late 2001 and worsened each year for the last eight years.

“This is truly an interesting time to be in public service. The world is an increasingly dynamic place. The tyranny of the moment, of course, is the economic crisis and the related fiscal stress that is affecting every unit of government, particularly us at the local level,” said Morgan during a recent address to the local Rotary Club.

“As an elected official, I strive to take the long-term view and seek out policy solutions. I hope that during my tenure as chair, we’ve moved with purpose, proper planning, common sense and consistency around a positive vision for what our community is and can be,” he said.

Cleaning up issues that had been in front of the county for decades and construction projects became a priority under Morgan. Upgrades were made to the Fuller Avenue Campus, including a new animal shelter. Property was purchased in Grand Rapids Township, and a new consolidated courthouse was built for the 63rd District Court.

A new Human Services Complex was built at 121 Franklin St. SE in Grand Rapids. Work began on a new Department of Public Works recycling center, which is going up on the west side of Grand Rapids. A bond package was approved for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport renovation project, which was recently completed. And an overhaul of the jail and juvenile detention center, which gets under way this year, received its clearance and funding with Morgan as chairman.

The creation of the West Michigan Sports Commission, renewals of the corrections and seniors millages, and the launch of the central dispatch authority were other county accomplishments during Morgan’s tenure.

In addition, five mayors had their cities’ per-diem jail fees to the county cut and they began regular meetings on cooperative efforts with the county. County commissioners adopted an economic development policy under Morgan that has led to new tax-sharing agreements with four townships for two corridor improvement districts. Most recently, farmland preservation was awarded county funding for the first time in the program’s seven-year existence.

“Together, we were able to bring closure to many important initiatives begun earlier than my chairmanship. The new DHS facility, for example, was talked about for more than 20 years. The movement for consolidating the 63rd District Court began decades ago. Per-diem charges at the jail for ordinance violators was a disagreement between the county and the cities for nearly 100 years,” said Morgan, who is also CEO of Rockford Ambulance.

During his stint as chairman, Morgan has been an advocate of government cooperation and collaboration, often referring to it as “just plain common sense.” But Morgan also pointed out that the public sector can’t do all the cooperating and collaborating alone.

“If we’re truly going to get serious about regional collaboration, the private sector must take a more robust leadership role,” he said, while suggesting that The Right Place Inc. is the right organization to head up that effort.

“Corporate leadership is key to help government understand how best to act in economically rational ways. Proven business experience is necessary to develop a strategic plan of action that enables government to most effectively harness ‘market forces’ for public purposes,” he added.

Morgan isn’t leaving the county commission. He has a year left to represent the 3rd District, which covers five northern townships, and has said he will run for another two-year term this fall. There is a pretty good chance that Morgan will remain in a leadership post at the county, as he could be selected to chair either the finance or legislative committee.

When Morgan became chairman in 2006, the county’s fund balance was in the black; he leaves the post with the same color shading that account. But the fund balance started dwindling in 2002 and the reserve has been tapped every year since then.

“I’m happy to report we have a fund balance in the black, although when I started, the general-fund balance was approximately $119 million. We spent some of that down deliberately. But we also dipped in to cover budgets and the state’s shifting dates for property-tax collections,” he said.

“Still, through all the volatility of the financial fallout, we’ll likely end the year with a fund balance of $60 million. We’ll take it these days.”

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