Going to be a revolution

February 14, 2010
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The Grand Valley Metro Council, a regional authority made up of 35 county, city and township governments, has decided it’s had enough and it isn’t going to take it anymore.

Kent County has jumped on that fed-up bandwagon, too.

“This is the time to push back,” said Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, who chairs the GVMC legislative committee.

Council members began that push by unanimously passing a resolution that would require the state’s governor and lawmakers to follow the Michigan Constitution on an issue that has long been a financial thorn in their budgets: unfunded mandates.

These are directives from Lansing that require local governments to undertake something that is costly without providing the money to do so. The mandates may be for new actions, but some have normally been for duties the state once covered.

In both cases, funding either isn’t included at all or not enough, and local governments have had to add the cost of the mandates to their expenses sheets. They’ve often had to cut spending in areas more suited to their basic operations to accommodate those costs or had to dig into their reserve accounts. Combine those mandates with less revenue sharing from the state, and local government officials have consistently said they find themselves in a financial pickle.

The Metro Council resolution cited the Headlee Amendment to the constitution as its basis. The 1978 revision requires the state to fully fund mandates that it imposes on county and municipal government. “The state is hereby prohibited from reducing the state financed proportion of the necessary costs of any existing activity or service required of units of local government by state law,” reads the amendment.

The amendment goes on to say that any new service mandated by the state must not raise costs for local governments.

The council’s resolution also cited the Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates that met last year. LCSM analyzed how Lansing has usually responded to the amendment and came to the conclusion in December that state government has consistently failed to comply with it since voters approved it 32 years ago.

GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula said he doesn’t usually favor sending resolutions to Lansing, but he called this one an exception. He said it was time to tell the governor and legislators to start following Headlee and to stop issuing unfunded mandates.

John Helmholdt, a spokesperson for Grand Rapids Public Schools who represents the city on the council, said not adhering to the law not only violates the constitution but also breaches citizens’ rights.

“Clearly, Lansing is broken, structurally and fundamentally,” he said.

Helmholdt also criticized the local media for not doing more reporting in this area and putting subsequent pressure on the governor and lawmakers.

“How come there’s no outcry from the media that our constitution is being violated?” he asked.

Kent County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said his board has been dealing with this issue for years, so last week, the county’s legislative committee and county commission adopted the council’s resolution as its own.

County Commissioner Stan Ponstein recently pointed out that the state was balancing its general fund on the backs of counties and municipalities by issuing unfunded mandates. He said the state has put a $2.2 billion fiscal burden on the backs of local governments and called for counties to become more involved with financial matters coming from Lansing.

Gaines Township Supervisor Don Hilton said the focus on these state directives mainly has been on the cost perspective. But he also said many were simply foolish decisions that local governments were forced to carry out.

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