A sustainable future threatened by fees, taxes

May 17, 2010
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The city of Grand Rapids last week scored a hat trick in recognition, in part from unlikely sources. And, in one case, leaders were unaware of the scrutiny.

While the accolades are golden attention-getters for new business development and employee recruitment, it is against a dangerous backdrop of city hall meetings to continue the assault of backdoor assessments and fees, just a week after a historic income tax boost.

Time Inc.’s Special Project of a year-long reporting assignment of the daily trials of Detroit’s attempts at recovery from the Great Recession was given an unexpected twist with a “Michigan Success Story” focused on Grand Rapids. The May 12 installment by Senior Editor Alex Taylor III began with what is common comment on the west side: “It is not the kind of view you expect these days in downtrodden Michigan. From this rooftop plaza on the 17th floor of Bridgewater Place, evidence of urban renewal spreads in every direction. ”

The second paragraph would be completely unexpected: “This is Grand Rapids … in western Michigan with a redevelopment plan that has lessons for other cities looking to engineer new growth after the decline of old-economy industries.”

For business and economic development leaders who continue their struggle to separate Grand Rapids from the “Michigan factor” that disables many attempts at recruitment, the story provided a big break — and perhaps, too, for others in a state suffering the worst of national and international perceptions.

Even as the story made it to seemingly every West Michigan iPhone and Facebook page, another notable story underscores the cooperative partnerships rebuilding this community: The prestigious Pure Michigan Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism collaboration was presented to the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau for its statewide collaborative efforts to secure the Religious Conference Management Association’s 2009 conference. (See the story on page 30 for the other local winners.)

But the week was crowned with the announcement that Grand Rapids had been selected as the top mid-size “sustainable city” in the U.S.: It was named the 2010 Siemen’s Sustainable Community Award winner during a recognition event in Houston. Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Englehart was specific in her assessment of the proving ground needed to qualify as a finalist, calling it a “huge project” requiring documentation, statistics and validation for every aspect of the award. The criteria went beyond the city’s well-documented dominance of LEED-certified buildings, and included sustainable measures for fossil fuel consumption reductions and green house gas emissions, public school sustainability efforts, public transportation, waste elimination, renewable energy development, job creation and increased education attainment, among other criteria.

The city commission therefore has evidence that the current predicament causing cash flow issues would not be sustained by a growing community, a Michigan community pulling out of a woeful economic downtown. The bleak picture painted by city staff assumes that past is the future, and demands further fees and service payments on the backs of citizens and business owners. They are charging these fees while acknowledging they are understaffed, therefore putting services they offer in question.

These include fees “that cover the city’s costs” of providing services, but the Business Journal notes that “usual” city costs are far above those “usually” paid by the businesses they propose to tax again.

Such proposals threaten the very sustainability so many have worked so hard to achieve.

City commissioners can’t let city staff leaders muck this up.

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