Parrish prefers service linkups

August 13, 2010
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Grand Rapids city officials and some private leaders favor consolidating governments, creating a larger metro area that is easier to market and that qualifies for more federal funding.

But Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish reiterated that she prefers merging services and keeping the current boundaries.

Parrish made her comment as the featured speaker at a recent Grand Rapids Rotary Club luncheon, where she reminded those in attendance that it took officials in Louisville a half-century and those in Indianapolis three decades to consolidate with their respective county governments. “So it’s a long process,” she said.

Parrish said the different cultures of similar departments, such as parks and public works, would have to change for the county and the city of Grand Rapids to consolidate. County and city commissioners also would have to see eye-to-eye on almost every issue, especially the fiscal ones, for a full consolidation. Investments would have to be made into computer systems and other communication devices to get everyone on the same page, and tough decisions on how departments would be housed, staffed and managed would have to be made.

In contrast, Parrish said sharing services would reduce government expenses, and could be done much faster if state lawmakers would amend four statutes that make that level of consolidation difficult to pull off. One of those state laws requires that the highest wage be paid when two or more governments enter into an agreement; that means the merger of a service will almost inevitably cost more money for personnel.

“I think the thing that we need to do well at the county is to live within our means. I think that’s an important thing that we need to take to the state,” she said.

Parrish said the most contentious task county commissioners do each year is adopt the general fund budget, which is facing an estimated deficit of $9.5 million for the coming fiscal year. She said board members will wrangle the next few months over spending cuts worth about $7.5 million, as $2 million will be taken from the fund’s reserve to close the gap after the reductions are made.

Parrish said the county won’t dig deeper into the reserve because having a healthy fund balance has helped the county retain its Triple-A bond rating. “We’re saving $400,000 to $500,000 on 20-year bonds because of the Triple-A rating. Keeping a reserve helps maintain the rating instead of spending it down,” she said.

Parrish said she supports the county’s farmland preservation program because the agricultural industry and its related processing businesses account for 114,000 jobs in the county. Parrish played a vital role in convincing the county commission to commit $1 million over three years to provide match money for federal preservation grants that pick up the bulk of the cost to ban commercial development from qualified farms and orchards. Kent County is first in the state and eighth in the nation in apple processing.

“If apples went away so would all those jobs,” she said. “So if you’re wondering why the county is putting money into the program …”

Parrish, only the third woman in county history to chair the commission, said county government was the “invisible layer of government” because most residents interact more often with city and township officials. While she is running unopposed in the November general election, at least four commissioners won’t be returning to the board in January.

Art Tanis and Dean Agee chose not to seek another two-year term. Brandon Dillon is running for state office. And incumbent James Vaughn lost in the primary. When asked why she didn’t throw her hat into the ring for a state seat, Parrish said, “This level of service is where I find myself most suited.”

Right now, the county commission has 11 Republicans and eight Democrats. “There are only a couple of issues that separate us,” said Parrish. Of the board’s current 19 elected members, 17 are male.

“When (Commissioner) Carol Hennessy and I walk down the hall,” she said, “we’re the county’s female caucus.”

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