Parrish reveals top county priorities

January 7, 2011
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Maintaining a balanced operating budget, reviewing land-use issues and possibly making changes to how the county is organized and operates are three of the top priorities this year for newly re-elected Kent County Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish.

She warned commissioners last week that they had a lot of work to do. “We’re all going to have to dig in,” she said.

The county’s $165 million general operating budget for this year is balanced and Parrish wants to see the same outcome for 2012. But the county’s budget will get nearly $7 million of its $11.6 million in revenue sharing from the state this year, as $4.6 million of that total is being taken from its revenue-sharing reserve fund for the final time. And the county will likely need another $11 million from the state next year to keep its services at this year’s level.

What will happen to revenue sharing later this year and next year is anybody’s guess because the state’s operating budget is facing at least a $1.5 billion deficit for 2012.

Parrish, who was unanimously chosen to lead the commission for the second straight year last week, said she will not only keep a close eye on the budget and tax proposal that Gov. Rick Snyder presents to the legislature, she also will take a close look at how the county can further cut its cost of operations in case revenue sharing is reduced or even eliminated.

So far, the new Republican governor has only said that sacrifice must be shared, which may indicate that counties and municipalities will receive fewer dollars from the state in the coming years.

“We will look at how we can save money that doesn’t negatively impact services,” said Parrish. “We did some things on the front end of 2011 that really helped us balance the budget.”

The county’s operating budget is put together each year by County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio and his staff and the county’s department managers. The proposed budget then goes to the Finance Committee for a series of meetings that allows committee members to ask questions and make changes to the plan.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees, long known as a fiscal conservative, will chair the Finance Committee this year. Voorhees let committee members know last week that their first work session will be held Feb. 1, when they will review a report Delabbio recently compiled that lists the services the county is mandated to deliver and the cost to the county for those services. Parrish said one reason the report was put together is to bring the four freshmen commissioners, who were elected in November, up to speed on county spending.

“It will be interesting to see what happens with the new, younger commissioners. They tend to be less patient about the speed at which change takes place. Traditionally, Kent County government adapts very slowly,” said Commissioner Jim Talen, one of two Democrats serving on the nine-member Finance Committee, in an e-mail.

The date for the Finance Committee’s work session is the earliest that such a session has been held in recent memory.

Parrish said she expects land-use issues will be prominently discussed this year, with most of that focus likely to be directed toward the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program. Much of that discussion is apt to center on how much the county will fund future purchases.

For the past two fiscal years, the county has budgeted $275,000 a year to the program. PDR supporters want to see that amount raised in order to leverage larger grants from the federal government and local foundations. But there are commissioners who don’t feel it’s appropriate to spend county tax dollars on the program, especially at a time when developers aren’t buying farmland for commercial purposes.

“Then I think the other thing is going to be how we are organized — our operational structure,” said Parrish of the third expected priority for the county this year.

Key elements of the commission’s organizational structure are its Finance and Legislative committees, which are both governed by the board’s Standing Rules. Nine commissioners are appointed to each committee every year. Some who served on the Legislative Committee last year complained to Parrish that the existing rules kept them from having input into the county’s operational budget because all the budgetary meetings were held with members of the Finance Committee.

That will likely be one issue that a new Standing Rules Subcommittee will look at this year. Parrish will chair the group and will be joined by Commissioners Harold Mast, Roger Morgan, Bill Hirsch, Jim Saalfeld and Talen. County Corporate Counsel Dan Ophoff and Executive Assistant Jim Day also will serve on the subcommittee. The county’s Standing Rules can only be changed during odd-numbered years.

Parrish said another new subcommittee will delve into governance issues regarding the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. She pointed out the current structure of the aeronautics board has been in place since GFIA was a small, local airport named Kent County Airport, and she said a structural change might be in order now, as GFIA has evolved into a growing, regional airport that had a banner revenue and passenger year in 2010.

Another subcommittee will look at possible millage requests. Parrish put Commissioner Dick Vander Molen in charge of that group, and she wants the subcommittee to have its recommendations as to whether the county should go to voters with any requests for next year’s ballot by the start of this year’s fourth quarter. Parrish set that deadline so any requests could be included in the county’s 2012 budget.

“The millage subcommittee will really begin to look at what groups are out there that would like an organized millage and which are appropriate to put on the ballot, or is it even appropriate to put on the ballot. So that subcommittee will be pretty important,” she said. “Everything that group does will affect the budget.”

Talen agreed with Parrish that the ballot measures will be a “significant” topic of discussion this year.

“I’ve heard of groups starting to discuss possible requests for transit, parks, John Ball Zoo, farmland preservation, Grand Rapids Community College and early childhood (abuse) prevention,” he said, “and I’m sure there are others.”

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