Group criticizes One Kent merger plan

June 17, 2011
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Although frustration wasn’t on the agenda last week, a lot of emotional irritation and basic distrust were present at the second get-together of the study group that is delving into the plan put forth by the One Kent Coalition to merge Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids into a municipal government.

Kent County Commissioners Carol Hennessy and Roger Morgan felt the group’s assigned mission — to determine what consolidation model should be followed — was premature. They said the key point should be whether a consolidation should go forward in the first place.

But that discussion never came about because Steve Crandall, the group’s facilitator hired by One Kent, the city and the county, didn’t allow it. He said deciding whether a merger was a good idea or not wasn’t part of their task.

“I don’t know if this group can change the assignment,” said Crandall, president of Crandall/Partners, a firm that assists with mergers and acquisitions. He also said the work the group was doing was largely an “academic exercise.”

Most others disagreed with Crandall’s ruling and definition of their purpose.

“I think the county commissioners are raising a good question. They need to see how services would work before they can make a decision,” said Mary Alice Williams, former GR city commissioner. “This is not an academic exercise. This is a highly charged political project.”

Morgan said he hasn’t received enough information from One Kent that would answer some of the key questions that he and his fellow commissioners have before they can consider backing a consolidation with the city. Morgan said the county has to know how such a merger would affect its triple-A bond rating, its fund balance and its legacy costs before they can support such a move. “If you can answer those three questions, then we can start talking,” he said to Crandall.

Hennessy told Crandall that the county is well known throughout the state for what it has accomplished through collaborative efforts with other units of governments and didn’t feel that a merger was needed. “If it ain’t broke why fix it? We already are a progressive county,” she said.

GR City Commissioner James White felt One Kent was going at consolidation from the wrong direction; he said a merger can’t take place until services are combined. “You’ve got to do this from the bottom up, and this is from the top down. You’ve got to get your IT systems together, your union contracts together. A lot of things have to come together before governments can consolidate. Otherwise, it will be a mess,” said White.

One Kent wrote draft legislation for consolidation last year that it plans to polish this summer and submit to state lawmakers in September. The coalition has reportedly hired McAlvey, Merchant & Associates, a governmental and political consultant in Lansing, to lobby on its behalf. Rusty Merchant was vice president for public policy and government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce before he joined the firm as a partner in 2007.

One Kent plans to put the consolidation issue on the November 2012 ballot countywide, a move that would bypass city and county commissions. The draft is in its second version.

“The problem that I’m having is the legislation is already written. It is horribly written,” said Bill Cousins, manager of Cascade Township.

“I read the new legislation. I don’t see much difference from the old one. I don’t like it,” said Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt.

“People have already done a year’s worth of work without telling us,” said Williams of the secrecy surrounding the coalition’s effort before becoming public.

The study group is supposed to complete its work by Labor Day, a timeframe that most members felt was unreasonably short. “If we rush things, we’re going to end up with a disaster,” said Harold Hamilton, a GR planning commissioner.

Some also expressed feelings of futility: that it really didn’t matter what conclusion the group arrived at because the consolidation process was in high gear and nothing was going to stop One Kent from going forward.

“I just have the sinking feeling that it doesn’t matter what this study group does. The wheels are already greased,” said Morgan.

David Leonard, an attorney with Spectrum Health and a GR parking commissioner, tried to alleviate that sense of ineffectiveness. “There is nothing baked. This draft legislation is what it is — a draft. I promise you there is no deep, dark conspiracy. But I can see how you have that impression,” he said.

Former Kent County Commission Chairwoman Marge Potter told the group that she had researched other consolidations for One Kent. “In reading that you will know what will save Kent County and Grand Rapids,” she said. Potter added that things are changing and the group’s members are going to be the ones that save this community. “This is one option,” she said. “It’s not the only option.”

Leonard added that he was familiar with the Indianapolis and Marion County merger. He said some good things came from that consolidation, but so did some bad things. “And 40 years later, they are still trying to fix the things that are wrong,” he said.

Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish and GR Mayor George Heartwell helped to select the 21 members that make up the study group, which is to meet again next week and every other week through Labor Day.

One Kent is a coalition of private-sector individuals and former public officials. Leonard, Potter and GVSU Counsel Tom Butcher are members of One Kent and the study group. The trio attended last week’s meeting.

Hamilton said if the legislation goes forward and is approved by voters next year, Grand Rapids would become a city without a central government. He felt the effort should go to consolidating services and not governments. “I find this bill very alarming,” said Hamilton of the draft legislation. “I can’t get my hands around this bill.”

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