County to form its own consolidation panel

July 15, 2011
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said a report that had him pulling the city out of talks with the One Kent Coalition about its plans to merge the city’s government with Kent County’s was mistaken. At the same time, the county’s Executive Committee agreed to create an in-house panel to explore what a consolidation of the governments would mean for the county as to its role and finances.

“I think it’s time to flex a little muscle. We don’t normally do that. I think it’s time for us to take the reins,” said Commissioner Roger Morgan.

“I agree,” said Commissioner Carol Hennessy.

To that end, Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish will put together a subcommittee made up of members from the Legislative and Finance committees and bring that proposed panel before the full board. Parrish noted that next April the county will have to go to New York to make its annual case to preserve the county’s triple-A bond ratings. Kent is one of only 54 counties nationwide that has top ratings from two agencies: Standard & Poors and Moody’s Investors Service.

Parrish said the agencies were aware of One Kent’s plan during the county’s last visit in April and asked questions about what the coalition’s legislation would mean for the county’s financial standing. “We need to have the specifics down on what would be a combined budget,” she said. “If this legislation does pass in the fall, we need to have our information in order.”

The Executive Committee also agreed to send a letter to leadership in the state House and Senate and to the governor explaining the county’s position.

“This is moving too fast,” said Ted Vonk, commission vice chairman, of One Kent’s push to get its legislation to combine the governments introduced after Labor Day. “We’ve got one of the finest governments in the country and they want to pull it apart.”

The county also plans to speak with Kent’s state delegation soon to enlist them to talk with their peers in Lansing about why they shouldn’t support the One Kent bill. Reportedly, none of them are interested in introducing the bill on One Kent’s behalf.

“I think that’s a must. Our No. 1 thing is to reach out to them,” said Commissioner Dan Koorndyk.

The Executive Committee knows time is of the essence because a number of them heard last week that Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, said he is seriously considering introducing the legislation from One Kent. Richardville is said to have made that remark while attending the memorial service for Betty Ford last week. Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said when he spoke with Richardville, the state senator wasn’t aware that 19 of the county’s 21 township boards have taken positions opposing the coalition’s bill and that the remaining two are expected to do the same.

“If they rush into the Legislature without getting input from the county, there will be repercussions,” said Saalfeld.

“He’s only getting one side,” added Koorndyk of Richardville.

“The way this has come about isn’t giving us enough time,” said Parrish, who also said that the committee to merge the management of the John Ball Zoo spent 18 months researching the topic before agreeing on a consolidation model.

Parrish and other committee members reiterated that the county is very interested in collaborating with other local governments, as evidenced by a recent report that documents 99 instances of doing that over the past few years. But Parrish echoed what members of the Grand Valley Metro Council said a few weeks ago about One Kent’s action: “This process is making it more difficult for us to work together. Years and years of trust is coming unraveled.”

As for the city leaving the consolidation study group, as the county did earlier this month, Heartwell told the Business Journal that was a misperception. Heartwell said he cancelled the city’s participation in last week’s meeting only, which was scheduled for July 13, because of the memorial service for the former first lady and the funerals of three members of the Emkens family who were allegedly slain by Roderick Dantzler.

“Nyal Deems has interpreted that as we’re all done with that process — far from it,” said Heartwell. Deems is One Kent’s spokesman. “I think it’s very, very important that we meet again and put our heads around what’s next,” the mayor added.

Heartwell said every township, city and county official he has spoken with have told him they are open to having a discussion about consolidating services and governmental units. “But they’re not going to start with a model that’s being forced down their throats. They want to start with a full conversation that begins with the question, why consolidate? What are the advantages? And then build some community dialogue for what may be a year or a year-and-a-half,” he said.

Starting the conversation, though, with “why consolidate” was ruled out-of-order by the group’s former facilitator Steve Crandall at the June 29 meeting, a ruling that led the county to withdraw from the talks. Instead, members of the group were instructed that their only agenda item was to choose a model for consolidation.

“But that’s not how we do things here in this neck of the woods. We all get together and we talk about it and we talk for what seems like, to some, ad infinitum. But at the end of the day, we will craft something that makes more sense and is better than what a small group of people has been able to come up with,” said Heartwell.

Heartwell said each time he has run into a member of the coalition, he has urged them not to go ahead with their plan to have their merger legislation introduced in Lansing until all the local voices are heard. “It will be a terrible mistake. It will set us back in so many ways,” he said.

As just one example of what he meant, Heartwell said if One Kent follows its plan, the city’s ongoing discussions about merging fire services with Wyoming and Kentwood would be disrupted and possibly come to a screeching halt.

“Who is their partner?” Heartwell said of what Wyoming and Kentwood officials would wonder. “Is it Grand Rapids as they know Grand Rapids? Or is the partner at the negotiating table to consolidate fire services some yet unknown mega entity? We’ve got to figure that out.”

The mayor added that he is trying to get last week’s meeting rescheduled for July 26. “The cancellation had everything to do with the funerals and nothing to do with One Kent,” he said.

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