State seems to back consolidation effort

July 22, 2011
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(Editor’s note: First in a series examining One Kent Coalition’s merger proposal for Kent County and Grand Rapids.)

The One Kent Coalition generally plans to submit its legislation that would merge the governments of Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids to the Michigan Legislature in September — a timetable that most county and city officials have said is too soon, following a process that has been too rushed.

But the spokesman for One Kent told the Business Journal last week that his group doesn’t really have a schedule. Local attorney Nyal Deems said Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders at first wanted the coalition to have its consolidation bill submitted in March.

“We were trying to do that, but we couldn’t get enough input from the governor to meet the deadline,” Deems said.

When One Kent couldn’t make that due date, Lansing asked the coalition to have it before them in June. “(Then) they said, ‘Give it to us in the fall,’” said Deems, who added that One Kent is playing the September deadline by ear.

It’s easy to understand why Lansing wants it submitted then. Snyder has promised that he will address consolidation for both school districts and governmental units when the legislature returns after Labor Day, and having legislation that would potentially merge the state’s second-largest city with the county would give him a strong point for his talk.

Deems said Snyder and state House and Senate leaders have told the coalition they would entertain the idea of passing the bill, and he said they were more open to doing that than the previous governor and a Democratic-controlled House were.

“It’s a good idea to get it on the table and passed in 2011,” said Deems, a former mayor of East Grand Rapids and one of the key founders of the Grand Valley Metro Council, a 35-member coalition of local governments. Deems said One Kent would like to get its bill on the ballot countywide for the general election in November 2012 because turnout is expected to be high and the coalition wants the measure to appear before as many voters as possible. Deems also said whatever model of consolidation emerges from their effort could serve as a potential template for other mergers across the state.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, has been mentioned as the legislation’s possible sponsor. Reportedly, at least three county commissioners spoke about it with Richardville two weeks ago when he attended the memorial service for former first lady Betty Ford, and said Richardville was considering introducing the bill on One Kent’s behalf. But Deems said they haven’t enlisted Richardville as their sponsor.

“I haven’t talked to him since early January, and I haven’t asked him (to sponsor the bill),” Deems said.

He said it is hard to gauge what the cost would be to consolidate the two governments into one metropolitan unit, but he took a stab at possibly $10 million for a process that would take three years or so to complete. He felt some of that tab could be covered by the cost savings the new government would generate as it combines services and cuts expenses. But he also felt that much of it could come from the state, through the $200 million fund the governor set up for municipalities that collaborate and consolidate.

“We were encouraged to do this, and that (money) would go a long way to pay for the transition cost,” he said.

Deems said One Kent isn’t certain how much money a consolidated government would shave from the combined total budgets of the city and the county, which he said was north of $680 million annually. But he said even if it was just 1 percent, it would be worth the effort.

“If we had 1 percent savings, we’d pick up $8 million. We don’t have to have huge savings,” he said. “All of their efforts (to cut expenses) in the past, which have been in earnest, just hasn’t worked.”

Deems said the city won’t have any money to make street repairs beginning in 2013, and the county is likely to lose another $4 million to $5 million in revenue for its annual operating budget soon, despite the spending cuts both commissions have made for the past decade or so. Deems also said he felt the new metro government would retain the triple-A bond rating that Kent has held for the last 13 years.

The Lansing law office of Dykema Gossett PLLC has drawn up the coalition’s legislation, which is in its second version. Deems estimated that One Kent has received a few hundred thousand dollars of in-kind help for its effort and has invested about $50,000 in cash to get to this point — a place he said the private sector supports even if the public sector doesn’t.

“If the process isn’t right,” said Deems, “we need to move on to the substance.”

Next: Why merge Grand Rapids and the county instead of the county’s six major cities, and the local political backlash to merging.

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