County Not maintaining the status quo

August 5, 2011
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(Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series examining Kent County’s role in One Kent Coalition’s consolidation plan.)

Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish said the criticism that has been leveled at the county for opposing the One Kent Coalition plan to merge the county and the city of Grand Rapids into a single metropolitan government is totally unfounded, as Kent isn’t trying to maintain the status quo.

“I haven’t heard many people on the commission say they don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think there is anybody in the community that doesn’t want us to move forward,” she said.

Parrish said the county has been looking at consolidation efforts for a long time, going back to 1981 when former U.S. Congressman Vern Ehlers was commission chairman and set up a committee to look into merging services. Former Old Kent Bank executive Dick Gillett chaired that panel and the group recommended the creation of the current Kent District Library system in 1983.

The county acted on the committee’s recommendation and the system was created seven years later. Today, KDL has 18 branch libraries in 26 governmental units. Only Grand Rapids, Cedar Springs, the Village of Sparta, and Sparta and Solon townships aren’t in the county’s system.

Parrish said she is looking at doing much the same for parks throughout the county, as she is forming a committee to determine whether it’s feasible for county, city and township parks to be consolidated under a single entity. Parrish has made consolidating services, not governments, her top priority since becoming chairwoman in January 2010. She made that point in a Business Journal interview that month, as well as with commissioners the following March and before the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids last August.

Parrish has said the county can’t support the One Kent plan because it lacks key data on what consolidating would cost and who would pay for it, and because it hasn’t been inclusive enough. 

“They were very clear with me that they were unhappy with the legislation,” said Parrish of the Cascade, Bowne, Lowell and Vergennes townships she represents on the commission. “They want to be involved in the talks. I think they were offended when they were told they wouldn’t be involved. They have a lot of questions about taxes, sewer and water.”

A committee created by Parrish and comprised of Commissioners Carol Hennessy, Harold Mast, Harold Voorhees, Candace Chivis, Jim Saalfeld and Dan Koorndyk met for the first time last week. Parrish wants them to determine how much a consolidation would cost, how it would be paid for, what could be the unintended consequences of merging the two governments and what will happen to the county’s triple-A bond rating if a consolidation occurs.

One Kent has pegged the cost of merging at $10 million, a number Parrish felt was “wildly underestimated.” She said it cost $1 million just to consolidate the 911 dispatch service and 10 personnel had to be added to its staff.

“If you get a faster response rate, it was worth every penny of the $1 million we spent on it,” she said. “But to go at something where we don’t know the cost or the cost benefit, we can’t support.”

One Kent also said much of the cost to pay for consolidation would come from a $200 million pool that Gov. Rick Snyder has set up as a fund to reward collaboration and consolidation efforts. But Parrish questioned that pool as a legitimate revenue source for merging the governments by pointing out the governor created that fund for cities, townships and villages as a way to replace the statutory revenue sharing he ended for those municipalities.

Snyder unveiled that fund, which he called the Economic Vitality Incentive Program, in the Grand Rapids City Commission chambers last March and he indicated then the money was for municipalities without mentioning counties — as statutory revenue sharing was reduced for counties but was not eliminated. Consolidation reportedly would mean the end of Grand Rapids as a city. “Since we’re a county we’re not sure we can get access to that money,” said Parrish.

Parrish also took issue with the 25-member governing body the One Kent legislation would create for the metropolitan government. She said it doesn’t reduce the number of elected officials in the county and added it would make more sense to have a smaller board. “To make a board bigger makes it harder to do things,” she said.

She also said Grand Rapids would likely have less representation on a new metro board than it has now. Currently, the city commission has seven members, including the mayor, and the county commission has eight who represent at least a portion of the city, for a total of 15. A One Kent commission would likely give eight of its 25 seats to the city because the city has roughly one-third of the county’s population, so the city could find itself with about half of the representatives countywide that it has now.

Parrish also wants members of her newly created committee that is looking into the One Kent legislation to meet soon with state lawmakers from the area, as the coalition hopes to have its bill introduced in Lansing next month.

“This is legislation that is going to impact us, like it did in Indianapolis and Louisville, for the next 50 years,” said Parrish. “I think the county has been managed well. People don’t want legislation passed and have the details filled in later. Without the numbers, I don’t know how we can support it.”

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