Lets play 28 questions

August 19, 2011
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The Kent County subcommittee looking into the proposal by the One Kent Coalition to merge the county’s government with the city of Grand Rapids will meet next week with a contingent of state legislators to discuss the consolidation issue.

Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder have to sign off on the legislation One Kent reportedly wants introduced in Lansing next month in order to get the coalition’s proposal on the November 2012 ballot throughout the county.

The subcommittee, chaired by Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, may ask legislators to delay the proposal’s progress through the House and Senate in order to give the county more time to determine what are the likely benefits and consequences of a metropolitan government, measures that can’t be discovered by examining other mergers in other states because state laws can and do differ. For example, cities in Michigan have fire departments, but counties don’t. In other states, that may not be the case, so consolidating fire departments would be an easy and efficient move.

As part of that “discovery process,” subcommittee members last week came up with 28 questions across four categories that relate to the draft legislation that One Kent has written and that they feel need to be answered. For instance, the draft legislation calls for the merger question to be on the ballot twice — once in the city and once at the county level. So if the proposal does get to the ballot, will Grand Rapids voters be able to vote twice, once as city residents and again as county residents?

“The legislation is not clear on that issue,” said Dan Ophoff, county corporate counsel.

Another question is, how much will the merger cost and who will pay for it? One Kent has estimated that consolidating the two would cost $10 million, and a state fund set up by Snyder would cover most of the cost. But Commissioner Shana Shroll said it would likely cost much more than that because there are a lot of little items One Kent has likely overlooked. For instance, the carpet in the commission chambers has the county’s logo sewn into it and would no longer represent the new government so it would have to be replaced. County IT Director Craig Paull said he is putting together a cost estimate to combine the technology systems and he expects that price tag would reach seven figures on its own.

Another question is — and perhaps it’s the key one for the county: What effect would a new government have on the county’s credit rating?

“I was told by a bond attorney that if this takes place, our triple-A rating would be downgraded, no question,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

“A loss of the credit rating will cost taxpayers $800,000 more a year,” said Commissioner Jim Saalfeld.

“Anybody holding our existing bonds would be affected on the secondary market,” added Steven Duarte, county fiscal service director.

Then there are the tax questions. Would both the county’s and the city’s property taxes be levied, and would the city’s be extended throughout the entire county? Could the city’s income tax be extended to all county residents? Would all the current millages still be assessed?

“I think there is a constitutional issue here,” said Saalfeld.

Then there are the governance questions. “What are the implications of the new government not being an agent of that state? Why does the chief executive have veto power?” asked Commissioner Harold Voorhees.

“Is the timeline the legislation calls for realistic?” asked Commissioner Carol Hennessy.

In addition to looking for answers to those questions and more, the subcommittee is in the process of compiling evaluations of other city-county mergers to determine if those consolidations have reduced costs and improved services. A summary of the findings is expected to be ready when the committee meets with lawmakers next week.

“This is going to be an important piece that we will give to our legislators,” said Koorndyk.

“If this is going to cost the taxpayers money, we need to let them know that,” said Saalfeld.

According to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, 105 mergers between cities and counties have been proposed nationwide since 1902, of which voters have approved 27.

“The point is, it’s not done that often. So what does that tell us?” said Saalfeld. “I’ve been in the business community for 19 years and I can find a lot of business people who will tell you that local government is the easiest to work with. It’s bigger government that creates problems.”

Delabbio said the subcommittee would likely have a legal analysis of the One Kent legislation by the time it meets with lawmakers and he felt the review could answer some of the questions the county has about the proposal. Representatives from the state’s county and township associations will be asked to join legislators at the meeting.

“We need to play offense,” said Delabbio. “We’ve just been playing defense.”

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