Metro Council makes structural changes

September 2, 2011
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At their last meeting of the current fiscal year last week, members of the Grand Valley Metro Council approved a 2012 general operating budget, changed the organization’s structure somewhat, and laid out the legislative priorities they hope state lawmakers adopt.

The council’s operating budget has been set and balanced at $2.05 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But as GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula pointed out, it may have to be amended if Congress doesn’t reauthorize transportation funding to its current level, or reduces the amount it returns to the states. The current program expires at the end of this month.

“At this juncture in time, we have no way of knowing where transportation funding is going,” said Stypula, who added that the revenue represents a significant amount of income to GVMC. “It’s more than $1 million. I want you to know the management team is on top of this.”

One of the changes board members made to the council’s structure is that monthly meetings will soon feature a different format. During even-numbered months, like October and December, the meetings will become work sessions with members focusing on a single issue that has importance for the area’s local governments, such as the loss of the personal property tax.

“Out of those discussions, we may have some recommendations,” said Stypula.

It will be business as usual for the council’s meetings in the odd-numbered months. “We’ll kick the tires on that for one year,” he said.

Members also established a limit of four one-year terms for officers, but not without some opposition to the measure.

“I think the Metro Council has been served very well by their officers over the years,” said Michael DeVries, Grand Rapids Township supervisor.

Making this change means the council’s by-laws have to be amended. For that to happen, each member community has to vote on the issue.

“It seems like we’re going through an awful lot of work (to do this),” said George Meek, Plainfield Township supervisor.

The board also established new duties and responsibilities for the Executive, Finance and Legislative committees and added two new ones: Human Resources and Emerging Issues “This is the panel that will look ahead several months for issues to bring up to the work sessions,” said Stypula.

But Kent County Commissioner Carol Hennessy said she saw a possibility for redundancy between the Legislative and Emerging Issues committees, noting that both panels could be looking at the same issue at the same time.

Stypula disagreed, saying that not all emerging issues would be legislative matters. “There will be some overlap, no doubt about it,” he said.

At-large member Tom Fehsenfeld offered a simpler suggestion. “The emerging issues committee could be handled by the board.”

The board agreed on nine state legislative priorities, but two stood out. One is having the Metropolitan Councils Act, Public Act 292 of 1989, amended. The council wants language removed that it feels makes it more difficult for units to share services.

The other is holding local units harmless from revenue loss if the state eliminates the personal property tax, which legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder are poised to do this fall. The council supports a source to replace that revenue so critical services wouldn’t have to be cut or eliminated.

“I’m not certain how this plays out right now,” said Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, who chairs the Legislative Committee.

Root said the governor has captured the big-picture portion of the issue, but he isn’t sure if Snyder’s staff has a grasp on the nuances.

“We would like some constitutional protection,” said Root, like the constitutional portion of state revenue sharing municipalities have. One way to get that protection would be for state lawmakers to approve a statewide ballot measure to raise the sales tax to cover the revenue loss from the PPT.

Walker Mayor Rob VerHeulen wasn’t certain voters would agree to such a tax hike. “I’m not at all sure that would pass,” he said.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said the best tactic to get replacement revenue from legislators is to allow them not to be seen as raising taxes.

At-large member John Helmholdt said the council has to explain the situation to voters because many may not understand the PPT, as they don’t pay it. “I think it’s going to take more than (involving) the state association. I think you’ll have to talk to your local newspapers (to get the word out),” he said.

Stypula tried to put the PPT matter in its current perspective. “As they say in Lansing: When you’ve got the votes, you vote. When you don’t have the votes, you talk. They’re still talking.”

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