County may hold town halls on consolidation

September 10, 2011
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Once One Kent Coalition has its bill to merge Kent County with the city of Grand Rapids introduced in Lansing, the county’s consolidation subcommittee is likely to hold a few town-hall-style meetings to inform the public about the legislation. The coalition set September as the month to get the bill to the Legislature.

Members of the subcommittee reviewed the proposed legislation and plan to have a summary of it ready next week so they can share it with the public and get feedback on it from their constituents, who may be voting on the consolidation measure next year.

“It’s a hard issue to explain to people on the street,” said Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, who chairs the subcommittee.

“I think it makes sense to wait until it’s sponsored and introduced,” added Commissioner Shana Shroll of when to hold the meetings.

“We’re going to get the stakeholders of the community involved to talk about this. We could come to this without an agenda and just talk about the issues,” said Commissioner Jim Saalfeld.

The subcommittee’s review of the legislation led to more questions than answers. For instance, the One Kent bill was initially reported to be a statewide model for establishing a metropolitan government. But according to the subcommittee’s interpretation, the legislation appears to be written to only merge the county with Grand Rapids, in that the definitions of a “qualified city and county” reflect the population figures of both governmental units.

“Are we so broke we need it?” asked Koorndyk of the bill’s targets.

“Why would the Legislature make this only applicable to the county?” asked Saalfeld.

Then there is the issue of the legislation’s redistricting committee. The bill calls for the committee to be comprised of the county clerk, treasurer and prosecuting attorney, and the city’s clerk, treasurer and attorney. The three county representatives are elected officials, while the three that would represent the city are appointed to their posts.

“They don’t have to answer to the public, while the county officials do,” said Koorndyk. “Why not put in the (city) comptroller, who is elected, instead of the treasurer?”

Koorndyk also pointed out that the city receives half of the six redistricting seats on the committee in the bill, but only has a third of the population in the county. He said the legislation would eliminate the county’s drain commissioner, while the heads of the Kent District Library and Kent County Road Commission told him their agencies would also go away under an approved bill. Saalfeld said the city’s police department would also be eliminated and the county sheriff would become responsible for patrols within city limits.

The legislation gives the metropolitan government the authority to pay all of the city’s outstanding debt service from the bonds and notes approved by city officials, which the subcommittee claimed could make taxpayers throughout the county financially liable for debt their elected city, county and township officials never authorized. Saalfeld asked whether that provision would violate the state’s Constitution if it became law.

Taxes were another concern for the subcommittee. The legislation’s tax provision generally limits the metropolitan government to taxes that the county and city can levy. But the language isn’t clear on whether the county and city property taxes could be combined into one millage, if both could be levied, or if the city’s taxes, including its income tax, could be extended to residents throughout the new government.

“I would think that is a major question: How does this government get funded?” said Commissioner Harold Mast.

The One Kent legislation creates a 25-member commission to oversee a new metropolitan government. Each commissioner would be elected for four years, and the board would be headed by a chief executive who would have veto power.

“Are they full- or part-time? I’m sure the chief executive would have to be full time,” said Koorndyk. “When I read this, I got a headache. I had my aspirin right next to me.”

The metropolitan government would also have the ability to create a new ordinance for planning and zoning, and those regulations would apply in every city and township in the county. Currently, cities and townships perform those services within their legal jurisdictions and the county isn’t involved in either.

“Well, it’s going to keep the attorneys busy,” said Mast of what may happen if the bill is approved.

“Is there something wrong with what we’re doing now? Should we decentralize and pass on our services?” asked Saalfeld.

Koorndyk said he shared the 36 questions the county had compiled regarding the consolidation effort with Nyal Deems, the spokesman for One Kent. He also said he hoped that the county, One Kent and state legislators could provide answers to those questions and the many additional ones that came from the subcommittee’s review of the legislation. County Controller and Administrator Daryl Delabbio felt county staff could probably answer about 10 percent, adding, “I’m feeling the majority of those questions won’t be able to be answered by anyone.”

Besides having a summary of legislation, the subcommittee also hopes to have an idea of how much it would cost to consolidate some of the county and city services, like the clerk and IT departments, for its meeting next week. The idea is to not only get a handle on how much it would cost to merge the two governments, but also how costly it would be for the county to hire a firm to do all the math.

“If we’re not careful, this could be a very costly venture,” said Mary Swanson, assistant county administrator.

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