Collaboration group sets agenda

January 21, 2012
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The new Community Collaboration Work Group recently held its first meeting. The work group was created by Kent County in response to One Kent Coalition’s desire to consolidate the county and city of Grand Rapids into a single metropolitan government.

The group’s mix of public officials and private-sector individuals chose their leaders, set a meeting schedule, went over a list of topics they’ll discuss, and unofficially banned a certain word from being mentioned at the meetings.

“I have found one word to be very divisive and causes people to stop thinking, and that is ‘consolidation,’” said GR City Manager Greg Sundstrom, who suggested that cooperation or collaboration should be used instead. “When we’re done, we’ll insert the word ‘consolidation.’”

Still, County Commission Vice Chairman Dan Koorndyk clearly stated that the reason the work group was formed was due to the consolidation initiative announced by One Kent a year ago. The coalition went public in February by saying it was planning to undertake a legislative push to get measures passed at the state level that would merge the two governments.

“We’d rather do a bottom-up process than a top-down one,” said Koorndyk, in reference to the way the county felt the coalition acted. “Our meetings will be open and posted. We have nothing to hide from anyone.”

County Commissioner Jim Saalfeld and Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss were selected to be the work group’s chairman and vice chairwoman. Saalfeld then gave members their mission: “to identify, evaluate and recommend opportunities for collaboration and consolidation of services.”

Saalfeld said the work group should consider what efforts have worked in the past, what opportunities are available today and what consequences are likely to result from collaborations. “It’s kind of broad and simple. It was done intentionally that way to not hamstring anybody,” he said. “What we’re not going to do is tell a government what to do.”

The group agreed to meet monthly, for now, the first Wednesday of every month, meaning the next get-together is Feb. 1 at 7:30 a.m. At the March 7 meeting, members are expected to get the first of two reports the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research is conducting for the group.

The county hired Upjohn to list the successful collaborations that have taken place locally and what made those agreements work, and then estimate the economic impact that government consolidations have had. A report on the former should be in by the end of next month.

“They’ve identified 15 major projects,” said Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson of Upjohn’s work so far. “One of the themes that will come forward is the trust that people share here.”

The work group members also are likely to learn that the best-intentioned collaborative efforts don’t always get off to a terrific start. The service-sharing agreement entered into by Grand Rapids and Wyoming for a new emergency dispatch center is an example: It was projected to save both cities a collective $1.5 million. But because the service began six months earlier than expected, GR city commissioners recently had to take $426,000 from the contingency account in the general operating budget to partly cover the deficit created by the early start-up. Wyoming threw $118,400 into the same pot.

Grand Rapids CFO Scott Buhrer said the projected savings would still be attained. For Grand Rapids, that should mean $1 million annually, with Wyoming saving the rest.

One of the topics the work group will delve into is how state government affects local units.

“Many people think different levels of government do the same thing, and that’s just not true because of our (state) constitution,” said Saalfeld.

“I also think we have to look at the overarching state government and how that impacts us,” said Grand Rapids Township Supervisor Michael DeVries.

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Rick Baker said members also need to know what the state allows municipalities to do as far collaborations are concerned, and what Lansing prohibits them from doing. They will find out that legislation passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder lifted some of the roadblocks that had stood in the way of sharing services for decades.

“The reforms I have signed into law offer municipal leaders a clear path to common sense collaborations,” said Snyder of the seven bills he signed in December.

City Commissioner James White suggested that when the group issues its final report later this year, the findings should be sent to Lansing. White also said there is a need to keep the public informed about what the group is doing, and a website will be created to do that.

“This could become a template that others might be interested in,” said County Commissioner Michael Wawee.

“I hope that the work that’s done here takes in current unmet needs,” said Martha Gonzalez-Cortez, CEO of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. “I would hope we would keep that in mind.”

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