Work group discusses barriers to consolidation

March 18, 2012
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While Daryl Delabbio gave members of the Community Collaboration Work Group a few examples of successful cooperative efforts, the Kent County administrator and controller also shared a few failed attempts with the panel.

Then he laid out a couple of general realities about collaborations that some might have thought were myths. He said collaborations don’t have to be equal — that it’s OK for one group to get more from a cooperative effort than another. But he emphasized that all collaborations have to be fair to all parties in order to be successful.

Delabbio also said every collaboration may not save money — at least not from the beginning, and he cited the county’s relatively new emergency dispatch center as his example. The center’s creation came from a cooperative agreement the county made with other local governments, but it resulted in Kent County spending about $1 million to start the venture.

He then hit on a point that may make those who believe cooperative efforts are easy to pull off think twice. He said collaborations don’t simply happen. Rather, they are a time-consuming process that often must overcome a number of barriers. He added that before entering into discussions about creating a collaboration, all parties should realize that it might not be successful.

“We are far ahead of anyone in the state,” said Delabbio about the number of collaborations the county has entered into.

Grand Valley State University economics professor Paul Isely also may have opened a few eyes when he pointed out that the main premise behind most mergers — to create efficiencies of scale — doesn’t always work.

“It’s not true for all things,” he said. “Collaboration is making sure that you hit that sweet spot.”

Isely said no one should enter into a cooperative agreement based on information technology. “IT never works. Until the internal system is set, the IT won’t work. IT comes last,” he said.

County Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, who chairs the work group, said people believe that a consolidation always results in a better quality of service, but “there’s no guarantee (of that).”

The county put together the work group, a panel of 13 public officials and private citizens, to suggest areas where local government could share services and save taxpayer dollars. The group is a direct response to One Kent Coalition’s move to merge Kent County with the city of Grand Rapids, an effort that started slightly more than a year ago but has been put on hold temporarily.

The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs said trust is a key element to finalize a cooperative agreement and one that takes time to establish. She said it has taken a year to begin to create that conviction with the 13 counties her economic development organization tries to serve. “But we’re making a lot of progress,” she said. “And we’re looking to see what binds us together in that 13-county region.”

Klohs explained that one barrier The Right Place has to hurdle when it attempts to establish trust with a smaller community is the fear by officials that their locale will lose its identity.

“It’s the big city that’s trying to gobble us up,” she said of a deep concern that has to be overcome. “They watch us like hawks. They watch what we say. They watch what we do.”

Isely said most people fear change at first because they feel they’re going to lose something if they enter into a new agreement. To negate that feeling, Klohs said The Right Place needs to find out what industry is germane to all or most of the 13 counties.

Panel members said trust doesn’t just happen; time is needed to see that collaborations are working. Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said all parties that are involved in a cooperative effort have to believe in something that is bigger than themselves if one is to succeed.

Saalfeld gave members a four-page summary of the major functions and services the county, cities and townships provide and whether those functions and services are mandated by a state law or a local ordinance or are discretionary. He told them to look over the list and decide if there are any areas that possibly could be targets for consolidation, which is the main point of their next meeting.

“Maybe we only do five things. If that’s the case, let’s do five things. In our 13 counties, we’re doing two or three things, not 50 things,” said Klohs.

“Quality-of-life services are important to residents and small businesses,” said City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, who then posed a question that may guide their next discussion. “What do we want life to be like for our residents and small businesses?”

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