County to decide on new partnership and collaboration

April 9, 2012
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Kent County commissioners will decide this week whether the county will join the West Michigan Economic Partnership, whether the county will enter into a new collaborative effort with the city of Grand Rapids, and whether a key county Health Department program will go forward.

But commissioners will not decide, as they initially were scheduled to do, whether a change to an internal policy on employee business expenses will be made. The county’s Finance Committee temporarily set the matter aside last week.

The issue, which came up during an Executive Committee meeting in February, revolves around mileage reimbursements for commissioners.

At that meeting, Commissioner Jim Talen told the committee he had submitted a reimbursement request for miles driven to and from his home to county meetings, which wasn’t covered under the county’s policy. He said his home serves as his office and the travel costs he incurs on county business should be picked up by the county. It was decided then that the county’s policy should be amended and be sent to the Finance Committee for its recommendation.

But it didn’t get very far at the committee last week. In fact, the amended policy raised more questions than answers.

“Why are we doing this? I can go to Cedar Springs, which is halfway around the world, and not get reimbursed. I’d like to see some documentation on this,” said Commissioner Dick Vander Molen.

“I’d like to know if this policy was being abused. I’d like to get some clarification on this,” said Roger Morgan.

“There was no misuse. There was no abuse,” said Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, who attended the February meeting. “We just needed to have the policy clarified.”

The amended version, however, didn’t satisfy Talen because reimbursements for commissioners would only apply to out-of-county travel, and the change he requested was for all travel for county business. “I continue to be baffled by this,” he said, adding that business travel is an expense most employers cover.

Talen suggested that the amended policy be sent back for revision, and Vander Molen moved to have the vote postponed, which the committee agreed to do.

“We will move that back and have staff bring that back to us,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees, who chairs the committee.

One issue the commission isn’t likely to send back is whether to join the West Michigan Economic Partnership, a new economic development partnership that wants eight local governments in Kent and Muskegon counties to join. Establishing WMEP would allow communities to offer incentives to companies that locate on properties served by two modes of transportation, such as the parcels around the county-owned Gerald R. Ford International Airport. The Finance Committee has already recommended that the board approve the county’s membership.

The committee also recommended that commissioners approve a new agreement with Grand Rapids in which the city’s engineering department will perform survey work for the county. The year-long contract will cost the county $15,000 and is allowed under the state’s Municipal Partnership Act that became law last year.

The county’s part-time surveyor is retiring, and Kent paid $19,000 for his annual service on a contractual basis. “But he was doing much more than that,” said Jon Denhof, county purchasing director. The city ratified the deal last month.

Commissioners are also likely to accept a $485,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Community that would go toward the county’s funding portion of the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, which the county’s Health Department operates.

The program provides services to first-time, low-income African-American and Hispanic mothers. It seeks to improve the health of the mothers and their children and the mothers’ education and employment skills, increase their support from families and friends, and make their homes safer.

“This is an amazing program in terms of money invested versus cost savings later,” said Talen.

“I’m very impressed with this program,” said Commissioner Jack Boelema.

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