Combining police forces would be bold move

May 20, 2012
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Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk and Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma told the county’s Community Collaboration Work Group recently that the departments work well together and do so on a number of different fronts.

“We’ve got a wonderful relationship. It’s unique,” said Belk.

“We have trust,” said Stelma.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, vice chairwoman of the work group, told Belk and Stelma that local governments are expecting to lose more revenue from changes the state is likely to make to the personal property tax, a loss that will come on the heels of Lansing eliminating statutory revenue sharing for cities and townships last year.

“We, most local units, are going to be facing less revenue,” she said. “So what are your thoughts on consolidation?”

Belk said consolidating the city and county departments would be a bold move, and Stelma agreed. Belk added that consolidations can work, but he said not all of these mergers have cut expenses and saved taxpayer dollars. He said the most successful consolidations of law enforcement agencies seem to create an entirely new force rather than combining existing ones under a single roof.

“There are lots of good models, and bad models, too,” said Stelma of consolidations. He said the bad models emerge when people enter a merger with the wrong objective.

Belk said consolidating the city and county forces might not provide the cuts in expenses some are looking for because both agencies have been downsized the past several years. He said those moves already have reduced much of the savings that would have come from a merger, if one would have occurred before the departments got smaller.

Belk also said whichever merger model was chosen would have labor issues to deal with, as the city’s force has seven unions and the county’s has four. Stelma said if all the departments in the county were consolidated into a single unit, dozens of bargaining units would enter into the merger equation. “It will take a lot of political will to say we’re going to do it,” said Stelma.

Stelma said consolidations are often done when one department’s financial situation is so dire that it has to take what is offered, and under that circumstance a merger often doesn’t work well. He said he has heard lots of rumblings that the police departments in Louisville and Indianapolis want to undo those consolidations; and those are, perhaps, the two most-often praised mergers, he added.

Belk said one of the more successful police consolidations took place in King County, Wash., where Seattle is located and where a new police force was created.

“All the hiring was done by the sheriff because they were all employees of the sheriff,” said Belk. But the patrol units wear uniforms of the dozen municipalities they serve, so it appears to local residents that each city has its own force. The King County department has 1,115 employees and a 2012 budget of $145 million.

Belk said city police departments are generally looking for equity in any consolidation. “The chiefs feel there has to be an equitable exchange. There is an effort to keep an equity there.”

Stelma said service levels were usually the biggest concerns for sheriffs. “A different level of service is going to be an obstacle,” he said of any type of partnership. “Every agency is proud of their service level.”

The county created the work group as a response to the One Kent Coalition, which unveiled a legislative effort last year to merge Grand Rapids with Kent County into a new metropolitan government similar to those in Louisville and Indianapolis. The coalition is giving the work group time to finish its investigation into finding ways to collaborate or consolidate services before it continues its effort. The work group plans to file a final report early next year.

“I think it would strain those relationships. If you’re looking at merging departments with one going away, that wouldn’t go over (well). That’s human nature,” said Belk. “I think you’re looking at bold if you’re looking at consolidation.”

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