Economic Development and Government

Grand Rapids moves toward sustainable budget

City manager says 2015 will be a key year.

November 15, 2012
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Grand Rapids moves toward sustainable budget
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Grand Rapids is back on the right track after a few less-than-stellar years, according to City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

Sundstrom told community and business leaders gathered at Thursday’s annual meeting of the Downtown Alliance about the city’s successes and struggles during the past year –– and his expectations for the coming two years.

He said that three years ago the city was facing a financial crisis. At that time, the city had a $33 million operating deficit and since then has laid off 25 percent of its work force.

The tough times are subsiding, however. Sundstrom said that, today, he is feeling bullish about the city’s future, and Grand Rapids has become a better, stronger, more flexible city since 2009.

A $350-million entity, the city is still working to become financially sustainable, particularly in its core operations. Currently, it is reliant on the transformation investment fund, a fund set up to help the city invest in itself and weather the tough times. The money supporting that fund comes from a temporary income tax increase, due to expire in 2015. Before that time, the city has to fully transform from its reliance on that added tax base.

Sundstrom highlighted the many changes the city has already undergone and is still considering to improve operations and services.

A private firm was hired to evaluate the public safety operations, and city officials are currently evaluating the findings from that study. Sundstrom posed the question that the city has asked itself, “What will the future of public safety be?” He acknowledged that the answer may be controversial.

In addition to focusing on public safety and service improvements, city officials are focused on how they can work with surrounding governments, including the cities of Wyoming and Kentwood, as well as Kent County.

Sundstrom highlighted the success of the city’s move to a streamlined recycling program, saying that recycling increased by 80 percent and total tonnage collected decreased by 11 percent. The My GR City Points system also has proven successful, according to Sundstrom. He said that businesses and residents are both benefitting from the program. He did acknowledge that some older community members are struggling with the program’s online move, however.

He said Grand Rapids plans to extend the points program to volunteering, offering points to citizens for participation in organized projects. Sundstrom expects that citizen engagement will increase as a result of the second phase of the points program.

Another new initiative coming to Grand Rapids is a 3-1-1 system. Rather than calling one of many different departments, the city will have two numbers: 9-1-1 and 3-1-1. Residents will be able to call 3-1-1 and speak with an operator, who hopefully will be able to streamline the resolution process for the caller. Sundstrom said if 80 percent of calls could be successfully resolved through the central portal system, it would be a success.

Officials hope that with these new and improved programs, City Hall will be able to operate virtually 24/7, and residents will have more self-service opportunities.

Sundstrom concluded by noting there is still much work to be done, and the city still has an operating deficit. He believes that by 2015 revenues will finally exceed expenditures, and the city will achieve financial sustainability for its core services.

“We want to be the number one entrepreneurial city in the United States,” Sundstrom said. “That is our goal.”

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