Economic Development, Government, and Law

One Kent Coalition contemplates its next step

March 15, 2013
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The One Kent Coalition pledged to park its proposal until the Kent County Collaboration Work Group finished its effort, and it has kept that promise.

The work group met for more than a year and recently reviewed a draft of its report. That report is set to be finalized this week. Then it goes to the county’s Collaboration and Cooperation Subcommittee before making a final stop at the county commission. A press conference also is being planned to announce the findings.

But as far as the coalition is concerned, spokesman Nyal Deems told the Business Journal that nothing has changed since the organization made the decision in October 2011 to put its effort to consolidate the city of Grand Rapids with Kent County on hold.

“No, I don’t think anything has. I think, as one of our members stated, everybody can keep marching forward on their own track, while the city and the county were going to have some kind of committee to tell us the same thing,” said Deems, a past mayor of East Grand Rapids and a partner who practices real estate law at Varnum.

“We were suggesting something more cohesive and complete needed to be done to make the government more efficient, effective, and to project itself better,” he added.

“The suggestion was we won’t turn the engine off; we’ll just park while we give them time to do whatever they were going to do. We put forth one idea as an approach and we’ll see what their alternative is.”

In early 2011, the coalition publicly acknowledged it was drafting legislation to present to state lawmakers that called for the consolidation of Grand Rapids and Kent County into a new metropolitan government. The Legislature can approve such a request through Article VII of the state’s constitution. Once the law was in place, the coalition planned to put the merger question on a countywide ballot and let voters decide the outcome.

One Kent had hoped to get the measure in front of voters last November, but didn’t proceed with that action because of the commitment it made to the county’s work group.

One Kent chose to merge Grand Rapids and the county — two governments that don’t provide identical services — because their budgets are the two largest in the county and the coalition felt that is where the most taxpayer savings would be found. One Kent reported the combined budgets of Grand Rapids and the county made up about three-quarters of all the public sector’s expenditures in the county.

The coalition actually began discussing its proposal in fall 2009, well before it went public with the plan at a Kent County Commission meeting in February 2011, which is when the coalition’s membership was reported as 22 former public officials and private citizens.

Deems said the group’s members are actually five times that number, which has grown on a regular basis. He said the membership had this “unfortunate image” that it was just a few people who were trying to direct something. In reality, he said, there are more than 100 who are interested in the idea.

“People stop me at the grocery store and at my kids’ ballgames and ask me how it’s doing, and they let me know that they’re interested,” he said. “I think the most recent occasion was two nights ago at the grocery store. Somebody I know said, ‘You’ve got to let me know what’s happening so we can become involved.’ I had a call yesterday from somebody who had showed interest earlier. So I can’t tell you how many we have, but obviously the idea struck enough people that, a year later, they’re still interested and asking about it.”

The draft version of the work group’s report concluded that local governments have done a lot of collaborating and it encourages a continuation of those efforts. The report also said it could not recommend that Grand Rapids and the county be merged into a new metropolitan government.

Although Deems said he hadn’t seen a copy of the report, he did say its reported findings didn’t surprise him. “I think they pretty much announced that it was an idea to do more collaborative efforts — which, as near as I can know from what they have said, is they’re already doing those. And I think the report says we should do more of that, and that solves everything,” he said.

“So I think, really, their study effort took what they initially said, and a year later they produced a result that says what they said it would produce at the beginning.”

As for the coalition’s next step, Deems said that was still to be determined. “We don’t have a plan to do something on a certain date. They’ll issue a report, whatever it is, and that will probably be an impetus for us to say, ‘OK, what is it?’ Do we still think there is merit, cause, reason, time and energy to go forth with the effort we were proposing? And we’ll discuss that and decide whether or not to do it.”

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