Economic Development and Government

Grassroots effort to increase PDR funding fails

County commission adopts general fund budget without changes.

November 22, 2013
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Although the turnout to talk about farmland preservation was down from the previous county commission meeting, the message was the same.

Instead of the 30 who showed up last time, a dozen individuals urged commissioners last week to allocate more than the $25,000 that is in the 2014 general fund budget for the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program.

The comments ranged from how important agriculture is to the local economy to how vital it is to save the land for future generations and how the money in the budget isn’t enough to preserve any acres next year.

“The proposed budget is a step back for farmland preservation,” said Patty Birkholz, a former state representative and senator who lives near Saugatuck.

“I ask you to take a long look at farmland preservation and act in the wisdom of your predecessors,” said Mary Alice Williams, a former Grand Rapids city commissioner.

No one spoke in favor of next year’s PDR allocation at the meeting when the board adopted the general fund without changes by a 15-to-2 vote. Commissioners Stan Ponstein and Jim Talen were the two “no” votes.

“Sometimes I think the process for our budget is really flawed. It’s in the hands of only nine people on the Finance Committee,” said Ponstein.

Ponstein serves on the county’s other standing committee, the Legislative Committee, and said he feels left out of the process because of his committee assignment.

“I think it’s a good process,” countered Commissioner Roger Morgan, a member of the Finance Committee.

“I think this process gives us a chance to come together and do what’s best for the county.”

Commissioners have to agree to reject the entire budget before any spending amendments can be offered, once it’s recommended for adoption by the Finance Committee and comes before the full board.

Commissioner Gary Rolls made a motion to suspend the rules so he could make a second motion to increase PDR funding to this year’s level of $87,000. However, his first motion was defeated by a 10-to-7 vote and he needed a two-thirds majority for it to pass.

“It’s not a perfect document,” said Commissioner David Bulkowski of the budget.

“I’m disappointed in the amount of money that has been budgeted for farmland preservation,” he added.

Commission Vice Chairman Jim Saalfeld said $5.5 million has been spent in the county through the PDR program since its inception in late 2002. He said about $2 million of that total has come from the federal government and $1.9 million from private sources — most notably, local foundations — while $569,000 has come from the county.

Saalfeld reminded commissioners that spending county tax dollars to preserve farmland isn’t in the 11-year-old ordinance, but he felt a committee could be established to find a permanent funding source for the effort.

Commissioner Michael Wawee said farmland preservation has been “the most polarizing subject” he has seen. He noted that he has received threatening e-mails from the program’s supporters, even though he buys food and supplies from local vendors for his businesses.

“I think we need to take a step back,” said Wawee.

The county’s general fund budget is structurally balanced at $161.5 million.

Commissioners also adopted five other budgets that range from $5.7 million to $85.7 million, so total spending for the county next year will be $329.6 million.

The new fiscal year starts Jan. 1.

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