GRAND RAPIDS — Under the direction of Chairman Steven Heacock, the Kent County Board of Commission had a breakout year last year, as commissioners dove into previously uncharted waters in 2001.
And they did so with a single-minded purpose: to improve the quality of life for all residents of the county.
Kent County has been named a 2002 Business Journal Newsmaker-of-the-Year nominee — one of only ten to be so honored — because it's not your father's commission anymore.
Looking back to 2001, the year found county commissioners looking decades ahead.
For instance, board members began to deal with urban sprawl issues last year in the sixth most sprawled out area according to a USA Today report. Shortly after, they started work on a farmland preservation program to keep the county's important ag business viable.
Commissioners also agreed last year to buy and set aside a record-setting number of acres for parks, spending more than $12 million on that mission in 2001. They also pledged to work closely with the Grand Valley Metro Council to develop a land-use planning document for the county.
Those four actions alone added up to a major commitment to future developments in the county from a body that isn't required to do such things, as the power and responsibility for zoning and planning falls to townships and cities.
Commissioners also started a vigorous health care program last year. They began working to remove existing racial barriers to medical treatment in the county, responding to studies that showed people of color have less access to physicians than whites.
They also initiated a series of prevention services to provide solutions for families at risk, for children who may be neglected or abused, and for those who are on the verge of falling captive to drugs or alcohol.
The county board also finished a successful building project last year and then started a new one. The new courthouse opened on time and accident-free in September, and ground was broken for a renovated and enlarged home for the sheriff's department.
Throughout 2001, commissioners kept the county's long-term bond rating at the Triple A level, and then they extended the lodging excise tax for 30 years. They agreed to back an $86 million bond package to help build DeVos Place, making their commitment the single largest financial contribution to the $219.5 million convention center building project. With the county's name attached to the bonds, the package sold in days. Not too long ago, the county wanted little to do with the convention business.
But 2001 wasn't all work without recognition for commissioners, as the county won the only Environmental Preferable Purchasing award handed out last year by the National Association of Counties. That honor cited the county for being a smart buyer
Heacock characterized 2001 as a highly productive year for the board. Additionally, he pointed out that the commission took on a large number of major initiatives last year, and he remarked that many were significant departures from the board's usual business agenda.
"Luckily, because of the great people here, we have been able to do that," he said.
But keen observers already knew from the very start that Heacock's intention was to go into these areas. They picked up on that long before his first State-of-the-County address.
It became apparent a change was on the horizon while he was vice chairman under another pacesetting leader, Patrick Malone, and observers correctly credited Heacock with being the catalyst for the county's evolving and transforming agenda.
"I just view all of these things as natural initiatives that Kent County fits in and can provide assistance in an appropriate way," said Heacock. "It's a whole different attitude."
"The county does a lot of things that it doesn't have to do," added Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller, the point man for most of the board's projects.
The bottom line is that Kent County was very active last year in areas it didn't have to be because of its leadership, and because the board places the long-term good of the community ahead of any short-term gain.
"To its credit, the board has made decisions that will not yield immediate results," said Heacock, who offered the prevention and urban sprawl initiatives as examples. "But (these) will have long-lasting impact on the county and its citizens."
"This board has been unique as far as not looking for an immediate payback," said Delabbio, "but they look at the long-term benefit to the citizens and the long-term quality of life for generations to come, long after a Heacock or a Delabbio are around."