2004 The Year Of The Millages

September 12, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County Commissioners agreed to put the fate of a new zoo and wildlife park in the hands of voters next year, but doing that wasn’t as simple as saying “aye.”

Board members approved a special millage to fund construction and support operation of a new $170 million wildlife park and zoo at Leonard Street and Crahen Avenue last week. The request, which will be on either the August or November 2004 ballot, will be for 0.55 mills for 25 years. If voters pass it, property taxes will rise by 5.5 cents for every $1,000 in state equalized value.

The zoo measure, however, will bump up against a number of school millages that are expected to be on ballots in the county throughout next year. So competition for taxpayer dollars was high on the commissioners’ concern list and several said that a ratified zoo vote could cost the schools money, especially during tough economic times.

“How much commitment do we have to our school systems, which are the most important things in our county?” asked Commissioner Paul Mayhue, whose district is in Grand Rapids.

“I think that when we look back at 2004, we will see it as the year of the millage,” said Commissioner Dick Bulkowski, who also represents city residents on the board.

Bulkowski pointed to the results of a recent survey of county residents who reported that they wanted their tax dollars to go to the schools above everything else. He said that up to six school districts were seriously considering holding a millage next year.

“I don’t know a lot of people who are leaving Grand Rapids because it doesn’t have a world-class zoo. But a lot are leaving because of the schools,” said Bulkowski.

Commissioner Kenneth Kuipers added that the county might also force voters to choose between funding the wildlife park or a new emergency central dispatch system. Kuipers said the dispatch system was an essential service, while the wildlife park wasn’t.

Commissioner Jack Horton suggested that if the wildlife park millage passes, perhaps the $3 million the county spends on John Ball Zoo each year could be used to fund the dispatch system. He wondered whether that proposal could become part of the ballot language.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said board members would be the ones who would construct the ballot language, a job that needed to be done by late May for the measure to be on the August ballot.

Prior to the board’s approval last Thursday, the request went to a pair of committees, an unusual move. Both the finance and legislative groups voted to send the matter to the full commission.

“We felt this was an important enough issue that it should go before both committees before it goes to the board,” said Delabbio.

Deputy Administrator Al Vanderberg said the $25 million fund-raising campaign to be conducted by the Zoological Society wouldn’t get started for a while, as the organization didn’t want to compete for gifts with the art museum fund drive going on. The society felt the economy wasn’t strong enough now to support both at the same time. The Meijer Foundation has pledged to match the society’s effort, up to $25 million.

“We do need to develop an agreement between the zoo, the county and the Meijer’s (Foundation),” said Vanderberg.

But Bulkowski wondered where the money would come from if the Zoological Society wasn’t able to reach its fund-raising goal of $25 million, and the Meijer Foundation match is less than $25 million.

“Who is going to pay the difference?” he asked.

Fred and Lena Meijer have also donated the land for the new park, the site of the Grand Rapids Golf Club, adjacent to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

In the end, most commissioners felt voters should have a say on whether the county builds a new wildlife park, which could cost $200 million when inflation is considered.

“I think it’s up to the citizens of Kent County to decide what they want to fund,” said Commissioner Dan Koorndyk. “I think we have a generous gift offered by Fred and Lena Meijer. It’s something that they have to decide.”

“If it doesn’t pass, we still will have a working zoo,” said Commissioner Tom Postmus of John Ball Zoo on the city’s west side. “Not a wildlife park, but a zoo.”           

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