Kent Lobbyists To Get More Active
GRAND RAPIDS — Now that a state budget is in place for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, members of the Kent County Legislative Committee learned a few days earlier that there wouldn’t be much legislating in Lansing until election day passes.
“So, we’re paying our state legislators to campaign,” said Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, chairman of the Legislative Committee.
“Correct,” replied Becky Bechler of Public Affairs Associates, which represents Kent County on legislative matters in the state capitol.
Bechler added that when lawmakers return as a group to Lansing after Nov. 2, the remaining days of this year’s session would be of the lame-duck variety. Because of that situation, which can lead to laws being passed quickly without much debate, she said her firm would keep a close eye on the activity from then until the end of the year.
In the meantime, Bechler said she was working on a list of potential legislation that retiring lawmakers might try to push through before their terms end this year.
And despite losing the battle to stop the property-tax collection date from being moved to summer from winter, which erases revenue sharing to counties for six years, Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio said the county had a good legislative year at the state level on two important issues.
First, Delabbio said, the county and Public Affairs Associates were key in getting the Lodging Excise Tax amended. The amendment allows Kent to continue to collect an across-the-board 5 percent of a visitor’s tab from every hotel and motel.
Had that not passed, he said, the county would have had to collect varying amounts from hotels, with the percentage collected based on the size of the hotel. Besides the confusion that might have caused, the county would have gotten less revenue and would have had a tougher time meeting the DeVos Place bond payments.
Receipts from the tax have dipped the past few years as vacancy rates at hotels have risen.
Delabbio also said getting an amendment attached to the county board legislation was vital. If that hadn’t passed, the number of seats on the Board of Commissioners then would have had to increased its number of districts in 2010 from 19 to 25.
Republican Jerry Kooiman and Democrat Michael Sak, both state representatives from Grand Rapids, introduced the legislation that allows the county to stay at 19 districts.
As for the coming legislative year, Delabbio told committee members there are two issues that the county needs to get involved with: tax-increment financing authorities (TIFA) and emergency medical bills for those incarcerated at the jail.
Legislation proposed by Rep. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, has been passed by the House and Senate, but has been locked up in the Criminal Justice Committee since February. The bill would limit the amount of emergency medical care for which a county would be responsible to $250 per inmate.
“Over the past three years, we have seen medical services at our correctional facility increase from $1.3 million to over $5 million annually. This legislation, if adopted, would certainly go far in helping to contain such costs,” said Delabbio.
As for TIFAs, there are 20 in the county that capture $1.8 million of the property tax total each year. Right now, Kent can only “opt out” as a revenue source when a new Downtown Development Authority springs up or when a current one amends itself.
“Ten years from now, that number could double or triple and affect our general fund,” said Koorndyk of the $1.8 million.
The general fund is expected to bleed $4.2 million in red ink next year.
Delabbio said he would like to see legislation created that would either give a jurisdiction like the county an opportunity to opt out of other TIFAs, or set a time limit on how long a TIFA could exist.
The county administrator felt either proposal would face a harsh go because the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Townships Association, two strong lobbying groups in Lansing, would oppose both.
“But sending a message to all of them, including the legislature, might make everyone think twice before adopting more enabling legislation that impacts county revenues,” said Delabbio.
“TIFA is one we need to go on record with,” said Commissioner Kenneth Kuipers, a member of the Legislative Committee.
Kuipers added that the committee hasn’t been active enough regarding state legislation, but said that he didn’t think the panel should take a position on every issue. Doing that, he said, would harm the county’s credibility.
Commissioner Jack Horton agreed that the committee should get more involved. But that would be a bit hard to do with so many of the bigger issues going to the Finance Committee.
“We’ve had some pretty light agendas the last few months and I’m not sure we’re earning our keep. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” he said.