Open the doors, and let them in

September 23, 2008
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The West Michigan Regional Policy Conference kicked off last week with no shortage of consternation in the business community about Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s decision to head to Japan for a trade mission instead of showing up for the first-time GR event.

Talk of the governor's "snub" was only topped by early Thursday morning speculation that Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, would make an appearance at the conference. The pair stayed overnight in Grand Rapids after a town hall meeting with party faithful Wednesday night.

Chamber President and CEO Jeanne Englehart said McCain's schedule was likely too tight to fit an appearance with the largely GOP contingent of attendees.

"This conference is about policy, not politics" she emphasized, adding compliments to those making presentations. "I am really very impressed with how much people put into these presentations. The depth of the programs is awesome."

Putting out fires

Enough with the Band-Aids already, it’s time for some major surgery.

That pretty much was the cry that came from local business people after they listened to three panelists and a moderator speak about the need for government change for roughly 90 minutes at the conference.

“What I’d like to talk about is a clear lack of leadership. What I’ve been hearing from the state is they don’t want me here. It’s frustrating to me,” said Sam Cummings, a developer and managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investments.

“What it may come to is that we may have to demand a ballot proposal that says we have a right to economic prosperity. Eliminating (Public Act) 312 (of 1969) may put out a small fire, but we’ve got a bonfire going,” he added.

Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce CEO Bill Bowling also called for a transfusion at the state level — namely replacing the Michigan Business Tax with something else, and soon.

“If somebody doesn’t start something somewhere, we’ll be in the same position that we are in today five years from now — but worse,” he said.

No offense, but …

Municipal Financial Consultants President Louis Schimmel told the audience at the same session that what he had to say would probably offend everyone in the room. He likely didn’t accomplish that goal. But Schimmel might have sent a few shivers down the spines of city officials and developers when he said he thought that tax-increment financing authorities were bad.

His comment, though, may turn into a source of inspiration for Kent County officials, who might be inclined to bronze and post his words on a plaque to be hung in the lobby of the county building.

Schimmel’s reason for disliking TIFAs, like SmartZones, corridor improvement districts, and downtown development authorities, is that they divert tax revenue from a city’s general fund and leave fewer dollars to support basic services like police and fire.

“TIFAs have to be used very sparingly and can be a disaster to local communities,” said Schimmel, who was a panelist for the session and is affiliated with the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy in Midland.

Fighting with dull knives

Another panelist was Michael Shea, a partner in Government Strategies LLC, who is widely considered a leading expert on the merging of communities. He played a key role in the 2000 merger of the Louisville city and Jefferson County governments, and he shared a few insights on how he accomplished that, like making sure the business community was fully on board with the merger before going forward.

Shea, however, may have made his strongest point by noting what not to merge — school systems. “It’s a horrible fight with dull knives. Talking about merging schools is kryptonite. In a discussion of mergers, it’s the least likely,” he said.

Limited options

Much of the discussion at the government session focused on lowering the cost of running a unit, like setting a benchmark for pay and fringe benefits and eliminating state laws that make consolidation of services too expensive for local governments.

Schimmel, though, reminded the audience that the public sector doesn’t have as many options as private companies. “Municipalities can’t go out of business and they can’t move to China for cheaper labor,” he said.

God’s tax rate

Robert Genetski, a "classical economics" economist from the conservative Heartland Institute in Chicago, won some fans at the conference. Dick Haworth, who was on a panel discussion after Genetski's speech about how to fix the Michigan economy, said Genetski "literally took my presentation."

Genetski got some chuckles of approval in his discourse on taxation, when he pointed out that according to the Old Testament, God's tax rate (actually, a tithe) was only 10 percent. Why don't politicians adhere to that, he wondered?

God knows …

Our Big Three

Getting back to Dick Haworth: He was on the panel with the other two of West Michigan’s “Big Three" office furniture makers, Jim Hackett of Steelcase and Brian Walker of Herman Miller. Haworth, who hasn't always been on cozy terms with Steelcase (remember the big patent battle of the 1990s?), said he was delighted in a "certain funny way" to be on the panel.

Show of scholarly hands

Thursday’s session at the policy conference on K-12 education, moderated by Compatico executive and former Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, drew a strong contingent of GRPS representatives and politicians, including state Attorney General Mike Cox, Grand Valley State University’s Jean Nagelkirk and former GRPS Superintendent Bert Bleke.

At one point, panelist Frank Fuller of Florida State University — on his way to a joke — asked the audience: “Is anyone in education?” Lots of hands shot up. “Is anyone in business?” Plenty more hands. “Is anyone retired?” Bleke’s hand went up, a sheepish grin crossed his face and he laughed.

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