Where should the money go

October 19, 2008
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The debate that members of the Kent County Finance Committee recently had wasn’t really over the amount of general budget funds that were proposed to be spent, a relatively small figure of $28,392.

Instead the discussion centered on what the dollars were being spent on: a full-time, land-use position that would oversee the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program and help educate residents on the need for and benefits of farmland preservation.

But County Commissioner Harold Voorhees didn’t think that was the best use of those tax dollars. In fact, he didn’t feel any public money should be spent to fill the position.

“I believe this kind of position should be funded by non-governmental organizations. I’d rather see this money go to the Renaissance Zone and job creation,” he said.

Voorhees said the county needs to become more involved in creating jobs, and that it wasn’t just up to cities and the state to undertake that task.

“Let the NGOs step to the plate,” he said of funding the position.

Voorhees probably couldn’t have picked a more appropriate, or more inappropriate, time — depending on one’s point of view — to raise the Ren Zone issue, with three zoned properties in the city of Grand Rapids seeking an extension of the nearly tax-free status. All three would bring new jobs into the city.

But the November deadline to get those extensions ratified by the state is rapidly approaching and the County Commission has to approve each one before the applications can be sent to the state. So far, commissioners haven’t taken any action on the requests.

County Commissioner Gary Rolls argued that a Ren Zone designation doesn’t always result in new jobs. He said the county needs an individual who knows how to get the PDR program funded because the ordinance established by commissioners for it doesn’t permit tax dollars to be used to buy development rights.

“So the very least we should do is have someone in place to help us get private dollars (to help buy the rights),” said Rolls, a strong supporter of the PDR program.

County Commissioner Harold Mast joined the debate by noting that using tax dollars to fund the PDR position has the county contributing to economic development because agriculture is the county’s second-largest industry.

“Land is a very, very significant resource, and once it’s gone, it’s gone,” added County Commissioner Jack Boelema.

When the county purchases development rights from a farmer or grower, that property can’t be commercially developed. So far, 758 acres have been preserved under the program, a number well below the 25,000 acres the county hopes to preserve over the program’s first decade.

But County Management Analyst Deborah Kauffman let committee members know that the Agriculture Preservation Board and the land-use educator — the position the general fund dollars would support — has brought more than $1 million into the program from the federal government and over $500,000 from state sources as of last July.

Another $1.8 million has been drawn to the program from private sources such as area foundations, and $125,000 from townships and others such as the Urban Cooperation Board.

Kauffman said the bottom line shows the county has put $80,000 into the PDR program since its inception about five years ago, and that investment has leveraged $3.5 million in contributions.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio pointed out that the county money would fund 60 percent of the land-use educator’s yearly salary and the Kent MSU/Extension would pick up the rest and pay for the benefits.

County commissioners will decide Thursday if and where the tax dollars will be spent.

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