Marathon governing keeps county officials scrambling

December 21, 2009
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Kent County pulled off a double doubleheader last week, possibly setting a new standard for the very mature, but still often-used phrase: Two-fer-Tuesday. That’s because last Tuesday the county held a two-fer Two-Fer, which turned out to be quite a feat for governmental efficiency.

First, two meetings were held on Tuesday. The finance committee meeting was almost immediately followed by the Board of Commission meeting. Second, the county dedicated the day to two different officials at two separate times.

Commission Chairman Roger Morgan proclaimed Tuesday, Dec. 15, Robert White Day. White, the county’s fiscal services director for the past seven years, retired last Friday after 38 years of public service. “He’s all-world, and that’s not in here,” said Morgan as he pointed to his speech.

Then three hours later — yes, it was a long meeting — Commission Vice Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish proclaimed it Roger Morgan Day. Morgan is stepping down as chairman Jan. 5 after holding that post for four years. He will continue to represent the 3rd District and may have at least one more election in his future as he said he planned to be with the county through 2012.

An ill-timed land grab?

Speaking of meetings, residential Realtors and homebuilders gave it the “old college try” last Tuesday when they tried to convince county commissioners not to use tax dollars to fund farmland preservation.

Lisa Posthumus Lyons, director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors, took on the issue of preserving farmland as an economic development issue. “There is no disputing agriculture’s vital contribution to our economy. However, little to no jobs will be created by purchasing development rights, nor does it stimulate further investments in the community,” she said

“While voting for this proposal may be politically correct, I encourage you to be strong and vote NO on this proposal,” added Lyons.

GRAR President John Postema chimed in, “I’m amazed that we would spend public dollars to preserve land. At this time we need to focus on other things in the county.”

Dale Shugars, executive vice president of the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids, gave commissioners an alternative way to spend the $275,000 awarded to the preservation program. He felt the county should use the money to buy and fix up foreclosed homes, an effort that would create jobs and get the houses back on the tax roll. “I would suggest you look at your land bank,” he said. 

Eastbrook Homes CEO Mick McGraw took a practical approach in talking to commissioners. “Farmland is not under siege. I support the use of taxpayer dollars to buy land that everyone can use,” he said, while asking them if they would provide the same type of subsidy for manufacturers. “For me, this is not the right time or the right money.”

Commissioners discussed the issue at great length and ultimately approved the funds.

Lacks helps make the bust

Unlike some advertising, the ad Lacks Enterprises runs in each issue of the Advance newspapers is read very carefully by a lot of people. And it really works — just ask the criminal suspect who called from South Carolina.

It's not an ad for the auto parts Lacks makes for car makers around the world; it's a public service ad with the heading "Wanted" above four different mug shots each week. Next to the photos are the names, descriptions and other information about those individuals, all of whom are wanted on felony warrants and being actively sought by law enforcement agencies in Kent County.

Readers are referred to Silent Observer if they have any knowledge of the whereabouts of the suspects — and quite often, they do, according to Chris Cameron, executive director of the Silent Observer organization in Kent County. Since Lacks' unusual public service ad began appearing in October, tips have led to two of the fugitives being arrested and four others realized their covers were blown and turned themselves in.

"And one guy called from South Carolina, saying he had heard that there was a warrant out for his arrest," said Cameron. She added he claimed he didn't know about it "until he got a phone call about the ad in the paper."

A.J. Ponstein, director of protective services at Lacks, is a member of the Silent Observer board. He and other board members came up with the idea of the ad to help Kent County law enforcement agencies. It costs Lacks Enterprises roughly $200 a week (the Advance Newspapers help too), and it is "money well spent," according to Jim Green, executive director of HR at Lacks.

In addition to Lacks Enterprises, other businesses in the area that support Silent Observer are Amway, AT&T, Coldwell Banker AJS-Schmidt, and Harvey Automotive Group.

Now, was that so hard?

In an item included in the Business Journal’s Dec. 14 Street Talk and following the long-time tradition of breaking news first in this column, there was speculation about what company might be tabbed for Ferris State University’s Kendall College of Art & Design’s $30 million renovation of the Old Federal Building in downtown Grand Rapids.

Despite some indications to the contrary, the firm getting the project wasn’t Rockford Companies, a long-time partner with Ferris on previous building and renovation efforts. Here’s what happened: FSU PR man Marc Sheehan spoke to the Business Journal off the record, and we honored that conversation by turning to sources other than Sheehan in the hunt for facts. That prompted Sheehan to seek his version of “punishing” the Business Journal readers by sharing the “real” information with other local media, finally and publicly revealing the truth about the company involved, as the university awaits legislative action on pending tax credits.

Sheehan has yet to address the Business Journal’s original questions about the tax credits and the “competitive process” in which the Lansing-based The Christman Co. was selected. As it turns out, the news wasn’t all that new, after all.

A search last week on the Web revealed that Ronald Staley, senior vice president at Christman, told others about the project in October. Staley and Thomas Mathison, principal/higher education group at Power Pinkster Titus Associates Inc., were presenters on Oct. 27 at a Bloomington, Ind., conference of the Society for College and University Planning. Their topic: “Creative Funding and Adaptive Reuse of the FSU Federal Building.”

According to the conference brochure, “Attendees will learn about the evolution of this project, inclusion of stakeholders, obstacles, solutions and strategies for repeating this success elsewhere.”

More Web surfing found the renovation on the American Council of Education’s Web list of “shovel-ready” projects for potential American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding.

A view of minutes of various FSU meetings over two years, readily available on its Web site, revealed no information that would have provided the public with any clue about “the evolution of this project.”

The project surely will require cooperation from a variety of community resources in order to receive all the tax credits, ARRA support, donations, city support and whatever else it needs to enable this worthwhile project to come to fruition as quickly as possible. It’s not too much to ask that the public is not left out of the “public-private partnership.”

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