Barriers to government consolidation pinpointed

March 7, 2010
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The merging of local governments into a larger public entity was keenly featured in the State-of-the City address that Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell delivered in January. The mayor said a consolidation effort could range from integrating all the units in Kent County into a single countywide government or involve combining Grand Rapids with Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville and East Grand Rapids.

Heartwell said either version would improve the local economy as a larger city would qualify for more public grants in fields the area currently doesn’t, and would reduce costs. He also said a merger would make other groups sit up and take notice of the new public entity, which could lead to more investments for the area. Plus, the mayor said, consolidation was the best route for the future.

“The most potent thing we could do that would have lasting economic impact on our region would be to consolidate governments. The most important thing we could do to contribute to the restoration of a strong Michigan economy would be to consolidate governments. The greatest gift we could leave for our grandchildren would be a consolidated government,” said Heartwell.

County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish referred to Heartwell’s call for consolidation at a recent work session attended by most county commissioners. “The city would like to consolidate governments; the mayor is calling for that. But what does that mean for townships? What are the benefits?” she asked.

Parrish said any effort to consolidate would have to be done thoughtfully and be moderated by a group capable of looking out for everyone’s interest. She ruled out the county and Grand Rapids from filling that role. She also said the Grand Valley Metro Council, a regional organization of 35 governments, at first appears to be the logical choice to moderate such an effort. She wasn’t sure, though, if the council was up to the job — at least not until it redefines its purpose, something the council is reportedly doing.

Parrish also wondered what consolidation would look like and how long it would take to provide the cost savings and efficiencies that are linked to such an action. She pointed out that it took the city of Indianapolis and Marion County 40 years to consolidate governments, and the area’s police and fire units are just beginning to merge.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said a handful of important issues stand in the way of consolidation and are the same matters that affect the sharing of services among governments. These range from some that are relatively easier to fix, like having every unit in the county change over to the same hardware and software platforms, to some that are much more difficult, such as getting two 1967 state statutes amended. “That’s been a barrier; a significant barrier,” he said.

But Delabbio said quite possibly the biggest roadblock to any government merger is the existing political culture. He said there are cultural differences between organizations within a municipality and between municipalities. Delabbio said the latter cultural distinction is marked by Michigan being known as a strong “home rule” state. He said that translates into a “don’t tell me what to do” attitude between governmental units that can stop a consolidation or a collaboration in its tracks.

An example of that external cultural gap would be individual members of the Metro Council refusing to adopt the planning and zoning guidelines for their respective communities after the same members approved the same standards for the region.

Still, Parrish appointed eight commissioners to the Government Cooperation and Consolidation of Services Subcommittee to look into the matter further. Commissioners Ted Vonk and Dean Agee will co-chair that subcommittee. They will be joined by Brandon Dillon, Carol Hennessy, Kevin Hickey, Gary Rolls, Jim Talen and Harold Voorhees.

Commissioner Stan Ponstein offered a different take on Heartwell’s consolidation call. He said the mayor highlighted it because he felt Grand Rapids is incapable of solving its budget problems on its own. As a contrast, he said the county is capable of finding cost savings and efficiencies by itself.

“What we have is a revenue problem,” said Ponstein. “This is a very efficient county. What we have is a money problem, which isn’t self-inflicted.”

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