Kent board Why pursue consolidation

March 5, 2011
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Kent County Commissioner Stan Ponstein said the effort by the One Kent Coalition to merge the county and the city of Grand Rapids into a new metropolitan government was ill advised and wouldn’t create the efficiencies the group of private citizens and former public officials think it would.

“If we’re going to have Kent County and Grand Rapids running in a cooperative effort, which I’m assuming (includes) fire, parks and everything, and then we leave out the other five cities to run their own departments — that, in itself, doesn’t seem too efficient to me,” said Ponstein of keeping Walker, Wyoming, Grandville, Kentwood and East Grand Rapids out of the equation.

“Everyone always says consolidation saves money on everything. If being big is a word for efficiency, then the most efficient school districts in the state of Michigan should be Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Lansing. And I think if you looked at that, those aren’t the most efficient districts,” added Ponstein, who served on a school board for more than 21 years and on the Grandville City Council for seven years.

Ponstein said another concern he has regarding the proposed consolidation is that county residents will be asked to vote on it, if the One Kent Coalition can convince state lawmakers to approve a bill that would create the basis for a new metropolitan government.

“We’re going to have Kent County citizens vote to join Grand Rapids. Yeah, it would be a great benefit for the city of Grand Rapids. But why would someone that’s living in the district I represent — Grandville and Wyoming — why would they vote their county millage to help support Grand Rapids? Yet, then they’ve got to support their own millage to run their own operations,” said Ponstein.

“I don’t think the political support for that will be there. And I think one thing (the coalition) drastically overlooked is how many townships would be in favor of that.

“Commissioner Antor said it best when he said some of the most efficient governance is at the township level, and I agree with that 100 percent,” he said.

Commissioner Tom Antor, who represents Algoma, Alpine and Sparta townships and the village of Sparta, said, “I am a big believer that the best form of government takes place at the local levels, and bigger is never better when it comes to government entities, in my opinion.”

Commissioner Jim Talen, whose district is northeast Grand Rapids, said there aren’t that many services the county and city both currently provide, so only a few could be rolled into one. Community development, information technology and the park departments could be the easiest consolidation candidates. But he added that the county’s park department has already begun looking into working with the city’s office.

The One Kent Coalition told county commissioners that consolidating the county and the city would lead to more services being offered, either through expanding or renewing some that have been eliminated by recent budget cuts.

Ponstein didn’t agree.

“I don’t know how you would expand services. I’ve always seen in my tenure as an elected official, when we have difficult times financially, we review what is working and what isn’t working. Just because something has been cut in the past doesn’t mean that when the money comes back, that’s the first thing to come back. It was cut because some people thought it wasn’t efficient and there was a better way of doing it. That’s not 100 percent true with every single program, but that’s my gut reaction to that,” he said.

The One Kent Coalition also told county commissioners that merging the two governments would establish a larger Grand Rapids market that would likely draw more economic activity from conventions, sporting events, tourism and the like, and even bring more businesses into the city.

“They stated the reason they need this is when companies come here, Grand Rapids is looked at as this set number, and if we combine Kent County, we would have a greater population and more people would look at the city. I struggle with that because if I’m a business owner and I’m looking for a place to locate, I would hope I would hire smart enough people to realize that ‘Grand Rapids’ is more than just Grand Rapids,” he said.

Antor wasn’t certain what the benefit would be from positioning the city as a larger metro area, and he even felt it could be bit deceptive to do so.

“I am not sure what would be gained by cooking the books, skewing the numbers, to make us look like Detroit or Chicago. To me, this idea has an element of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to try to project Grand Rapids as something it is not,” he said. “The CVB calls Grand Rapids ‘My giant little town’ and that is what I love about our city. Why mess with it?”

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