City Not enough public input into merger proposal

March 12, 2011
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As it now stands, a ballot measure to decide if Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids should merge into a new metropolitan government can go before voters countywide without approval from either the city or county commissions.

The draft legislation proposed by the One Kent Coalition — a group of private sector individuals and former public officials — calls for the county and city clerks to “submit to the electors” the question of whether the existing governmental units should be consolidated. Nowhere in the draft’s 28 pages is approval needed from either of the elected boards for the merger measure to get on a ballot. Also not required is collecting the signatures of registered voters in the county, as in the standard petitioning process.

What is needed to get the proposition before voters is the passage of the proposed legislation by the state Legislature, which is given the authority to establish a new metropolitan government through Section 27 of Article 7 of the Michigan Constitution.

“I think that’s accurate. It requires legislation at the state level, and the legislation itself would be adequate to put it on the ballot,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

“It’s one of the troublesome things (of the proposal). I like the idea of the concept of the consolidation. I think it’s a very good idea. But like any good idea, details are important, and the details have not yet been clearly worked out and absolutely should require a public process,” he said.

Heartwell said the proposal emerged from previously held discussions and from remarks he made in his 2010 State of the City address regarding consolidation efforts.

“One Kent Coalition has lit a fire under that process and it’s moving along quite rapidly. But I would also say this: I believe it is of critical importance for them to slow it down now, long enough to engage the community in the conversation,” he said.

“People in the city of Grand Rapids and people throughout Kent County need to get talking about it. That’s how we do things here. We don’t have a small private group simply bring an idea forward, get it passed into law and propose it. We talk to each other in Grand Rapids and Kent County, and the talk is always helpful as something positive comes out of the conversation,” the mayor added.

“At this point, it needs to move into the public realm because it’s a very public project when you talk about merging two units of government.”

City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss pointed out that consolidation is a complex and multi-faceted issue that should be driven by facts and a close examination of all the potential effects on the community and its residents. Bliss said she saw the draft legislation just prior to sharing her thoughts with the Business Journal.

“I have significant concerns with the process, proposed timeline and recommendations in the bill. I believe that due diligence and transparency are the hallmarks of good policy. Up until now, this process has been extremely closed with a limited number of individuals involved,” said Bliss.

“I respect the individuals involved with One Kent Coalition; however, they are one of many stakeholders in our community. Public engagement and involvement is vital, especially when there is the potential to drastically change the structure of one’s representation,” she added.

City Commissioner David Schaffer felt there are economies of scale available through merging the two units. But he also said the city has pursued that avenue in the past and would continue to do so in the future. As an example, he pointed to the dispatch agreement the city entered into last year with Wyoming, which saves Grand Rapids $1 million a year and Wyoming $500,000.

“However, money is not the only valuation, bigger is not always better, and being able to express your view and control your community is also important. This plan would dilute the representation and voice of Grand Rapids in their local government,” said Schaffer.

The draft legislation recommends a governing board consisting of 21 members for the new government. Currently, 26 commissioners serve on the city and county commissions, so the city and the county would have to go through a redistricting process to reduce that number. The new unit would be headed by a “chief executive” who would be elected to a four-year term, while other members would serve for two years.

“The sponsors of One Kent have undoubtedly given much to our community and are visionaries for what we can become. My concern is that this level of consolidation and change would sacrifice the rights of the people of Grand Rapids to express power and control their community,” said Schaffer.

City Commissioner Elias Lumpkins told the Business Journal that he doesn’t have enough information about the proposed merger and that he and many of his peers haven’t participated in the process or had any input into it. Lumpkins said he favors the overall concept, but added that more people need to be at the discussion table because he and others have questions about representation in the new metro unit.

“I think there are benefits in terms of having more people, so you’re talking about a larger amount of money in terms of budgets. But you’ve got other problems and complications. So I think we need more people at the table. We’ve got to make the table larger to involve citizens from the cities, as well as the county. So we need more information about it,” he said.

Another part of the draft legislation reads that all outstanding debt and future financial liabilities of both the city and county at the time of consolidation will become the responsibility of the new government. The new government will make the principal and interest payments that are necessary to “satisfy the obligations of a participating city” and “of a participating county,” meaning Grand Rapids and Kent.

The draft calls for these debt payments to be made from existing revenue sources. But with both the county and city receiving less in property-tax revenue and, likely, less from the state in revenue-sharing dollars, a new metro government budget could very well carry a deficit — similar to the shortfalls the city and county have battled with their general funds for much of the past decade.

That stipulation will be a sore point among county officials, as Kent County has a deeper fund balance, or monetary reserve, than the city, so its deeper pockets would likely have to be dug into to cover a new combined shortfall. Also, Kent County has a Triple-A bond rating, partially because of the size of its fund balance. The city, in turn, has a Double-A bond rating and a smaller fund balance.

If the legislation is approved, the new metro government would be exempted from the existing state laws cited by local officials as inhibiting a sharing of services among cities and other municipalities. A new government could repeal previously approved ordinances and would handle the planning functions for the county. A two-thirds vote of the new board would be required to appropriate public dollars and property for private projects. The draft proposal also would restrict the new unit from levying taxes that are outside of those already levied by the county and city.

The One Kent Coalition said it has drafted the legislation as a means to increase jobs, economic activity and sustainability; enhance public safety; seek community-based decision making; and promote a community-wide conversation about creating a local vision for the future.

As of last week, the draft had not been submitted to the Legislature.

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