County draws a line in One Kents sand

June 24, 2011
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Last week, Kent County Commissioner Jack Boelema asked the question that has been on the minds of most board members about One Kent Coalition’s plan to merge the county with the city of Grand Rapids: “They’re walking right through us,” said Boelema. “What is their goal?”

Commissioner Dan Koorndyk didn’t believe the consolidation push was about creating governmental efficiencies because One Kent would have presented those figures by now.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said he has read a few post-consolidation reports of mergers between counties and cities that showed the cost of delivering services rose after the units were combined. He said that, so far, One Kent has only spoken in “general platitudes” without providing facts to support its claims. “That has been very frustrating to me,” he said.

Commissioner Roger Morgan added that throughout the process, he felt the coalition has branded the county as not knowing much about what it does. “I think there is a huge disconnect in how they view the county. I think their efforts to engage the county have been very, very unsatisfactory,” he said, adding that he has never felt more disrespected as an elected official. “My opinion is they’re going to move forward regardless of this study group.”

Although the county and city have met the past month with One Kent, their representatives haven’t been allowed to discuss whether a consolidation is even necessary. Instead, they have been told their goal is to choose a model for merging. Commissioner Tom Antor felt the coalition is only giving an “illusion of doing due diligence” through the biweekly meetings set for this summer. “Maybe it’s time to back off,” said Antor.

Two days after Antor made that remark, the commission did exactly that. By a 16-1 vote last Thursday, the board supported a motion by Morgan to suspend the county’s participation in the study group until “a transparent, honest and complete discussion of government services consolidation can occur” and would include other governmental units in the county.

“I don’t think this is a study group; I think this is a rubber-stamp group,” said Morgan.

“There is a lack of transparency here and a lack of thoughtfulness,” said Commissioner Carol Hennessy, who represents the county with Morgan and four other non-county officials in the 21-member study group.

Commission Jim Talen was the lone vote against stepping back from discussions with One Kent. But he made it clear that he didn’t vote against the motion because he favored the direction the coalition is taking. “Walking away makes a one-time statement. But this is going to happen, and maybe we can shape this if we stay at the table,” he said.

“Be careful that we don’t get run over as we take a step back,” cautioned Commissioner Candace Chivis.

“They may not include us at the table, but people will hear about this (decision), and that’s good. Let the red flags go up and let people talk about it,” said Antor.

Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish said she supported the commissioners’ action because the county has a long history of properly doing due diligence. “We need a format and a way to answer questions.”

She also said the county, city and One Kent were to equally share the cost of having Steve Crandell serve as facilitator of the study group, but when the city told her it couldn’t afford to do that, the county also decided not to pick up a portion of that cost, so One Kent is paying him. Crandell is president of Crandell/Partners, a firm that assists with mergers and acquisitions.

“We want to be more genuinely at the table,” said Hennessy. “As it stands, the facilitator is only working for One Kent. We can’t get through the facilitator.”

“This is the single biggest issue that has come before the county,” said Saalfeld. “Members of the One Kent Coalition are representing themselves. We have to have a higher threshold.”

One Kent, a group of private-sector individuals with a few former public officials, reportedly completed its second draft of legislation that would merge the city and the county into a metropolitan government with a 25-member commission headed by a chief executive who would have veto power. The coalition wants to have the bill introduced in Lansing in September and on the ballot for the November 2012 general election, when turnout is expected to be high.

A legal analysis of the bill reported its passage “would have disastrous consequences for Grand Rapids and all of its residents” and concluded that “Grand Rapids will survive in name only.” The analysis went on to report that the city wouldn’t have powers, duties, functions, or property; would no longer be able to provide services; and all the city’s assets, including buildings, cash and equipment, would belong to the new metro government.

The report said all the city’s assets could be used or spent outside of the city’s current boundaries, even though no other municipalities would be included in a merger. The new government could impose the same taxes the city has and could increase both the city’s income and property taxes. The analysis did not mention whether the metro government could extend the city’s income tax throughout the county. All commissions, boards, agencies and departments of the city would cease to exist.

The analysis went on to say: “Once the new law is passed, Grand Rapids may not do anything to inhibit the formation of a metropolitan government under the bill proposed by One Kent. The city could not even file a lawsuit asking the court to determine whether the new law is valid under the Michigan Constitution.”

Just the word “consolidation” has seemingly had an impact at the county since One Kent went public with its merger plan at a county commission meeting in February.

The county is getting ready to form a study committee that would look at possibly consolidating its system of parks with the city’s, an idea that has been informally discussed for at least a year. Parrish cautioned administrators and commissioners last week about using the word “consolidation” to describe what is being done, in light of the attention the word has drawn recently.

“I think we really need to keep these separate in our minds,” she said of the parks study and the study group with the city and One Kent. “Until we have this study, I don’t think we know we are consolidating the parks. We have to be careful how we refer to this.”

Parrish said she hoped the county can create a model for consolidation via the parks effort, if merging the two systems is the direction the findings take the city and county. She promised the process would have public meetings, public agendas and time for public comments before decisions are made.

“I think they understand that this is a study to see what everybody does. We will be the facilitators, but I think we will take everything back to the community committee. This will be an open discussion,” said Mary Swanson, assistant county administrator.

“We haven’t started the study yet. It may show that it doesn’t work to share services. I think we need to take a broad look and put the issue to rest,” she added.

Antor suggested the county should look at forming alliances with cities and townships on making bulk purchases relevant to parks and greenspaces. “But other than that, I don’t see how a consolidation can help us,” he said.

Parrish thought creating a shared online parks-reservation service might create some savings.

“This sounds like a whole different process,” said Commissioner Dick Vander Molen of the parks study. “We’re talking with One Kent, and I don’t have a clue of what we’re talking about. There are so many questions that we need to resolve. This is a two-year process, not a two-month process.”

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