Muskegon area communities eye shared government services

July 22, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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A year-long study released last week by the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce on the feasibility of shared government services among nine communities there has won praise from some key elected and business leaders.

The Feasibility Study for Municipal Shared Services, also referred to as the Community Service Improvement Plan, was commissioned more than a year ago by the chamber as financial pressure on government increased due to lost revenues from declining property values and decreased revenue sharing, according to Cindy Larsen, chamber president.

She added, however, that those community and business leaders have “been working on and off over the years on this very topic,” which ultimately led to hiring a third-party consultant, Municipal Consulting Services LLC of Ann Arbor.

The study findings and recommendations will be used to help local governments find new ways to lower operating costs, save taxpayers money and provide better services for area residents and businesses, according to the chamber.

The study generated 19 primary recommendations for sharing fire/emergency services, police, public works and inspection services, central services and drinking water production. The study also provides statistical data to help residents understand where and how their tax dollars are being spent.

“We are pleased with the data provided in this important study,” said Michael Hagen, chairman of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber board of directors. “This will provide a foundation for residents and elected officials to gain consensus and take action on important items that impact their communities.”

The study was funded by local businesses and corporate leaders as well as the participating municipalities, which include Montague, Muskegon, North Muskegon, Norton Shores, Roosevelt Park, Whitehall and Fruitport Township.

Muskegon Township and Muskegon Heights did not actively participate, according to the chamber, but they were included in the study and are part of the recommendations. Limited information about their services and costs was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Larsen said the study is “limited” in its scope but a good starting point for local governments to work from. She said the cost of the study was in the range of $25,000 to $30,000.

Businesses entities supporting the study included Alcoa Howmet, Creative Benefit Systems, Eagle Group, Hines Corp., Lorin Industries, Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co., Mercy Health Partners, Nichols Paper & Supply, Northern Machine Tool, Parkland Properties, Port City Group, Quality Tool & Stamping and Sand Products Corp.

Funding for the study also came from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and Harry Knudsen, a local attorney.

“The report is a road map of opportunities that can be used by the communities to become more efficient with their tax base,” said John Workman, co-owner of Eagle Alloy Inc. “It is up to the motivation of the powers that be in the individual communities to move forward. By all appearances, the mayors are anxious to proceed.”

“We are all very pleased with the report,” said Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington. “There were seven communities and, of course, the business community behind it. I think everyone is pleased with the report because it’s a roadmap. It shows us at least 19 services where it is recommended that we can probably get some things done. And the other thing I’m real pleased about is, all the elected officials that have been a part of this are behind it and (are) going to work hard to try to get these things done, one at a time.

“The majority of us have come to the conclusion that we can save taxpayers money by being more cooperative in services,” he added.

Norton Shores Mayor Gary Nelund also endorsed the results of the study, according to the chamber.

“It will be the political will of the individual leaders and community members that will determine if the combining of these services becomes a reality for the benefit of our county’s economy and its citizens,” said Jim Fisher, manager at Louis Padnos Iron and Metal.

The local governments that participated in the study plan to hold a series of town hall meetings so that area residents can get involved in the decision-making process that lies ahead, according to Larsen.

She said the consultant, not being from West Michigan, “did not come in with any preconceived notions or ideas about how this should play out. It’s all based on objective numbers.”

She said one of the first things learned from reading the study is that “there is a tremendous amount of government cooperation going on already in Muskegon County. As a matter of fact, we are leaders in that area.”

She said the cities have been cooperating on some services for as long as 20 years and that the consultant “identified pages of activities where our governments are indeed working together to deliver services.”

A major conclusion of the study is that all Muskegon-area communities join in one common drinking water system.

Noting that it is a “complex issue,” Larsen added that “we do have two water systems and both of them are under capacity, so therefore, this became a focus,” apparently because many people were not aware of that fact.

According to the study, the Muskegon water plant has a capacity of 40 million gallons per day but has a daily average flow of about 9.3 MGD and a peak daily flow of 20.8. The smaller Muskegon Heights water plant has a capacity of 25.2 MGD, with daily average flow of 6.3 and peak daily flow of 14.

Other recommendations range from one suggesting that all or most of the communities join together to form a solid waste authority, that Muskegon Heights contracts with Muskegon or Norton Shores for fire services, and that Montague and Whitehall form a police authority and incrementally combine public works operations.

By getting together to do the study, “we created a team of cities and a township, at this point, who are working as a team to better our area. Not that they haven’t worked together in the past; they have. But through the process of the study, we created a camaraderie that hadn’t existed before. And you need that positive environment to negotiate through some of these very complicated issues, as it relates to delivering government services,” said Larsen.

Warmington said the study shows that “all the low-lying fruit has been pretty much picked in Muskegon County — which is a positive thing. The communities have been working on this all along. We’ve gotten to the point where we know there’s tough decisions that have to be made. We’re getting into the meat of cooperating our services, at this point.”

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