Local legislators ease countys anxiety a bit

September 2, 2011
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The meeting the Kent County consolidation subcommittee held last week with area state legislators offered county officials some relief regarding the draft legislation One Kent Coalition reportedly proposes to have introduced in Lansing this month, a bill that could lead to the merging of the county and the city of Grand Rapids into a metropolitan government.

“Nobody at this table supports the legislation until we get the answers you’re looking for,” said state Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Township, holding four pages of questions the county has about the potential merger.

“Maybe that’s why they have someone outside of the region to introduce it,” said Jansen of the report that Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, is being mentioned as the leading candidate to get the bill rolling in Lansing. “”That should tell you how we feel about it.”

State Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, said the coalition’s proposal is in the incubator stage and the process to bring it to the floor is a long one. He said if the legislation is introduced and it comes to a committee, he would submit the county’s questions to committee members. But without local support, he didn’t think the legislation would go very far in Lansing.

Hildenbrand also said both chambers have more immediate priorities, such as the second bridge to Canada. But he acknowledged that the One Kent proposal could create as much of a hullabaloo as the bridge bill.

“This could potentially be as controversial as that one,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s not very often that we shove something down somebody’s throat, and this isn’t one of those.”

Hildenbrand raised a few eyebrows when he recalled a meeting that he and other lawmakers had with One Kent before the coalition spoke to county commissioners in February. “At that point, it was part of a four-bill package,” he said, without elaborating. It was the first time county officials heard the coalition’s draft was part of a package.

State Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, indicated the proposed bill wouldn’t get very far in Lansing if it doesn’t provide some cost savings for county taxpayers, a number the coalition hasn’t come up with yet.

State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, said everyone has spoken to her about the One Kent legislation but said she hasn’t received a copy of the proposed bill.

“I’m stunned that you haven’t gotten the legislation,” said County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish.

Lyons’ brother, Brian Posthumus, served as the facilitator for the short-lived One Kent study group from which the county withdrew because it felt the discussion of the consolidation proposal was too limited.

Lyons asked why a representative from the coalition wasn’t at the meeting.

“This is a meeting with our legislators. It’s an open meeting,” said County Commissioner Roger Morgan, indicating that is was open to anyone. But Parrish said One Kent wasn’t invited as a participant.

State Reps. Roy Schmidt and Brandon Dillon, both Grand Rapids Democrats, said they met with One Kent spokesman Nyal Deems earlier this year, and Dillon said he felt the comments Deems made then indicated there wasn’t going to be a lot of open discussion about the legislation.

The county’s consolidation subcommittee wants to know the governance and financial benefits and consequences of the coalition’s legislation by Feb. 1, a few months before county officials make their annual trip to the New York credit ratings agencies to defend Kent’s triple-A credit rating. The county plans to hire at least one consultant to help with that discovery.

“We just want to know what’s going to happen, what the result of this legislation will be,” said County Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, who chairs the subcommittee.

“This is the biggest thing coming down in Kent County,” said County Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, who added that more than 100 constituents have asked him about the proposed legislation with only one telling him he favored it.

County Commissioner Harold Voorhees, also chair of the Finance Committee, told legislators that the city’s legacy costs total more than $100 million and the county would like to know how that tab will be picked up if the governments are consolidated. “These are questions we hope you ask One Kent when they introduce the legislation,” said Voorhees.

The coalition hopes to have its legislation approved in time to put a merger question before voters on the November 2012 ballot.

Parrish felt last week’s meeting with area lawmakers was important; she said the county needs to keep the communication lines open with them so they know where the county stands on this issue. She also said the legislators’ response to the proposed bill was one with which the county was entirely familiar.

“What I heard voiced was sort of that ongoing frustration with the folks that are involved in the One Kent Coalition to not be willing to have the conversation with us with regard to all the questions that we have. I’m hoping that they can be helpful in opening those doors and having those conversations without that legislation sitting out there as a resolution,” she said.

“It just speaks to how challenging that has been because, to an extent, clearly they’re having the same reaction, which is: Why don’t you talk to them about it? Well, we’ve done everything we can possibly think of to try to have this conversation in an open and meaningful way,” added Parrish.

For Koorndyk, the meeting told him that the proposed legislation wasn’t on such a fast track as the county thought it was, and coalition members haven’t been speaking with state lawmakers as much as the county felt they were. “So we will have an opportunity, hopefully, to get our work completed by February before anything happens in Lansing — which, to me, is great news,” he said.

Perhaps just as important for the county was what the legislators didn’t say. None touted the proposed merger as promising efficiencies and cost savings, and none came anywhere close to defending the coalition’s effort.

But one lawmaker did offer the county commissioners and administrators who attended the meeting some free advice. “Don’t let Lansing drive you,” said Jansen. “I feel you’re letting this thing drive you and control you, and that’s not Kent County.”

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