Townships feel One Kent needs to step back

September 10, 2011
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Although townships aren’t directly involved in One Kent Coalition’s proposed bill to merge the city of Grand Rapids with Kent County into a new metropolitan government, all 21 in the county have approved a resolution that seriously questions the legislation, which may go to Lansing this month.

In the resolution, the townships strongly support the elements that make up local government in the county, point out that services are already being shared, and report governments are continuing to find innovative ways to provide services at a reasonable cost per resident.

The resolution also claims One Kent hasn’t offered evidence that the city and county governments have failed in their respective missions and ought to be replaced by a “new kind of local government,” one that has never been attempted in Michigan.

The resolution closes by calling on One Kent to step back from its “far-reaching legislation” and seek the “views and participation” of county residents and elected officials on the issue.

“First of all, I think the resolution wants to find what the purpose of all this is and what issues are we really addressing, and what economies can come from all of this. I also think that the townships are at the forefront of cooperation and collaboration in things. We’ve been sharing services for years and we’ve found efficient ways to do things. If you look, our cost per resident is extremely cost effective,” said Michael DeVries, Grand Rapids Township supervisor.

“We’re also strong believers in local government. The closer government is to the people the better, and that’s why our costs are kept low because we have to be responsive to the people. So because of the respect we have for the people looking at the One Kent issue, we asked them to take a step back and involve us in the process so we can come up with a proper way to move forward that is based on good, solid facts and evidence of things that we can do to continue to provide cost-effective, quality services for the residents of Kent County,” he added.

A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, “When Civic Mergers Don’t Save Money,” pointed out that a number of economists reported a larger, merged government is often more costly than several smaller units.

The story also reported on a study done in Illinois this year that supports DeVries’ claim that townships are the most cost-effective form of government. The study found that operating costs for that state’s 1,433 townships grew by an inflation-adjusted average of 17 percent from 1992-2007. In contrast, spending rose by 51 percent at the state level, by 50 percent for larger municipalities, and by 74 percent for school districts in Illinois over the same period.

The study’s primary reasoning behind the discrepancy in spending levels was that townships have fewer employees per resident and use more part-timers, which reduces salaries and benefits. The study was done by an Illinois township group in light of a state bill that would have consolidated smaller units into larger governments. The bill was defeated. The WSJ story also listed Gov. Rick Snyder as a “champion” of consolidation.

DeVries said townships were encouraged when the study group, made up of representatives from One Kent, Kent County and Grand Rapids, was put together, as County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish named a pair of township officials to the panel. But DeVries said the end result was disappointing because the discussion was so limited, causing the county to withdraw from the group.

“Now that the county has embarked on a study, I think that’s going to be an important part of all of this so we can really define what these issues are and we can look at what the different local governments do. It’s interesting to note that the state government has functions, county government has functions, and local government has functions,” said DeVries.

For instance, the county doesn’t perform water, sewer, parking, fire, zoning and a few other services that the city does. So the question becomes, how much money can a metropolitan government save when those same services still have to be provided to residents within Grand Rapids?

“How do those things interact with one another? It’s been a carefully crafted balance that has served the state of Michigan for well over 170 years,” DeVries said of the functions assigned to the different levels of government. “We have to continue to protect the good and look for ways to improve.

“The whole myriad of (township) people say we provide for the needs of our residents. So, please, as we go through this process, let’s carefully look at what we’re really trying to accomplish, and make sure we get outcomes from the process they want us to look through.”

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