Kent County makes a bold move on consolidation

September 25, 2011
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Kent County Commissioner Jim Saalfeld suggested the creation of a 10-member committee last week that would determine the best means to achieve effective and efficient government and whether more collaborative efforts would accomplish those goals. And the county’s consolidation subcommittee, of which Saalfeld is a member, embraced his idea.

Saalfeld said he got the idea for the committee at a legislative breakfast the county held with area state representatives and senators last month to get their views on the consolidation effort the One Kent Coalition is pursuing. At that meeting, State Sen. Mark Jansen told the county that if it didn’t like what One Kent was doing by trying to merge Grand Rapids and the county into a new metro government, then the county should do something on its own.

Another reason Saalfeld is promoting the committee is he felt One Kent didn’t gather enough input from enough sources before the coalition began drafting its merger legislation.

“I want to take an open approach to it. I think it will be fairer, and there won’t be an agenda,” he said. “This is the important part — the composition. I’m thinking of a 10- to 12-member committee. There is room to make some changes, but this is my proposal.”

The committee membership Saalfeld proposed has two county commissioners, a commissioner from Grand Rapids, a representative of the 21 townships in the county, a representative from a city other than Grand Rapids, a representative from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, an economic expert, a state constitutional and municipal law expert, an expert in business development and a local business leader. His plan gives four of the 10 seats on the committee to the business sector; half will be filled by those outside of local government.

“I’ve had others say to me that it’s time for the county to take a bold lead. I’m not sure where ‘bold’ leads to, but we should take it,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees, also a subcommittee member.

“I think this is a bold lead because we’re forming the committee,” added Commissioner Harold Mast, who also sits on the subcommittee.

The subcommittee, which was formed by County Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish to examine the One Kent proposal, will meet this week and may name some, or all, of the committee members then.

Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, who chairs the subcommittee, said he and County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio went to Lansing and met with Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican who has been rumored to be the one who will introduce the One Kent legislation. At the meeting, which was set up by State Rep. Peter MacGregor, a Rockford Republican, Richardville said he hadn’t seen the coalition’s legislation yet.

“He told us he hadn’t seen it yet. We knew that and gave him a copy and our list of 36 questions,” said Koorndyk.

Delabbio said he joined GR Mayor George Heartwell and GR Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong in a recent meeting with House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and they found Bolger hadn’t seen the coalition’s legislation, either. Bolger reportedly told them that he wouldn’t support the proposal if it wasn’t introduced by a representative from Kent County. Delabbio added that both Richardville and Bolger are concentrating on the Canadian bridge proposal and are trying to figure out what to do with the state’s personal property tax.

“Grand Rapids’ position is they do not support the draft legislation. They have 58 issues with it,” said Delabbio, who added the city commission will publicly discuss the One Kent merger proposal this week after the city had three attorneys review the draft legislation.

Delabbio also said the city may hire an expert to review One Kent’s proposal, possibly one from out of state. “We may want to think about inviting the city to come here and talk to us,” he told the subcommittee. “What I’ll probably do is extend an invitation to (GR City Manager) Greg Sundstrom.”

Subcommittee members continued their review of the draft legislation last week, and perhaps the most curious provision in it states that if city voters approve a merger between Grand Rapids and the county but voters countywide reject it, the city’s approval would be valid for four years, and more votes at the county level could be held.

“It doesn’t have to be approved by both at the same time,” said Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson of the proposal’s language. “If the city of Grand Rapids passes it in November 2012, then it could be placed on the ballot in November 2014.”

The review also noted that some of the bill’s definitions are vague; some of the merged government’s positions aren’t clear, are missing, or are duplicative; and neither the city nor the county will vote on the consolidation of the two governments or be able to challenge it if it is approved by voters. The proposal also broadens the tax base, as taxpayers outside of Grand Rapids would be required to cover the city’s debt and obligations.

Voorhees, who chairs the county’s Finance Committee, told the subcommittee that the county needs to learn what the city’s legacy costs are and how those would fiscally affect a new metro government. Delabbio said the county plans to issue an RFP to help with that discovery.

“This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids,” said Saalfeld.

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