County tackling operations budget

September 30, 2011
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At the beginning of this year, the Kent County general operating budget for 2012 was facing a deficit of roughly $6 million for a spending plan that then totaled about $165 million. But since then, department managers and county administration have made adjustments, and County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio reported the budget was basically balanced on the day commissioners transferred $100,000 from it to a fund that assists service veterans in need.

Members of the county’s Finance Committee will begin reviewing the proposed budget this week and will get an insight into where the $6 million went. It is likely there will be some commissioners who want more funding for at least two budget items.

One of those is the West Michigan Sports Commission, which ends its five-year run this year of receiving $200,000 from the general fund in each of those five years. The other is the Purchase of Development Rights program that has received funding from the general fund for the past three years, most recently at $275,000 for each the last two years.

Many commissioners see WMSC as an investment in an economic development plan that brings outside revenue into the county. The county and a group of private individuals, led by Peter Secchia, created the sports commission for that purpose. Longtime Commissioner Richard Vander Molen chairs the WMSC board and is a strong proponent for it. Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt serves as the board’s vice chairman and helps to seal the county’s close connection to WMSC.

But nearly as many commissioners are concerned about preserving farmland and they, too, see that program as part of an economic development plan that helps strengthen the state’s No. 2 industry: agriculture. They also remember when a county subcommittee decided the PDR program’s funding should be $1 million over three years, but has fallen short of that goal since then. Last year, they asked for $350,000 and the board denied their request.

There are separate grants from the Grand Rapids Community and Frey foundations that can only go into the PDR fund if the county meets required matching levels with operating dollars. Commissioners Bill Hirsch, Tom Antor and Stan Ponstein may request additional funding for the program, but Antor is the only one of the three that serves on the Finance Committee.

Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board Chairman Dave Hudson made his funding pitch before the Finance Committee at its last meeting. Hudson, a Gaines Township farmer, told the panel the program preserved four farms with 234 acres this year, and the board plans to appraise 10 farms for next year’s program.

“We know the budget is coming up,” said Hudson. “Please remember us. We know you’ll be fair and equitable.”

Roughly $25.6 million of those precious general-fund dollars have already been assigned; that amount went into five programs the county shares with the state and have a fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The budgets for the five total about $69.2 million. The county’s health department, the DHS and circuit court child care programs, the Friend of the Court, and a Special Projects fund received that money.

“The circuit court has done an incredible job of controlling costs,” said Delabbio about the court’s child care program, which differs from the one DHS operates.

The full commission is expected to adopt the 2012 general operating budget in November. The county’s fiscal year begins Jan. 1.

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