Parrish outlines countys current state

October 21, 2011
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When Wondergem Consulting principal Tim Wondergem introduced the guest speaker at last week’s Grand Rapids Rotary Club luncheon, he noted that the theme of the meeting was leadership. Then he indicated that the organization could hardly have chosen a more appropriate speaker to reflect that theme than Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish.

Parrish, in her second year as the top elected county official, spoke to Rotarians and their guests about fiscal responsibility, consolidation and collaboration, and land-use management — issues that have become even more vital as the financial and political landscapes are transforming.

“Today, the environment could hardly be couched as predictable and, in fact, unpredictable and challenging have become the new normal,” she said. “With shrinking revenues, an often unhappy and understandably impatient citizenry, and quickly changing political dynamics, it is more important than ever that government works smarter to meet the needs of our community.”

As a fiscal example, Parrish noted that when the county began working on its 2012 general operating budget, the spending plan had a deficit of $9 million in April and the goal was to create a balanced budget. Since then, that glaring shortfall has been chopped by $8.85 million. “We are just $150,000 from that benchmark and I have no doubt that we will approve a balanced budget for 2012,” she said.

But Parrish also pointed out that fiscal responsibility isn’t new to the county. She said the county’s liability for retiree health coverage is $32 million, a pittance compared to other large counties in the state such as Macomb County, where its liability tops $800 million.

The difference, she explained, is, rather than paying for premiums, Kent offers retirees a top monthly stipend of $350 they can use for their insurance payments, but only if they enroll in the county’s program. Parrish said commissioners established that policy in the 1970s and its result almost 40 years later has impressed the credit ratings agencies, which have made Kent just one of two counties statewide to have two triple-A  bond ratings.

Although land use has been pushed to the back burner here due to the nearly constant discussion of consolidating governments and sharing services for much of this year, Parrish felt the issue is a complex one that has the potential to grow economic opportunity and reduce the costs for infrastructure across the county.

“In one area of the country, one county has identified savings of $300 million in public infrastructure through its land-use program. We can do the same here and we can do it better,” she said. “The county is committed to finding a sustainable future for land-use issues that does not depend on the county’s general fund in the long run. Challenging, of course, but we will find the path.”

Parrish said farmland preservation qualifies as a macro-economic matter because agriculture and its related food-processing industry accounts for 114,000 jobs in the county, a factor that can be missed when people focus all their attention on a single farm that has been preserved and set aside from commercial development.

As for the primary issue of the day, Parrish said the county has collaborated with other units 200 times over the years. Just one successful venture the county has initiated, she said, was the reverse auction that became operational a little more than a year ago. The county uses the auction to get the lowest bids from commercial suppliers for items and services it needs and invites other units of government to join in the bidding process. “That has, at the county level, reduced our commodity costs by 18 percent,” she said.

Of course, Parrish also spoke of the One Kent Coalition’s proposal to merge the county with the city of Grand Rapids. “We have completely different state mandates,” she said of the differing services the two are legally bound to provide. “It does make more sense for like units to consolidate.” Parrish noted that even though the county and the city both have clerks’ offices, each fills different roles that are dictated by state law.

At the same time, though, she offered gratitude to the coalition’s members and for what they have been able to accomplish so far. “We are thankful for the efforts of the One Kent Coalition. Their advocacy moved these issues to the front of the line and they have encouraged all of us in local government to review how we do our work and to innovate for the future,” she said.

Parrish also reminded the audience that mergers don’t always results in cost savings. She pointed to the county’s recent consolidation of the 911 emergency dispatch system, which cut the number of call centers to two. She said the county had to spend $1 million on new equipment and add 13 staffers to the system to make it happen. But she noted the consolidation has reduced response times and now has the potential to save more lives than before, and that outcome makes the additional expense a valuable investment for the community. “There are times when consolidation is expensive. But there are times when you have to do it,” she said.

As for the immediate future, Parrish said many governmental decisions just may be decided by a single factor. “There is a point coming where money will drive the bus. Well, it’s driving the bus right now. But one day, it will really drive the bus.”

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