County puts Upjohn merger study on hold

October 23, 2011
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Grand Rapids City Commissioners Rosalynn Bliss and James White are the first to agree to serve on a committee that will look into finding operational efficiencies in local government, in light of the One Kent Coalition proposal to merge the city with Kent County into a new metropolitan government.

In addition to the city commissioners, three county commissioners, an official from the chamber of commerce, an executive from a nonprofit organization, an attorney well versed in state constitutional and municipal law, a representative from a township, an official from a city other than Grand Rapids, and an expert in business development also are expected to be named to it. The committee is being put together by a county subcommittee that is looking into the consolidation issue.

Bliss and White both served on the short-lived study group One Kent created with the county and the city.

“They’re a perfect fit for Grand Rapids,” said Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, also chairman of the subcommittee.

The new committee is likely to begin meeting regularly early next year and do so for at least six months and possibly the entire year. “It would start and finish in 2012,” said Commissioner Jim Saalfeld.

Koorndyk told subcommittee members he wanted their nominations for the open positions by Nov. 1, when their next meeting takes place.

Not moving quite as quickly is the two-part study the subcommittee wanted the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research to conduct.  It has been put on hold for now and may be changed. The institute initially was to have looked at what a merger of the governments would mean for economic development in the county, and then review similar mergers to determine which municipal services were consolidated, how those were combined, and what the benefits were from doing so. The price tag for the work was $15,000.

But the funding request was pulled from the county commission’s agenda for further discussion by board members after One Kent announced it would delay introducing its legislation in Lansing until the city and the county received the answers they were looking for regarding the coalition’s proposal. The county has 36 questions it wants answered, while the city has 58.

“It does take some of the pressure off getting immediate answers to our questions,” said Saalfeld.

“They’re not going away. They’re just suspending operations until we get answers,” said Koorndyk, who suggested the subcommittee should stick to its deadline. “We need to complete our work by February.”

The subcommittee wanted the economic development portion of the study completed by Feb. 1, in time for the county’s annual trip to the credit rating agencies in April, but now that deadline doesn’t seem to be written in stone.

“If they’re not going to do anything between now and April, there may be less of an urgency to get things done by February,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio. “For all I know (One Kent) may be addressing (our) concerns right now. I’m just speculating.”

In a letter the coalition sent to Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish informing her of its decision to delay introducing its legislation, One Kent did not indicate how long it would wait for the county to address its concerns. But the group did encourage county officials to “earnestly” undertake that effort.

County commissioners may vote on the study’s funding request at the board’s next meeting Nov. 3. If the money, or a portion of it, is allocated, the county might ask Upjohn to begin with the merger review portion instead of the study’s economic development piece.

“Maybe we could do the second part first,” said Saalfeld.

A decision on which direction the work may take could become clearer this week when the Finance Committee looks at the funding request.

“If we’re going to spend any money at all,” said Koorndyk, “I think the wisest use is to spend it on finding out the economic impact.”

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