Work group learns of municipal differences

February 5, 2012
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Members of the Community Collaboration Work Group got a civics lesson — actually, a primer on the local units of government — at their second meeting last week when they discovered that townships, cities and counties offer different services because each type of unit is different.

“There is a lot of misconception out there that all governments do the same thing,” said Jim Saalfeld, Kent County commissioner and CCWG chairman.

This misconception Saalfeld referred to surfaced a year ago when the One Kent Coalition revealed its legislative plan to merge the city of Grand Rapids with Kent County into a metropolitan government to consolidate services and save taxpayer dollars. But the city and county are empowered differently under state law and don’t offer identical services, which can make consolidating services a strenuous exercise.

Grand Rapids Township Supervisor Michael DeVries pointed out that cities and townships qualify as municipalities under the Michigan Constitution, which means these units have a degree of “home rule” and are able to operate somewhat independently.

DeVries noted, though, that despite both being classified as municipalities, townships and cities still differ in what each is able to do. He said townships can do things that are allowed under state law, while cities can do anything that isn’t prohibited by state law.

“The beauty of government in the United States is it fits the specific needs of the people,” he said. “Everyone works interactively.”

In contrast, Kent County Commissioner Dan Koorndyk said county government is primarily an arm of state government. “We are mandated by the state as to what we can do,” he said. “Some of those (mandates) are unfunded, as well.”

However, Koorndyk also said a county can offer services that aren’t required by the state, as Kent does with its John Ball Zoo, its parks system and its health preventive initiatives, among others.

“Cities, townships and villages have more local control than counties,” said Koorndyk.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, also CCWG vice chairwoman, said the county’s nine cities combine for a population of roughly 370,000 in a county of 602,000, and these units provide similar services such as fire protection, which the county doesn’t offer.

Bliss said the Grand Rapids Fire Department is the second-highest budget item at $24.5 million, only topped by the $40.5 million the city spends on its police department. Bliss said the city and Wyoming are engaged in some rather intense talks to determine how fire services can be shared.

“We’re about halfway through (those talks),” said Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong. “Police and fire used to be half our budget. Now they’re approaching 75 percent,” added City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

Saalfeld told the work group its next meeting will be March 7, with a follow-up get-together two weeks later. He said the group will receive a summary of services the units offer to provide an understanding of which can be shared and by which units. He also said the group’s focus should be on creating efficiencies, making government more effective and furthering economic development when it begins deliberations on which services should be shared.

The CCWG website went active last week at “It’s a stand-alone site that will be linked to the Access Kent website,” said Saalfeld.

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