County panel gets collaboration report

September 9, 2012
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George Erickcek, an employment economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, gave the first of two reports last week to the Community Collaboration Work Group, a panel that Kent County formed late last year in response to the One Kent Coalition’s proposal to consolidate the county and the city of Grand Rapids into a new metropolitan government.

In his first report, Erickcek said he and Brad Watts analyzed the collaborative efforts that took place among local governments in the county last year. They found that 104 occurred in 2011, and most turned out to be successful.

“We were looking at elements of collaboration and not consolidation,” said Erickcek. “Consolidation is much more difficult.”

But for their second report, which is expected to be presented in November, they reviewed mergers. Erickcek said they found that a big problem with many consolidations is that one government usually loses out in the new tax base that is created. He also mentioned that previous consolidations generally have not provided successful results and have taken on various forms.

“Some are apples, some are oranges, and some are kumquats,” he said.

As for government collaborations, in general, Erickcek said the key element to success is trust. “Trust among managers and elected officials of local governments. You develop that by knowing each other and working together,” he said. “There is a difference between a strong leader and a bully. You don’t want to cross that line.”

Erickcek made the latter point because in the 15 public officials he and Watts interviewed for their report, they found an awful collaborative experience can do more harm than the good that multiple successful ones can achieve.

“One bad experience can poison the water for many years. Not just for your lifetime, but for many lifetimes,” he told the work group, which consists of public officials and private citizens.

As for specific collaborative projects, Erickcek said improving services to residents is more important than reducing costs. He also said if a project requires significant investment, those costs should be shared by the participating governments. But he also pointed out that collaborations are more likely to occur when the governments have the same cost structure and perform similar services.

“What we found is townships are more likely to work with townships and cities to work with cities,” he said, noting that city residents usually want more services than those who live in townships.

But Erickcek also said that collaborations have worked between dissimilar governments like counties and cities, which have been assigned different services by state law.

“Kent County can boast of a long list of partnerships it has developed between itself and the county’s cities and townships,” read the report. “Collaborations are more feasible when the partnering governments use the same technology platform such as accounting and tax-assessment software packages. The same is true when their services use the same delivery system.”

Erickcek also offered a few barriers to a successful collaboration. One is when there are differences in the quality of services provided, such as fire protection, which can vary among municipalities. Another is a unit’s cost structure. He said spending in townships is normally lower than in cities so the cost of a collaborative effort likely can’t be shared equally.

Another major barrier pops up when one unit feels it would suffer a significant loss of authority or autonomy from a partnership. “Finally, past actions can have negative consequences on future initiatives. Significant past disagreements or misunderstandings can hinder future partnerships for decades.”

County Commissioner Michael Wawee, also a member of the work group, asked if the current model of government across the county is sustainable to meet future needs. Erickcek answered by pointing out that Grand Rapids has done a great job of developing downtown for its younger residents. But he noted the poverty level has grown in the city, and the city can’t raise enough revenue to deal with its special needs.

“It’s not sustainable. I worry about that,” he said.

The county hired Upjohn to conduct both studies at a cost of $15,000.

Possibly the most important point Erickcek made was that, despite all of the successful collaborations that have occurred here over the years, those efforts haven’t created a unified vision for the future.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio asked him how 35 units of government can create a unified vision.

“That’s a good question,” said Erickcek. “I’m just an economist.”

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