County spreads budget cheer
Medical examiner needs funds for 100 more opioid-related autopsies.
The proposed 2019 Kent County budget includes a $7.4 million increase and the addition of 36 jobs.
The county board of commissioners will vote Nov. 29 to approve next year’s proposed $179.7-million budget, which officials say provides some breathing room for neglected needs but is far from plenty.
With several increases in revenue, most notably the $5.35 million increase in property taxes, which accounts for 53.9 percent of the annual budget, the county was able to budget some resources for pent-up demands, according to Wayman Britt, county administrator.
Last decade’s economic downtown has kept several departments from employing a full staff, he said. With some recovery in recent years, departments can hire workers to alleviate current staff of some responsibilities, as well as hire for new positions.
Some of these jobs include 21 employees at the expanded juvenile facility; several new police officers, including school resource officers and a supervising sergeant; and two financial analysts.
The county also has allotted $5.9 million in next year’s approved capital improvement program projects, which cost $9.3 million. Projects include county building HVAC replacement and parks improvements.
The medical examiner budget will increase by 20.4 percent, from $1.7 million to $2 million, to allow for 100 additional autopsies, primarily due to the opioid epidemic, according to the annual report by county Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle.
Cohle said the department performed 420 autopsies last year, an increase of 75, determining overdose deaths increased from 93 in 2016 to 156 in 2017. The county is budgeting for 450 autopsies next year.
“Hopefully, that'll be a good enough to support what needs to be done,” Britt said.
Though there is some financial breathing room, county administrators are not singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” said Stephen Duarte, county fiscal services director.
“We don't have unlimited resources, but we're able to start looking out a little bit more,” Duarte said.
“We’re a long way from being able to have huge growth in our budget.”
While property values are increasing and have reached an all-time high, the rate of increase has yet to reach the pre-recession levels due to a growth cap that started in 2012.
Marvin Van Nortwick, county budget director, said officials project a 3.5 percent increase next year; pre-recession growth was around 6 percent.
Another issue Britt noted is state funding has not increased with the area’s cost of living, remaining at $12 million for the past six years or so.
Van Nortwick said this is one of the first budget lines the state will pull from in hard times.
Britt said the state’s “rainy day fund” has gained an unexpected couple hundred million dollars in the past year.
While the state has its own issues to deal with, such as the overall economy, roads and decline in the auto business, he thinks some of those dollars should be invested into counties that can show evidence of managing resources and providing return on investment.
“Because of our diversified economy, we can better utilize those dollars from a local level to grow our economy within our West Michigan area,” Britt said.
He added Grand Rapids’ continued development appears to show the area is doing well economically, but it’s not true in all areas, such as in the 49507 ZIP code, so some of the state’s attention should be refocused.
“They ought to consider the west side of the state as much as they consider the southeast side of the state,” Britt said.
“We have poverty within our community, just like on the east side. We have lead problems, just like on the southeast side.”
With additional funds, Britt said the county would invest in other pent-up demands, such as providing more funding to Grand Rapids Whitewater, the organization leading the initiative to restore the Grand River rapids downtown, estimated to have an annual economic impact of $15 million-$19 million and a ripple effect of development.
Britt said there also are questions about county support surrounding farm preservation, lead contamination and affordable housing, among other issues.
Britt said the county has been in discussion about these issues with the state, and local representatives have been helpful, but he does not see the state budging any time soon.
County officials are continuing to scrutinize programs to determine how resources are allotted, especially keeping in mind a possible recession in the next couple of years.
“We have to choose wisely,” Duarte said.
Now that voters have approved legislation for recreational cannabis use, county officials are anticipating increased health care and police costs, though no one is sure of what to expect, Britt said.
The county’s direct role in the cannabis industry will involve inspection, as with any business, Britt said. Individual counties will benefit financially, besides what they receive from increased state funds, if there are facilities within their limits, according to the new legislation.
Whether those benefits will equal anticipated costs is yet to be seen, he said.
“We don’t think (financial benefits) will be significant,” Britt said.