The mayor and city manager of Grand Rapids are looking at 2018 with optimism, hoping to clinch an affordable housing plan and launch or continue several other projects.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said the city’s top priority in the first two months of the new year will be replacing retiring City Manager Greg Sundstrom.
“It’s front and center in the commission’s mind,” she said. “We have a search firm we’re working with, and the period where people could apply just ended. Our consultant is going through the applicants now. We are planning to do first-round interviews in January. Then we’ll have community stakeholder meetings, then move onto the final candidate.
“We’re hoping to have, by mid-February, the new candidate selected.”
The city extended Sundstrom’s contract, which originally was set to expire Dec. 31, to Feb. 3 to give the search firm more time to find the right fit.
Eric DeLong, deputy city manager, will serve as interim city manager starting Jan. 30 until the new leader is hired.
“My goal is to make sure there’s a smooth transition and comprehensive onboarding,” Bliss said, noting the city’s leadership team members will play a part in acclimating the new leader.
In October, the city solicited citizen input about what traits the city’s new manager should have.
Bliss said more than 1,000 individuals — Spanish- and English-speaking — responded.
“In some of the feedback, there were common themes,” she said. “Someone committed to collaboration, willing to think outside the box, willing to take a fresh look at problems instead of using the same approach, honesty, integrity, must be a good listener, good communicator and being more proactive in the community.”
Following Sundstrom’s retirement announcement in August, Bliss called him “a joy to work with” and said she has been “grateful for his leadership.”
Sundstrom said he is proud of the city’s accomplishments since he took office in 2009. He cited improvements to city services, such as streets, water and sewer, trash and recycling, and urban forestation, as well as turning around city finances.
“We have our highest level of reserves in our history,” he said. “It’s over $30 million at this point. When I took office, it was about $4 million.
“We have had several successive years of balanced budgets. We have successfully made several city services sustainable on a long-term basis. … It’s this community, the private sector, the city commission, all working together to change this city from being a burden to providing a healthy platform for the private sector to be successful.”
He said the city’s biggest accomplishment in 2017 was designing and moving forward the Housing NOW! list of 11 recommendations for affordable housing.
The plan includes an Affordable Housing Fund seeded by private individuals and companies; foundations; nonprofits; the Grand Rapids Housing Commission; and city, county, state and federal funding.
“In Minneapolis, which has had this system for a decade, they have a $10-million affordable housing fund,” Sundstrom said. “We’re already starting at $1.1 million. It’s the city commission’s hope that through their funding and the philanthropic community, it can incentivize affordable housing.
“I think the city commission is much more focused on incentivizing private and nonprofit development than being a landlord.”
Bliss said the target beneficiaries of the plan are those who make 60 to 80 percent of the area median income and thus do not qualify for traditional low-income housing.
She said although carryover dollars from the city budget are pledged to the fund, it has not yet been formally established.
“We’ll talk at our January meeting,” she said. “We’re working in partnership with the Grand Rapids Housing Commission. We’re hoping the fund will be overseen by the housing commission and individuals from the community. They’ll provide oversight and recommendations on how those funds will be spent.”
She said it’s too soon to make the case for donations from the private sector, but that is on her radar.
“First, we need to get the fund set up, then once it’s established, I will start having meetings with local foundations,” she said. “I’ve had some conversations, but it’s premature because we don’t have bylaws, eligibility, how the funds will be used and the oversight of the funds determined.”
Alongside the affordable housing plan, the city has been working on related ways to assist those caught in housing difficulties, such as the 61st District Court’s eviction court to help renters who are behind on payments from being forced out, and adjusting tax forgiveness policies for families behind on property taxes.
Both programs will continue to be monitored and evolve as success rates are determined, Bliss said.
“One other (effort) we’ve started is improving community and police relations,” she said. “About three months ago, we started working with (the President’s Task Force on) 21st Century Policing,” founded by former President Barack Obama.
“I appointed a Police Policy and Procedure Review Task Force, and they’re working to go through policies and procedures and make recommendations. We’ll be working through this process the first nine months, really the entire year in 2018.”
Bliss also plans to continue working on racial equity via the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative announced in March, supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Other priorities for 2018 include upgrading street lighting systems — which Sundstrom estimates could cost $20 million because it involves underground and aboveground component replacements; improving streets; capturing $2.5 million to work on sustainable urban forest management, including dangerous tree removal; supporting the river restoration project; and meeting renewable energy goals.
Bliss said the $38-million biodigester sludge treatment center on which the city broke ground Dec. 14 is only one part of the plan.
“We’re analyzing adding solar power to the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant,” Bliss said. “And I still think the Butterworth landfill (site) is an opportunity. We’re doing an analysis, and my hope is to have a good sense of the ROI by next year.”
The mayor expects to be able to share more about city priorities at the invitation-only State of the City address, which will be presented at ClearWater Place on Feb. 15 and streamed live to the public at stateofgr.org. Her address to the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids, which has not yet been scheduled, will provide a recap of the State of the City address.
“The challenges we face today will continue to be the challenges next year and the year after that,” she said. “Amazing things are happening with development, the economic outlook, low unemployment and tourism. But there are challenges.”