Group concludes local governments collaborate well


After meeting for more than a year, members of the Kent County Community Collaboration Work Group tweaked a draft of their final report last week.

“None of the changes change the substance of this report. They clarify it,” said Michael DeVries, Grand Rapids Township supervisor and member of the work group.

The final report, which is coming later this month, will list at least 104 examples of recent collaborations between local governments and the public and private sectors.

“This is by no means an exhaustive list,” said County Commission Vice Chairman Jim Saalfeld, who also chairs the work group.

“The city would have several more to add to the list,” said Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

The report also will recommend that: current collaborations be supported and new ones encouraged; the Municipal Partnership Act be used to do collaborative ventures; economic development be promoted by creating similar building codes, zoning rules and land-use regulations in the county; regional, rather than local, public safety services be promoted; assessments of real property be done on a collaborative basis; and judicial administration be made more efficient by reducing case backlogs, combining record keeping and employing similar office functions.

The work group wholly agreed a sense of trust among government officials who are looking to work together is an absolute necessity for a successful shared effort. Other keys for success are having similar units of government being involved, having the public support such a venture, and making sure an effort is completely transparent.

“All kinds of opportunities can come along every day,” said DeVries of potential collaborations. “When these opportunities come up, the first thing you do is talk to your neighbor.”

However, the work group, which consisted of eight public officials and five members of the private sector, did not recommend that a proposal from One Kent Coalition be supported.

The coalition proposed two years ago to merge the city of Grand Rapids with Kent County into a metropolitan government through a ballot measure initially targeted to go before voters last November. However, One Kent, a group of 20 former public officials and members of the business community, decided to postpone further action on its legislative plan until the work group completed its work. The proposal prompted then-County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Steensma to organize the work group in late 2011, and it began meeting in January 2012.

The report outlines the panel’s position on the One Kent proposal: “ … the work group does not recommend a city-county consolidation for Kent County. The possibilities of significant public benefits resulting from this type of consolidation, such as cost-savings, economic development and better delivery of public services, are by no means assured. Well-considered studies have concluded that the expected gains in economy and public services do not always occur, or at least to the extent originally contemplated.

“It seems to us that the political costs involved would inevitably outweigh the predicted benefits that might result from the combining of two major governmental bodies into a unified government. We believe greater public benefits can be achieved more readily by continuing and expanding the already strong record of local government collaboration in the county.”

Over the course of their meetings, the work group heard from George Erickcek of W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and from Northern Illinois University Professor Kurt Thurmaier, who is considered a national expert on government mergers and consolidations. Both said the results of those mergers have been inconclusive, but efficiencies haven’t visibly emerged.

“The data we got from Upjohn and Thurmaier does not support that,” said Saalfeld of the proposal from One Kent. “We do not recommend it at this time. We have enough information from Upjohn and Thurmaier not to support it.”

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Rick Baker felt the work group should have taken a longer look at the merger plan. “As a committee member, I don’t think we went deep enough into that,” he said.

The Right Place President and CEO Birgit Klohs felt somewhat the same. “The reason we came together was for that reason,” she said.

The work group, though, does support consolidation efforts if potential mergers are being generated by the local units of governments and are supported by their residents.

“You need to have the support of the people to make this happen. It’s bottom up, not top down,” said Saalfeld.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, the group’s vice chairwoman, felt consolidation makes more sense if a venture is between like units of government, such as cities with cities, instead of a city merging with a county.

“There is a difference between state and local (governments) and the county is an extension of the state,” said DeVries, while adding that cities aren’t.

The work group will review and approve the final report March 20, which will then go to the Kent County Collaboration and Cooperation Subcommittee and then on to the county commission. A press conference is likely to be held at a future date to make the results public.

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