City-county spats deter good governance


    When the mayors of five cities encouraged voters in August to reject a millage request for the Kent County jail, the hullabaloo created was an epic city-county fight. The final compromise for the issue at the heart of the matter, however, certainly makes it seem all the more a tempest in a teapot.

    The mayors were at an impasse with the county in regard to county fees charged to cities for jailing city ordinance breakers. The mayors, prior to the millage election, had determined that the county was “double dipping” and should waive any fee. The county was demanding reimbursement for “housing” these rule breakers. The mayors cited continued declines in state revenue sharing and budget holes the size of Texas (which is every Michigan city’s fight with the state legislature, to stick by the state agreement to return revenues to the cities).

    But on Oct. 23 the Kent County Board of Commissioners agreed to lower by 25 percent the charge to cities for jailing lawbreakers arrested for violations of city ordinances. The county board would now like to negotiate for some of the amount cities capture through tax-increment financing authorities that would otherwise go toward voter-approved tax levies for the county corrections and the county senior citizen services millage. The TIFAs, such as downtown development authorities, are primarily an issue for the cities of Grand Rapids, Walker and Grandville, three of the county’s most bustling economic centers. The tax capture in 2007 for the three cities combined was $389,247 — money the county insists should be given to the voter approved uses.

    The cities — and townships in this case — are reticent participants in such a discussion given that the county two years ago limited to 11 percent its participation in tax abatements in any given jurisdiction. The move is seen by economic development teams as a mistake toward continued growth, and the limitation of a tool used across the country. It may be that the changing financial landscape requires review of all policies.

    That said the real challenge is one of leadership, and the tenor of such negotiations. Dick Vander Molen will assume the county board chair in 2009 from Roger Morgan. The mayors who negotiated the reduction in jail fees to cities made a point of Vander Molen’s involvement and the positive outcome of the compromise. As the mayors reconvene to discuss the lingering issues, they are considering what they refer to as Vander Molen’s “positive comments and suggestions.” One part of the jail fee compromise was common sense: to encourage police officers to issue appearance tickets for ordinance infractions when possible to lower the number of jail bookings.

    These are times that require studied debate and compromise. The days of conflict between the county and any mayor must end. Teamwork is required. 

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