When Thomas Butcher was sworn in last week as Grand Valley State University’s representative to the Grand Valley Metro Council, he said something pretty remarkable had just happened. It was so extraordinary that he couldn’t remember it ever happening before in the 28 years he has lived in West Michigan.
Butcher, the university’s general counsel, wasn’t referring to GVSU officially becoming the Metro Council’s very first higher-education member — even though that carries a high degree of significance by itself. He was pointing to the fact that voters had approved every tax proposal that was on a ballot.
“What a great vote of confidence for the leaders of West Michigan,” he said.
Voters went 11 for 11 last week, ratifying 10 millage requests across the region and an income tax increase in Grand Rapids.
Starting July 1, the city’s income tax rate will rise to 1.5 percent for residents and 0.75 for non-residents who work in the city. The increase will sunset in five years and be worth $7.5 million to the city’s general fund for each of those years.
Mayor George Heartwell said the tax request lost in more precincts than it won in, and that voters in the city’s Second Ward pushed it over the top. The measure won by only 204 votes, a mere 1 percent of the 19,322 total votes cast. Heartwell also said he was pleased with a voter turnout of 15 percent — roughly twice the number that usually goes to the polls in a May election that doesn’t have a tax measure on the ballot.
“This is a stopgap measure for us. This buys us five years to continue what we have been doing,” said Heartwell. “It gives us two more rounds with the bargaining units. It gives us time for the economy to improve.”
Kentwood Mayor Richard Root was pleased that his city’s request for a permanent 2-mill levy for police and fire was passed by 62 percent of the voters. He said the result showed that people believe in the integrity and honesty of their local officials, even during a difficult and stressful economic time.
“Those who vote are our core people in the community and our future commissioners,” he said. “People in our part of the state care about the state.
Wyoming City Councilman William VerHulst indicated the passage of a five-year 1.25-mill levy for police and fire helped ease the defeat of a similar request in 2005 that resulted in the city laying-off 100 of its 464 employees. Fifty-five percent of Wyoming voters approved the millage.
“They trusted us and said they were willing to give us more money. We’re going to keep being as efficient as we can,” he said.
VerHulst also said he wasn’t surprised that all 11 requests passed because each local unit of government and every school district are in the same financial scenario, and voters across the region recognized the dire situation. He added that he would try to convince local state representatives that a cut-only budget policy doesn’t work, especially when it comes to transportation issues.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican, has said his chamber won’t raise taxes of any sort this year. His ban includes the 13 funding recommendations a transportation task force made about 20 months ago to help the state meet the matching requirements for federal dollars.
Interurban Transit Partnership CEO Peter Varga, who served on that task force, said the state could lose up to $1 billion in federal road and transit funds in the coming years without the required 20 percent match. He added that most business groups and chambers back legislation that will appropriately fund transportation and transit.
Grand Valley Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said the council is putting together an electronic system that would allow its members to track the progress of key state legislation online via the organization’s website. The idea behind the effort is to put more pressure on state legislators who represent the region and create a stronger bond with them.
“We have had no traction with legislators,” said Stypula, “and we’re not alone.”