On Aug. 5, the Rotary Club of Greater Grand Rapids asked me to deliver the annual State of the County Address. My comments were directed primarily to consolidation of government services. From small group meetings to large gatherings, consolidation has gained center stage as the 36 units of government (nine cities, 21 townships, five villages and the county) wrestle with the challenge of delivering high quality services with ever-dwindling resources.
The article and subsequent editorial in the Aug.16 issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal appropriately mentioned the work and impetus of three groups interested in consolidating governments and/or services, but did not include the most important point in my commentary: the solution to the potential of consolidation plans failing because of lack of communication or shared purpose between these three groups. For meaningful consolidation plans to succeed, there needs to be an overarching private/public commission or committee charged with bringing diverse voices to the table, costing out the various elements and devising plans to fund the effort. This group should then lay out the framework and timing for thoughtful consolidation plans addressing the needs of all stakeholders.
This leadership group is critical to developing community consensus on the key issues of consolidation of services and/or governments. We can argue all day on the model of consolidation. But until there is community consensus on why we should consolidate, the efforts to consolidate will be inefficient, costly and drawn out.
So, who should lead this effort? Frankly, the leader(s) should not be someone who is viewed as a potential beneficiary. That means that neither the city of Grand Rapids nor Kent County should be leading the charge. But, rather, the chair(s) of this group must have the greater good and good governance as guiding principles and be willing to deal directly with those whose aims are clearly self-serving. Further, the citizens of Kent County need to know that this process is difficult and expensive for a county of our size and complexity.
The recent consolidation of 911 services in Kent County cost $1.6 million in new equipment this year alone. That said, the improvement of service to our citizens, the reduction of duplication costs and the subsequent saving of lives was certainly worth the cost. But this illustrates the challenge.
And, the state laws referred to in the Grand Rapids Business Journal editorial are real barriers to success. Simply put, one of these laws demands that when two service units consolidate, the highest prevailing wage must be used to calculate new wage scales. So, two fire departments consolidating services from adjacent townships/cities must adopt the higher wages. Understandably, individual units of government have been unwilling to take on the higher associated costs. The greater good, then, is often left out of the equation in the face of balancing the annual budget.
My intent is not to discourage consolidation of services or governments, but, rather, to point out the need for a group of leaders to come together, including representation from the local government, business and philanthropic communities, and work to create a plan that will increase our global opportunities to market our community, reduce the cost of government and make our community a better place to live, work and play.
Sandi Frost Parrish, Chair
Kent County Board of Commissioners