After waiting a few years for state lawmakers to take action, the Grand Valley Metro Council took the bull by the horns recently and sanctioned legislation that would allow Kent County cities and townships to collaborate with each other and with the county, free from state restrictions.
The draft legislation, known as the Municipal Partnership Act, was written for the council by attorneys at Clark Hill PLC at the request of Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt. The proposed bill grew out of the council’s Legislative Committee, chaired by Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, and was endorsed by the council’s board at its last meeting.
“We’ve all participated with neighboring communities and we want to continue to do that,” said Don Hilton, Gaines Township supervisor and GVMC vice chairman.
Root said the council wants to get the state’s legislative barriers removed that have made it difficult and sometimes impossible for municipalities to consolidate services, and then see what kind of cooperative efforts will eventually emerge.
“It’s not to be a city bill only. It’s not about boundaries,” said Root.
GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula said the proposed legislation would supersede state statutes, local ordinances and existing municipal charter provisions to let partnering municipalities quickly enter into a contract or create an authority to coordinate services.
The bill would also allow participating governments to ask residents for a millage, up to 2 mills, to fund a new partnership venture. The legislation would have a shelf life of four years, and no new contracts could be entered into after the deadline passes.
It also would only apply to cities and townships in Kent County and to the county itself. That’s why Root said the council’s bill, should it be introduced, won’t be supported across the state.
Root also said the council will have to convince lawmakers and union leaders that the legislation won’t trample on the rights of police officers, firefighters and other municipal workers. “Can we do it on a small scale? Can we be a petri dish for the state?” he asked.
“I think it’s a great idea. Maybe we can save some jobs in the future this way,” said George Meek, supervisor of Plainfield Township.
The Metro Council has pointed out over the past few years that state legislation passed in the late 1960s has largely created roadblocks for consolidation efforts.
One law calls for compulsory binding arbitration for public safety employees. Another requires partnering municipalities to pay the highest wage and benefits of cooperating governments, rather than averages. The council has asked for amendments to those state laws in the past, but action hasn’t been taken in Lansing to do that.
The next step for the board is to find a lawmaker willing to introduce the bill, once the final version is completed. “There will probably be some wordsmithing to it,” said Hilton.
Local business groups have long called for municipalities to consolidate services and have seen that move as a cure for what ails the public sector. Root emphasized that collaboration, however, will not save everyone. He also said not everything may be able to be finished within the bill’s timeframe. He added that while the cost of some services may go up, residents would be better served.
“This is not going to make us rich,” said Root. “This is not going to lead us out of the woods.”