By George Heartwell and Sandi Frost Parrish
Location: Western Michigan
The present economic environment demands that we look at new ways of delivering government services. A persistent recession has held the state of Michigan in its iron grip for a decade and there is no unit of government—from largest to smallest—that has not felt the impact.
Local governments have responded to annually reduced revenues by dramatically cutting expenses before seeking to raise revenues. No one likes a tax increase and no elected official in her/his right mind would look first to the revenue side for relief. We have become leaner and more efficient in the delivery of services. We have reorganized government, and found new ways to provide services with fewer resources.
In our efforts to become more efficient we have sought—and accomplished—some consolidation of services among area governments. Law enforcement, sewer and water, public transportation and land use planning are only a few of the areas of cooperation that exist and have been successfully implemented. The Michigan Citizens Research Council has cited Kent County as a model for such cooperative ventures, noting in a recent report 150 intergovernmental cooperative initiatives in our county.
It is good to cooperate; it is even better to consolidate services. The question for today is: Might this be the time to consider truly combining forces to provide seamless services to all citizens of Kent County?
What might we gain if we really consolidated services? First, and most obvious, is cost savings. There are 36 units of government in our county. Think of the duplication of services among us. Common sense suggests that if we could combine fire protection, law enforcement, planning, waste management, sewage treatment, and a host of other governmental functions—some mandated by statute, others demanded by citizens—we can enjoy substantial cost savings.
If its citizens desired to go to the next step and actually consolidate governments in Kent County, the resulting city would be 23rd largest in the nation, falling between El Paso and Milwaukee in size. Influence in Congress and access to federal grants reserved for larger cities is one advantage. However, even more importantly, a city of more than 600,000 will be appealing to corporations looking for investment opportunities. We will be better positioned to compete for company relocation and expansion.
We have heard expressions of concern over loss of identity. If my city, village, or township consolidates will we lose the uniqueness of our place? Will our name be lost to history? The simple answer is “No.” Place is important. Identification with place is crucial to our self-definition. As we move forward on these efforts we must be careful to retain the identity of the places merging into the new city. That has been done successfully in cities like Indianapolis and in Louisville.
The process of consolidation takes years. Aside from the technical, operational and legislative challenges, consolidation activities must involve a large and open conversation between citizens of the region, businesses and government officials. Our present crisis may be useful in accelerating the dialogue, but consolidation of services can best be achieved through careful, thoughtful deliberation, intentional and strategic action, periodic decision-points for public votes, and a recognition of and respect for the many individual interests involved.
Consolidation of services isn’t easy. The experiences of communities which have gone through this process confirm how tough it can be. But consolidation of services and the potential consolidation of governments will position Kent County to lead Michigan back to economic prominence.
We propose the creation of a multi-sector, multi-government task force to begin moving this initiative forward. Let’s tap the experience of the business community, the knowledge of higher education, the passion of citizens countywide, and the interests of local governments to begin leading us toward a better and stronger future together.
Now is the time.
This article first appeared as a guest commentary on Mlive.com on March 6, 2010.
George Heartwell is mayor of the city of Grand Rapids. Now serving in his second term Mayor Heartwell took office on January 1, 2004. The mayor has overseen a period of rapid economic development in Grand Rapids, even during an extended downturn in the Michigan economy. Photo provided by the city of Grand Rapids.
Sandi Frost Parrish is the chair of the Kent County board of commissioners. She is a graduate of Leadership Grand Rapids and was a 2007 fellow in the Michigan Political Leadership program at Michigan State University. Sandi was named one of the 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan in 2008 by the Grand Rapids Business Journal. Photo provided by Sandi Frost Parrish.