Thursday, October 16, 2008

Inter-governmental cooperation necessary for survival

With Michigan's state and local governments strapped for cash and costs increasing dramatically, that old bugaboo of inter-government cooperation and consolidation of some services surfaced at the afternoon panel presentation today at the University of Michigan & Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum.

The topic was “Regionalism – The Future of Michigan.” The panel was a mix of mayors and professional administrators: Daryl Delabbio, Kent County administrator and controller; Kurt Kimball, city manager of Grand Rapids; Al McGeehan, mayor of Holland; and Steve Warmington, mayor of Muskegon; with moderator Don Stypula of the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council.

A mix of public and private funding is the answer in some situations, they said (Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Millenium Park, the renovation of downtown Muskegon), but they also had plenty of thoughts to share about cooperation between the counties, cities, townships and school districts.

“We have evolved” although there is still some parochialism in Kent County, said Delabbio.

With Michigan being a strong home rule state, that is “probably our biggest obstacle.”

Kimball mentioned the possibility of a merger of sorts between Grand Rapids and Kent County. Though he wasn't sure how or if it would work, he said, “we need to build on our record of collaboration and take it to the next level,” said Kimball.

“Michigan is too cautious,” said Kimball, and isn't doing enough to follow up on the challenge from Gov. Jennifer Granholm in her State of the State address a year and a half ago. She said the state had revenue to share with communities that would cooperate with each other and share services to keep costs down.

Delabbio agreed there is a track record of good communication in West Michigan, that encourages cooperation. Even though there are some key issues he and Kimball do not agree on, that does not prevent them from talking to each other, he said.

But it should be the professional government administrators sitting down together to draft the agreements — not the politicians, said Delabbio.

Delabbio also took a poke at the news media, which he said would rather focus on failed collaboration attempts than the “hundreds” of inter-government collaborations in this region that work.

McGeehan agreed, saying the media is more interested in “border wars.”
If Michigan is going to succeed and prosper, “it will occur in our cities and the communities around them,” said McGeehan.

There are still grass roots challenges to cooperation. Between the school systems, a stalemate often boils down to the issue of the high school football teams.

The panel agred that public and private joint ventures are a great strength of West Michigan.

Warmington pointed out that joint public/private ventures have pumped $175 million into downtown Muskegon, which has undergone a radical change in appearance since the failure of the downtown mall in 2002 to the new construction under way there today.

—Pete Daly

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