Thursday, April 14, 2011

Should the Tri-Cities Become One?

(From the April 14, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I live in Spring Lake Township. When I go to the bank or the library I’m in the Village of Spring Lake. I pass through Ferrysburg when I drive to church, and end up back in Spring Lake Township. I am writing this column at a coffee shop in Grand Haven.

But in all of the above, I never feel like I have left town.

Maybe you feel the same way. You could live in any one of the local cities, villages or townships, but you really don’t envision yourself crossing borders when you go about your daily activities. When you meet people from somewhere else and they ask where you live, you probably just say “Grand Haven” even if you live in Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, Robinson Township or any other place beyond the technical boundaries of Coast Guard City.

So I started thinking recently about why all these local municipal entities don’t just merge. This idea has taken on more plausibility recently since just to our east a group calling themselves the “One Kent Coalition” has started talking about merging Kent County and Grand Rapids. Advocating for folding the county into what would be a much larger city are some big players, including former mayors of Grand Rapids suburbs and other community supporters. They are still debating it there, and it will be interesting to see if a merger of Kent County and Grand Rapids happens or not.

But either way, it seems to make some sense that we talk about it here. I’m sure there would be some reasonable objections, but there also are reasons that combining municipalities makes some sense.

Among the objections would be the loss of local representation. If you live in Ferrysburg or Spring Lake, you might fear that your civic voice would be drowned out in a larger entity. However, that could be addressed by the structure of a new, merged city. Former separate cities and villages could be considered districts or wards, and a new city charter could stipulate that each district have appropriate representation on a city council.

Similarly, some would worry that one combined city would be difficult given the variety of local ordinances, building zones and laws. But a new city council could either work to derive common laws, or allow separate zoning by district.

Taxes would be another issue I’m sure. With a long history of different local elected officials, and different opinions of local citizens on ballot proposals, special assessment districts, and millages, tax rates are different. Those could be preserved as distinct tax rates as well until certain bonds are paid off, and eventually the new city could work out a common tax code for the newly united city.

That leads to one of the advantages. In a merged municipal entity, services could be combined as well, which would be a case for lower taxes for all. We already have shared police service with Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. Many other services and jobs could be combined as well. I know the people who currently hold those jobs would be understandably upset, but the taxpayers have the say on how many “employees” they need. I heard about another area of the country where there was a municipal merger and costs declined 20% and the number of employees was reduced from 7,000 to 5,000. In an era of constant public budget crisis, that seems like good sense. A Grand Rapids Press editorial pointed out that it takes 537 legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives to run the whole country, but in Grand Rapids alone there are 637 people overseeing local governments. Maybe downsizing is overdue.

Years ago, when Rix Robinson was one of the first settlers to the region, there were no bridges or easy crossings of the Grand River and Spring Lake. It may have made sense then that three separate communities rose up where water clearly and dramatically separated them. But today, with bridges and modern transportation, there’s little reason for separate cities and villages. The local Chamber of Commerce and Community Foundation recognize the obvious reality and serve the whole area. It’s time to at least talk about doing the same with local government.