Pro- And Anti-Consolidation Opponents Present Their Cases At LWV Forum
The pro-consolidation group Consolidated Government Committee (CGC), and the anti-consolidation group Citizens for Independent and Cooperative Communities (CICC), had the opportunity to make their case at a forum Tuesday evening organized by the Holland League of Women Voters.
The ballot proposal on November 5 will ask voters of Saugatuck and Douglas if they want their cities to merge into one, an issue that has caused a lot of division and tension among community members of both municipalities with differing views.
The CGC position was presented by its co-chairs, Bobbie Gaunt and Max Matteson, while the CICC side was presented by its leadership Matt Balmer, a Planning Commission member of the City of Douglas, and Bill Hess, current mayor of the City of Saugatuck.
“As the Tri-Community Plan can demonstrate, we had 24 years to think about it; the benefits of merging far outweigh the detriment of the long-term future,” said Matteson. “The question is not do we change or not change, but how do we choose to change. Without change, we are wasting money, a lot of money.”
Questioning the need to merge, however, Balmer, who owns a business on either side of the river, noted, “We have two fiscally sound towns.
“What looks good on paper, doesn’t look that good in practice. There are no certainties or guarantees,” he said.
Referring to his experience (former three-term mayor of Douglas), and his colleague, (current Douglas Mayor Bill Hess), he said, “We have first-hand knowledge of what works.”
Responding to written questions by the attending public, numbering about 120, the opposing parties at the forum offered up no surprises in their responses to queries.
The CGC group frequently referenced the independent study from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) showing about $500,000 in savings if the two cities were to combine into one.
The report showed most savings would come from the elimination of a duplicate municipal workforce: city manager, treasurer, and clerk as well as public works.
Two local governments with its municipal-overhead employees serving just 2,157 residents meant only 13% efficiency, the CGC group stated.
The CGC officials also cited a state of Michigan report indicating $14.8 million was available for municipalities for consolidation and sharing of services.
Meanwhile, the CICC spokesmen reiterated that nothing was guaranteed, neither a savings as high as the CRC showed, nor that the savings the CRC study noted would be applied to reducing the taxes of taxpayers.
Balmer and Hess also argued it was uncertain the state of Michigan would provide compensation money for the process of consolidation, which the CRC said could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Both parties agreed that any current debt obligation, particularly Saugatuck’s $3.4 million road bond, would be part of the “marriage.”
Both parties also said that they would work with one another, no matter who wins and who loses on the November 5 ballot question.
To the question of identity and what would branding and name recognition be like, Hess said, “The community will have a new name. Clearly there is an identity issue. This new community can’t be Douglas or it can’t be Saugatuck. I agree with Matt (Balmer), I don’t like Saugadoug.”
Referring to the hyphenated City of Winston-Salem, Matteson responded with, “Look at the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department, the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the Saugatuck-Douglas District Library, even the totem pole at the Old School House has Saugatuck-Douglas (the sign once stood at the south entrance to the City of Saugatuck on Lake Street). There is nothing wrong with that name, it shouldn’t have to be changed.”
Asked about the burden and cost of changing zoning ordinances and a city charter under a consolidated city, Matteson said, “There is a lot of talk about how it would cost $1 million, but the charters of the two cities are very similar, same with zoning. Eric Lupher (author of the CRC report) said they were 80% the same.”
Responding to the same question, Hess said, “20% doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot.”
He added, “Douglas has a more strict noise ordinance.”
Asked if the business community would suffer if the two cities did not consolidate, Hess noted, “Government is not a job creator.”
Matteson responded with, “Maybe it’s not the job of the government to be a job creator, but it is its responsibility to have foresight and provide for an economic plan to give new opportunity to incoming business.”
Matteson added, “What this whole debate is about is our future and how we approach it with a good, sound economic development plan for business.”