State Funds Available To Help Pay For Local Consolidation If Passed, But City Leaders Say "Whoa"
It would be a “dereliction of duty” on the part of the City of Saugatuck if it doesn’t “immediately” begin looking and applying for state aid grants to help pay for the one-time costs associated with the proposed consolidation of the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas, say members of the pro-consolidation Consolidated Government Committee (CGC).
Not so fast, responds Saugatuck officials.
Some city leaders contend that consolidation is far from being certain at this point and, in either case, it would be a dereliction of duty if they do not first and foremost “check the facts” and “the issues” with the report recently completed by the independent public policy group, Citizens Research Council (CRC).
That CRC report found that consolidation of Saugatuck and Douglas would save taxpayers about $500,000 annually, while individuals property taxes would drop by about $550 per year or more on average.
The argument and counterargument were played out during Monday night’s Saugatuck City Council meeting where CGC Co-Chair Bobbie Gaunt read aloud a prepared statement on behalf of the pro-consolidation group, calling for the city leaders to be proactive in seeking state money to help fund the consolidation effort.
The CGC also raised questions over a recent article on Mlive in which the group claims Saugatuck Mayor Bill Hess, who is supportive of the anti-consolidation group Citizens for Independent and Cooperative Communities (CICC), essentially said he wants a “do-over” when he was quoted saying city officials will go through the report “line by line.”
CGC Member Dan Fox read a prepared statement about Hess and his support of the anti-consolidation effort.
Hess responded by saying it was an attack on his character and not the issue.
Members of both the pro- and anti-consolidation effort earlier had said they would accept the findings of the independent CRC report prior to its release.
The CRC also addressed the expected one-time or short-term costs of consolidationg the two communities if voters approve the measure on November 5.
The CRC report first raised the suggestion that officials of both communities “immediately” begin seeking state funding to offset those initial consolidation costs; that funding would not have to be used if voters decide not to consolidate.
The CRC report states:
“These costs for Douglas and Saugatuck can be expected to run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cities will incur costs related to the State Boundary Commission process and costs of merging operations if the merger is approved.
“The cities should not be expected to absorb these costs on their own. CRC recommends that the cities immediately begin taking appropriates steps to apply to the Michigan Department of Treasury for a Competitive Grant Assistance Program (CGAP) grant.”
The CRC report does not say how much the cities would be able to obtain from the state.
However, CGC spokesperson Jim Storey said, “In his legislative update back in June, State Rep. Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck), disseminated two sheets in which there was a $15 million dollar line item for communities to consolidate.
“The cities of Saugatuck and Douglas are the only ones in the state that are now being proposed to merge so…(there is plenty of money available for them to go through the consolidation process).”
During her public statement Monday, Gaunt noted the only place where the word “immediately” appears in the 56-page CRC report is where it speaks to the state grants available for the consolidation process She went on to say, “So, with millions of dollars in state aid available to reimburse municipalities for the specific expenses associated with consolidation, not moving forward immediately—precisely as the CRC has recommended—would amount to a dereliction of your duty to the taxpayers.”
In response, Saugatuck Council Member Barry Johnson said, “We are not going to start a grant process on something that hasn’t even started (consolidation).”
Other council members said their first obligation was to check and “correct” the report.
Saugatuck Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Spangler said, “It would be a dereliction of our duty if we didn’t’ check the facts.”
And Hess said, “I find there are issues in the report that need to be corrected.”
On his statement about the MLive article and Hess’ apparent efforts to stop the consolidation move, Fox read, in part, “It even says he (Hess) plans to go through the CRC report ‘line by line’ to raise questions about their savings number, a number, I would point out, that is highly consistent with several other privately funded studies on the matter.”
Fox continued, “Am I to believe that this entire city council is actually going to join the mayor for his ‘do-over,’ and go through the CRC study—the same study that 5 1/2 months ago, you all unanimously authorized to be paid for at taxpayer expense, for the express purpose of providing voters with one set of numbers—and with the mayor you’re going to come up with..another set of numbers?”
During the council comments section of the agenda, Hess responded with, “I find it unfortunate the Consolidated Government Committee has to resort to sound bites to attack against specific people.”
He added, “I hope to change the tone and keep it focused on what we need to talk about.”
Neither Hess, nor any city council member, addressed the fact that they had earlier agreed to use taxpayers’ money to pay for the CRC report to get a “professioal and independent” analysis of what savings, if any, residents of both communities could realize through consolidation, and they would accept the findings.
Left unsaid was the fact that if consolidation is passed, at least half the government officials of both cities would eventually be out of office; much of the cost savings would come from eliminating the then-duplicative official positions and public services’ positions now in place.
“There is obviously a vested interest by some government leaders of both Saugatuck and Douglas to come out against consolidation,” noted Gaunt in an earlier interview.
The question of whether the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas should merge or not merge is going before voters of the respective cities in a referendum scheduled for November 5 of this year.