STANTON — Many people have voiced opinions about a proposed economic development millage, but in the end it was silence that made the decision.
After a 39-minute public hearing Monday afternoon, the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners declined to vote on a property tax increase to fund the Montcalm Alliance using Michigan’s Public Act 88, which would bypass a vote of the people.
“The idea of Public Act 88 is no longer an issue,” Chairman Patrick Q. Carr of Lakeview explained to the more than two dozen audience members in attendance. “There’s no one here willing to pursue moving forward with that. Essentially, the idea will die.”
The idea seemed like a sure thing early last December, when the commissioners’ Economic Development & Physical Resources Committee unanimously voted to recommend the full board approve the request after hearing a presentation from Alliance subcommittee members. The request called for commissioners to enact a 0.1 millage to generate $163,000 to fund the Alliance’s plan to join forces with The Right Place, a West Michigan economic development agency.
Alliance members asked commissioners to implement the millage via PA 88, without a ballot vote by the public. However, after a lengthy public comment session at a commissioners meeting in late December, Carr ruled the matter must go to a public hearing before commissioners voted on whether to approve the millage.
Since that time, some of the commissioners who originally supported the millage proposal have changed their minds, most notably John Johansen of Montcalm Township, who is chairman of the county’s Economic Development & Physical Resources Committee. He said he changed his mind when he realized the millage would have to be renewed by commissioners every year.
“As the chair of economic development I will not be able to support the enactment of PA 88,” Johansen told the audience at the start of Monday’s public hearing. “It would not, in my opinion, be a stable funding source.”
‘The question is, what do we do?’
Keith Phelps of Stanton was one of the most vocal attendees at Monday’s meeting, asking commissioners numerous questions about the Montcalm Alliance.
“Why have donations fallen off?” he asked. “Why don’t people think it’s worthwhile? Why is the organization going to the taxpayers for a bailout?”
Phelps’ solution for local economic development? He thinks commissioners and Alliance members should publicly campaign for donations for the Alliance.
James Freed, the city manager of Stanton and the village manager of Lakeview, has been outspoken against the millage since it was first presented to commissioners last November. Freed was the only person who spoke out against the proposal at that meeting.
“I was alone at the time and I knew it would ruffle a few feathers here on the hill, but I did so because I knew where the people of Montcalm County stood,” Freed said. “Today I want to thank the dozens of Montcalm County people who supported me, who wrote me letters, who stopped me on the street to say they supported me. I hear you loud and clear.”
Freed didn’t mince words when referring to the millage proposal, saying its approval would represent the bailout of a failed organization. Freed said those who were pushing for the millage claimed local voters were ignorant of the facts, which he said only “represents the audacious arrogance of big government.” He cited multiple local municipalities that drafted ordinances protesting against the millage proposal, including city, village and township boards.
“The people of Montcalm County are not stupid,” Freed said. “These people are not ignorant. They disagree with this millage because it is a failed policy and a failed ideology.”
Freed questioned whether commissioners have even seen a contract for the Alliance funding proposal. Carr confirmed commissioners have not seen a contract.
We were told that in Gratiot County that they do this and they love it, then we find out that isn’t true,” Freed said. “We were told in Ionia County that they do this and they love it, then we find out that isn’t true. Are we really going to be the second county in the state to enact this?”
Washtenaw County is currently the only county in Michigan using PA 88 after Gratiot County repealed its PA 88 millage.
Rob Sporh, the vice chairman of the Montcalm Alliance, also spoke at Monday’s public hearing. He was blunt about how the proposal was handled by Alliance members.
“We were asked to go out and look for a way to improve economic development in Montcalm County,” he said. “Four of us volunteered to do that. We came back to you with a plan and we presented that plan. We haven’t done a good job of actually getting the word out. Everything blew up and we’ve been trying to play catch up.”
However, Spohr said the resulting conversation about economic development is a good thing.
“The way economic development is being done in this county is unacceptable,” he said. “The question is, what do we do? It’s only going to get worse. It’s going to keep going and it’s going to get more and more aggressive out there, and we need to play. We need to sit down and look at it and say what are we going to do differently than we’re doing now?”
Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City shared his thoughts by reading a quote from Albert Einstein: “Politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity.”
“We’ve all heard the politics over the past few weeks,” Baker said. “We need an equation to develop economic development in this county. I like the idea of a longterm method. Some method needs to be in place. I won’t vote for this tax increase because it’s not longterm, but I will vote for a longterm program that helps our county.”
Commissioner Ron Blanding of Greenville agreed that something needs to be done about local economic development.
“The biggest employer in the county happens to be Spectrum Health in Greenville,” he said. “That didn’t happen by chance. It used to be United Hospital in Greenville but they were not keeping up with the big boys and the board of directors decided they wanted to join up with Spectrum Health. They expand almost every year, employing almost 1,000 people. It’s not just Greenville. They have Kelsey Hospital in Lakeview and a couple other clinics.
“We have got to attract some industry,” Blanding said. “It’s a little bit like poker. If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re not going to get dealt a hand. It’s not going to come to us if we don’t get into the game.”
Which game this county decides to play remains to be seen.