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Ferrysburg wavers on police plan

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:07 PM

Following a recommendation by the Spring Lake/Ferrysburg Police Commission to contract with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department for police services, the six Village Council members present at Monday night’s council meeting gave a straw-vote consensus to that recommendation.

Ferrysburg City Council isn’t playing the same tune.

City Council members Regina Sjoberg and Mike DeWitt, who also attended Monday’s police commission meeting, said they would like to see numbers for maintaining their own police department, or “going it alone” with either the county or Grand Haven.

According to proposals from both the county and Grand Haven, Spring Lake/Ferrysburg Police Department savings would be about $300,000 per year.

The police commission was not in favor of the pension plan administered by the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety because of unknown future funding payments. Grand Haven has a defined-benefit retirement plan for its officers, the same as the Spring Lake/Ferrysburg Police Department, which is currently underfunded by $624,000. Grand Haven has funded its program 92 percent, but still owes $1.9 million.

Due to the rough-and-tumble economy of recent years and poor investment performance, many municipalities, even wealthy ones, are experiencing setbacks with their retirement plan funding.

The Municipal Employees Retirement System of Michigan calculates minimum, recommended and full funding numbers that change every year based on multiple factors — including number of participants, age and market performance. Municipalities are not required to prefund pensions.

Village President Jim MacLachlan said the village has kicked in the recommended amount each year, but the funding still falls short because of less-than-expected returns.

MacLachlan said he and the village’s finance committee tried on several occasions to pin down the MERS representative on firm numbers, but they were told it is “a moving target.” MacLachlan said after a MERS supervisor finally provided some solid numbers, village officials decided they needed to take action.

The savings from contracting for collaborative police service could fully fund the pensions in about two years, according to MacLachlan.

While Ferrysburg Mayor Dan Ruiter said Spring Lake officials are not to blame for the pension funding issues — it was the economy — several Ferrysburg council members said because the village oversees the shared police department, they should have been more on top of the numbers.

“Why weren’t we informed of all this going down?” Sjoberg asked. “There’s $624,000 unfunded. Where was the oversight? I’m really concerned we weren’t done right by.

“I don’t think we need to tie our wagon to Spring Lake,” she continued. “I think we could fund our own police department, or contract with Grand Haven or the county without any ties to Spring Lake.”

DeWitt said he also wants to break ties with the village.

“I don’t want nothing to do with Spring Lake,” DeWitt said. “We’re in a hell of a mess here. We need to get a firm handle on the numbers to go it alone.”

Village Manager Chris Burns said last week it’s a great time to transition because the intergovernmental police services agreement between Ferrysburg and Spring Lake expires June 30. She had hoped for both councils to make a decision in April and have the contract with Grand Haven or Ottawa County begin July 1.

Several Ferrysburg council members said they don’t want to be rushed.

“I think this council wants to make sure Ferrysburg is well taken care of,” Councilwoman Kathleen Kennedy said. “We’re not ones to rush into something.”

Kennedy said she’s also in favor of exploring solo numbers.

To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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