Disincorporation debate

Marie Havenga • Jun 20, 2017 at 10:00 AM

More than 120 people packed Spring Lake District Library for Monday night's disincorporation community engagement session — but, besides strong emotions on both sides, the only evident conclusion is that there are still more questions than answers.

Another session is scheduled for 4 p.m. today (Tuesday).

The two-hour event was moderated by Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisian organization that has helped other municipalities explore mergers and disincorporation. 

The session included audience participation via cellphone votes. Perhaps the most pointed question of the phone survey asked those in the audience if they were to vote today, would they be for or against dissolving the village into the township. Of the 83 people who texted their answers to that question, nearly 80 percent said they prefer to keep the village intact.

Lupher said there have only been two successful government mergers in the past 30 or 40 years — Battle Creek city and township; and Iron River, which combined two villages and a city in the Upper Peninsula. In several other municipalities, voters turned down disincorporation issues, even when there would be obvious tax savings, he said.

“For the most part, what I've heard is people like having their communities,” Lupher said.

Panel discussion

Monday's panelists — Village President Joyce Hatton, Disincorporation Work Group Chairman Tony Verplank, Village Clerk/Treasurer Marv Hinga and Spring Lake Township Clerk Carolyn Boersma — answered questions from audience members.

In 2012, Hatton collected enough signatures to get the disincorporation issue on the ballot, but an Ottawa County judge determined that the village has no mechanism in its charter that allows for disincorporation. Last year, she successfully ran for village president on a platform of dissolving the village.

Hatton believes it is unfair for village residents to pay taxes to both Spring Lake Township and Spring Lake Village. She thinks there's too much duplication of government, citing about $800,000 in salary and benefits for village employees. She said each village taxpayer could save $700 a year if he or she only paid taxes to the township.

But Boersma said that may not be true. She said the Township Board has not discussed the potential of the village disincorporating, but that she can't say for certain village taxpayers would actually save money.

“We felt this was a village issue,” the township clerk said. “It's something they need to decide for themselves before it comes to us.”

Boersma noted village residents would likely lose some services that the village currently provides, such as leaf pickup, local street plowing (as a priority) and 24/7 police services. She said it may be possible to set up special assessment districts to retain some services.

Hinga said the village has spent about $47,000 to date on education, attorney fees and other disincorporation exploration costs. He estimates the village will spend about $100,000 through year-end, perhaps double that if the disincorporation process proceeds.

Tense moments

“There are a lot of unknowns because this (disincorporation) hasn't taken place anywhere in the state,” Hinga said. “There are questions that can't be answered. The state doesn't have answers. I can tell you what the cost will be if dissolution of the village takes place. There are a lot of questions there are no answers to.”

If dissolved, village property, including parks, may have to be sold to pay off debt.

There were several tense moments at Monday night’s session, with Boersma and Hatton firing shots about use of local parks. Hatton believes many more township residents use village parks than village residents because the township's population is six times larger.

Boersma questioned how many village residents use the township-owned Rycenga Park. She also noted that the township helps pay for Central Park and Lakeside Beach.

Audience members heckled Hatton on several occasions and applauded when Township Trustee Rick Homan said he didn't understand a word Hatton had said.

Hatton rolled her eyes after a couple of comments.

Verplank said that his disincorporation work group earlier this year recommended that village voters be allowed to decide an amendment change that would allow a mechanism for disincorporation, but that the group recommended against approving a charter amendment and also against any future disincorporation.

“We felt if we didn't push the village to do that, that President Hatton would push a petition drive,” Verplank said. “It's such a complex issue. I think we shared tonight a fraction of the information we looked at earlier this year. “

The work group's reasons for the “no disincorporation” recommendation are loss of local control, loss of core village services such as brush pickup and snowplowing, and loss of 24/7 police services.

Verplank said he was surprised to learn Monday night how much the village has already spent on the process.

“I'm a little shocked to hear we've more than doubled that amount,” he said. “I can only imagine what we would spend on a full election.”

Then, Verplank spoke directly to voters, asking them if they're against disincorporation to also vote “no” on the Aug. 8 ballot proposal.

“If you're not in favor of disincorporation, please save the township and village money and vote 'no' now,” he said.

Hatton said she's still convinced village residents would save taxes by dissolving the village.

Village resident Andrea Ross asked how many other audience members were in their 30s, and only two people raised their hands. She said the majority of people in her age group won't consider living in the village because of having to pay property taxes to both the village and township.

“You have to realize the generations coming up, we do look at where our money is going,” Ross said. “Looking at the future of the village, it's either going to become a dying village or an old people village because nobody is going to want to move here.”

Hatton praised Ross' comments after the meeting, but said she felt the session was one-sided.

“I did not have anyone on my team to support me here on the panel or the person who made the presentations,” Hatton said. “They were all very much for the village. The people they brought here were their people.”

Village Manager Chris Burns said she was impressed with the turnout.

“I think it's great we have so much interest in the process,” she said. “Obviously, the people that are here are passionate about this.”

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