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Mayor Heartwell and the State of the City Address 2010

January 30, 2010

Since 2004, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell has made it a point to give a speech to the community on the State of the City. Several hundred people gathered this morning to have breakfast and to hear both what the City has accomplished in the past year and what direction the Mayor would like to see it take.

In previous State of the City addresses, the Mayor claimed some of his visions, or proposals, have been controversial. The “controversial” proposals he mentions are – greater city/public school partnership, streetcars, a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, tax capturing, and a community sustainability project.

“Look at the amazing things we have done together in this town,” said Heartwell. The Mayor claimed that Grand Rapids is recognized as the strongest economy in Michigan, although he did not provide a source to support such a claim. He also said that Fortune magazine acknowledges Grand Rapids as one of the best cities in the country at recovering from the current recession. Heartwell doesn’t say what criterion Fortune Magazine used to make that determination, but it is interesting that he used a corporate journal as a source to support the performance of the Grand Rapids economy.

A brief acknowledgement that not all is well

Before he addressed the greater accomplishments of 2009, the Mayor did mention that not all is well in Grand Rapids. He said there was double digit unemployment, failing state tax revenues, a high drop out rate for high school students, diminished budgets, and failing minority and female businesses in the area. However, this is where the unpleasant realities ended and the positive comments took over.

By glossing over the severe hardships that thousands of people face in Grand Rapids minimized the seriousness of their situation. The annual Kids Count Report released earlier this month acknowledges that 2 out of every 5 kids in Kent County lives in poverty. A few weeks later it was reported that a new Brookings Institute study showed that Grand Rapids had the highest increase in poverty rates. According to the study, 24%, or one quarter of the population is living in poverty. The Mayor also did not acknowledge the amount of jobs that the city has eliminated due to budget cuts, which was somewhat of a slight to those individuals and families.

Now on to the good stuff

Heartwell said that 2009 will be known as the year of Green Grand Rapids.  He claimed that some 1800 people participated in the process and planning meetings and then took it one step further to form independent groups and coalitions to work on various projects like Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, and the Grand Rapids White Water group. We have written about the Green Grand Rapids initiative in the past with some critical assessment, which is always important considering how much positive attention the city gets for its efforts in sustainability.

Another highlight of the year according to Heartwell was the federal stimulus money for ($110 million) that came to Grand Rapids. The Mayor said the city was able to “hire more cops, use it for transit, home weatherization, K-12 education and neighborhood energy initiatives.” Interesting that he mentions that the city hired several police officers with the federal stimulus money, but failed to mention that more officers lost their jobs because of budget cuts. The Mayor also mentioned that he was in DC last week for US Mayors Conference and is convinced that the stimulus money showed that the economy is indeed on the rise. In fact, Heartwell told the audience that, “we shouldn’t let anyone convince us otherwise.”

In addition, Heartwell mentioned that the city and county have collaborated on some property in Grand Rapids that will mutually benefit the new Kent County Social Services building on Jefferson/Franklin and improve the neighborhood where the old facility was located on Franklin/Madison.

Now for the future

The Mayor had basically two main proposals for the next year. First, he talked about how the children are the future of Grand Rapids and to demonstrate that he announced a new initiative called The Mayor’s 50. The initiative is designed to have 50 local companies partner with the City of Grand Rapids to provide meaningful employment for 50 youth.

This is another example of private/public partnership, but it begs the question why the city feels it has to play a role in helping businesses find employees? Doesn’t this fly in the face of free market principals, which doesn’t want the government to interfere with business? However, the Mayor does not shy away from these kinds of partnerships and even prominently acknowledged the corporate donations that made the breakfast at today’s event possible – AT&T, Amway, Amway Plaza Hotel, Consumers energy, DeVos Place, Huntington Bank, 5/3 Bank, Mercantile Bank, RDV Corporation, Rockford Construction.

However, the issue that Mayor Heartwell addressed most was him emphasis on intergovernmental cooperation. Heartwell said that greater consolidation of local government bodies will be the dominant theme of the near future. Heartwell said that the present budget crisis is forcing governments to find new ways to do things, but he also acknowledged that this has already been happening in Kent County.  

According to a report from the Citizens Research Council, Grand Rapids and the surrounding communities are already engaged in at least 150 cooperative ventures. However, Heartwell said that these collaborations between governments must increase. In fact, the Mayor went one step further and proposed that all instead of having six cities, why not just have one?

Heartwell said countywide consolidation would make the area the 23rd largest city in the country. It would give the new government political clout, attract corporations, and gain greater access to federal monies.  Heartwell said, “The greatest gift we could leave for our grandchildren would be a consolidated government.” For a moment I thought I was listening to a speech from former US President Ronald Reagan. Heartwell did not talk about the details of what a consolidated government would look like, but if one were to look at this through an international lens you could easily say that what the Mayor is proposing is very similar to the Structural Adjustment Programs that the IMF/World Bank imposes on poor countries.

The Mayor concluded with upbeat rhetoric and was given a standing ovation at the end. As I sat there I couldn’t help but think about what all of this will mean. But it seemed to me that the call for consolidation in government not only gives greater control to the private sector, but it takes away the autonomy of communities.

Heartwell implored citizens to take a more active role in the democracy, but how does one do that when governments consolidate and the private sector enters into the equation on a larger scale? These are important questions that must be asked and all of us who live in this area must take it upon ourselves to make sure that with these kinds of questions there is greater transparency and accountability with the local government.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 10:01 pm

    I went to this event today to raise awareness of overdose fatality in the Grand Rapids area. Overdose is the second leading cause of accidental death of all people under the age of 65 in Kent County. More than 60 people have died from drug overdoses each year for the past four years. The only thing that kills more people accidentally in Kent County is car accidents. Death from drug overdose is something affecting the citizens of this city. It is something that should have been mentioned in a state of the city address; I was not surprised that it was not. People who die from drug overdoses are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters to someone, they are not just drug users. I wonder how many more people will die from overdose before we, as a community, choose to address this issue? I work with the Clean Works program. We have been training people who actively use drugs in how to prevent and respond to overdoses. Since our programs inception, we have trained 78 people who have successfully reversed at least 16 overdoses. This is not enough. We need a coordinated community response to this epidemic if we wish for people to stop dying. We need this issue to be on the table; it needs to be mentioned at a state of the city address. It is the state of our city.

  2. Ben permalink
    January 30, 2010 11:11 pm

    Nice article. I have to say, I was startled by how many in the room applauded the move to consolidate local governments. On one hand Heartwell described a nimble and agile city that could serve as a “platform” for greater community involvement, next he is describing how a county wide government could more efficiently oversee and provide day to day services to citizens.

    Creating one massive bureaucracy seems completely juxtapose to the concept of empowering more people to become active in local government affairs. Fortunately, I think the logistics of this will prevent it from proceeding much past the management of waste water and bio-solid waste (the model for which he touted all this would be based on).

  3. Nick Manes permalink
    January 31, 2010 4:54 am

    @Steve: I completely agree that drug use and the damage it causes (i.e. overdoses and crime) really does need to be addressed better. Primarily the status quo of if you do drugs you go to prison is clearly not working. I really admire Clean Works and think that it’s a program that aims to hit at the core of the problem. I hope its able to grow and be effective.

    @Ben: I think that the idea of trying to consolidate local government is just another example of those in authority trying to dance around serious problems rather than doing anything meaningful to fix them. For example, should this consolidation ever go through, which I agree is very unlikely, it would be very painful to watch as already ignored neighborhoods become even more blighted in lieu of services going to EGR. However I think that the response of people in places like EGR and Grandville will be extremely negative towards the idea of being annexed into Grand Rapids proper.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 31, 2010 3:59 pm

    I find it mystifying that Mayor Heartwell, who used to serve at Heartside Mininstry, and who also used to run a mortgage company, could gloss over issues such as the alarming increase in poverty in Grand Rapids (24 percent!) and the out-of-control foreclosure rate here.

    A real estate survey in 2008 showed that the number of houses for sale in Grand Rapids that were being offered due to foreclosures was between 40 and 50 percent. Many people who ended up losing their homes that year and in 2009 were not the actual homeowners, but renters whose landlords did not tell them that the units they were renting were about to be seized by the bank. They were faced with having to find another rental they could afford at a moment’s notice…come up with first and last months’ rent again…and somehow keep their lives going in the midst of the chaos of suddenly being homeless.

    We’re also facing a decrease of 25% of our jobs since June of 2008, and that’s on top of the massive job losses from 2000-2007.

    I’m sure that Mayor Heartwell is well aware of these issues. Why not frame his address in terms of concern for the many, many citizens who are struggling with poverty, job losses, the inability to find work, and the loss of homes, rather than frame it in this “Hey, everything is looking great!” tone?

    And a consolidated government seems like it would take away more control from citizens, as the article points out.

    I’m completely stymied by this.

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