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The Devil is in the Details 4/28/2021: Grand Rapids Legislative Agenda prioritizes the business class over everyone else

April 26, 2021

This is our latest installment of The Devil is in the Details, which takes a critical look at Grand Rapids politics and policies, based primarily on the public record, such as committee agendas and minutes.

Yesterday, we posted Part I of the most recent addition of The Devil is in the Details, with a look at the GRPD’s claims to protect free speech. Today, we want to take a critical look at the City of Grand Rapids Legislative Agenda for the coming year.

The City’s Legislative Agenda can be found on pages 23 – 27 in the Committee of the Whole’s Agenda Packet for the April 28th meeting.

The City’s legislative Agenda is prefaced by a page and a half of commentary, but we thought that the following portion was worth sharing, since it provides a rational and a framing statement about what the City’s Legislation Agenda is all about:

The purpose of the legislative priority agenda is to clearly outline the position and interests of the City on priority issues and matters that impact the City’s ability to operate effectively, while allowing additional legislative and budget issues that arise during the legislative session. The proposed legislative priority agenda will promote the City’s vision to strive to be nationally recognized as an equitable, welcoming, innovative and collaborative city with a robust economy, safe and healthy community, and the opportunity for a high quality of life for all.”

The document for the Committee of the Whole meeting lays out the Top 4 Legislation priorities for the City, with numerous priorities under each of the four areas, which we will critique one at a time. Our comments will be in italics.

I. Fiscal relief, sustainability and economic recovery investment including: 

  1. Income tax policy reform – with this include promoting a tax policy that taxes millionaires and billionaires, which would alone provide enough revenue to fund numerous sustainable projects, like affordable housing.
  2. Tax policy that enhances local revenue options 
  3. Reforms to revenue sharing and municipal finance 
  4. Permanent extension of social district enabling legislation 
  5. Restore Headlee’s original allowance for upward and downward
    fluctuations in millage rates based on actual inflationary activity to allow Proposal A and Headlee to work as intended. 

These tax policies, particularly those that address municipal revenue sharing, are important, in that municipal revenue sharing has been reduced for decades, primarily because of the Neo-liberal economic policies that have been adopted since the Blandford administration in Lansing. These Neo-liberal policy adoptions have followed the model that has been in place since the Reagan years and they have been supported by both the Republicans and Democrats. These kinds of policies have led to Michigan imposing an Emergency Manager form of government on several municipalities throughout the state, particularly during the Snyder administration. The Snyder administration also made municipal revenue sharing conditioned on municipal governments adopting even more draconian Neo-liberal economic policies, particularly the elimination of certain public sector employee benefits and the privatization of previously public services.

  1. Local options and tools to support increased housing and ensure all residents have safe, stable and permanent housing. This should include amending the Land Bank Fast Track Act to allow a city not located in a county with a county land bank to establish a local authority or land bank. – What Grand Rapids has done on safe and affordable housing has been grossly inadequate, despite their rhetoric about equity.
  2. Public safety policy and investments that advance safer communities, transparency, and positive community relationships and trust, with an emphasis on: 
  1. Responsible criminal justice reform; and  – what do they mean by Responsible criminal justice reform? What the City of Grand Rapids needs to embrace is a Prison Abolitionist perspective.
  2. Investment in safe neighborhoods and police relationships. – The City continues to insist that their needs to be more trust between residents and the GRPD, but fail to acknowledge that the GRPD continues to harass, intimidate, brutalize and arrest a disproportionately high number of Black and Brown residents. This is why so many people are advocating to Defund the GRPD.

IV. River restoration and revitalization project. – This is just a continuation of White Settler Colonialism.

In the City’s Legislative Priorities Agenda, they continue with 7 points about how this agenda will promote sustainability and equity.

2. That in furtherance of our City values and strategic priorities, we have also prioritized legislation, public policy and investments that are sustainable and equitable as follows: 

1) Encouraging, advocating and supporting legislation that promotes equity, diversity and inclusion for all. – this would be a good thing, but the City continues to demonstrate that they don’t practice this based on the number of families that live in poverty, the recent treatment of homeless people in the Heartside area, the GRPD’s constant attacks against protesters, and the continued massive subsidizes of business interests and developers with public money……just to name a few.

2) Preserving local authority as stated in the Home Rule City Act, PA 279 of 1909, particularly in the areas of planning, zoning, and public works projects. 

3) Continued collaboration on reforms for the betterment of all residents including: 

  • a)  Prevention of child lead poisoning & exposure; – again, this is a good things, but not enough funding has been put towards this.
  • b)  Acknowledging racism as a public health crisis and supporting policies and
    opportunities to dismantle structural racism and achieve health and social
    equity; – also a good thing in principle, but what will it look like in practice? The data on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities in Grand Rapids is a reflection of the fact that Structural Racism is deeply entrenched in this city and those that benefit from it, particularly those who have the most power, will fight back against any substantive changes that are proposed when acknowledging that racism is a public health crisis.
  • c)  Restoring and maintaining Michigan’s infrastructure; – again, this is a matter of priorities. The US has the largest military budget in the world, yet infrastructure in the country is deteriorating and in many cases dangerous to people. According to the National Priorities Project, $19.35 billion in taxes is extracted from Michigan to fund US Militarism.
  • d)  Addressing emerging contaminant response to lead, copper and
    PFAS/PFOAS;  – again, this would be a good thing. However, not enough is being done to address the problem and very little is being done to prevent the use of these contaminants, particularly by the industrial sector.
  • e)  Implement the recommendations of the Trial Court Funding Commission for
    district court funding reform;
  • f)  Protecting and ensuring long-term viability of pensions and other post-
    employment benefits (OPEB); – the City does not really support the pensions of the staff who work for the city, based on fights about contracts in recent decades, but if the City of GR means all residents, then that is an even larger, more urgent position to take, since the assault on pensions and benefits has been under attack for the past 40 years from Federal and State policies. Groups like the Acton Institute, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the West Michigan Policy Forum and the Mackinac Center have been crafting policy positions to undermine worker pensions and benefits. If the City of Grand Rapids wants to truly support worker pensions and benefits, they they would need to aggressively work on fighting many of the entities in this community that are undermining worker benefits and pensions.
  • g)  Including transit and mobility in any road funding solution; and
  • h)  Providing healthcare funding flexibility for innovative prevention and treatment
    options for opioid use disorder and other substance use disorders. – In this instance, the City should work closely with the Grand Rapids Red Project.

4) Responsibly protecting our environment and conserving our natural resources through policies and investments that increase climate resiliency, reduce carbon emissions, and support renewable energy production at industrial, community and residential scale. In principle, this is a good framework, but in practice, the City has been sorely lacking in protecting the environment. They need to stop using language like “our natural resources,” because they aren’t ours. That kind of language is a Capitalist mindset, which commodities trees, water, land, etc. Black and Brown neighborhoods have the most contamination and the least green space. Grand Rapids prioritizes too many parking lots and doesn’t do enough to provide better mass transit, as is evidenced during the week, especially during the morning or afternoon commute times with constant traffic jams. In addition, the City needs to adopt Environmental Justice policies, which are radically different than the white-promoted eco-friendly nonsense that is constantly saved down our throats.

5) Promoting economic development policy that is consistent with our community’s placemaking direction and that encourages catalytic investment to assist in promoting our city as a place with dynamic neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown including: 

a) Post Office relocation; b) Amphitheater project; and c) Pure Michigan funding.

Economic development in this city primarily benefits those with economic and political power. Instead of providing millions in subsidies to the business class on an annual basis, why not re-direct those millions to Black, Brown and poor white neighborhoods to provide subsidies to families experiencing poverty, especially for the ridiculously high cost of rent in this city. 

When the City of Grand Rapids talks about a vibrant downtown, they really mean a downtown that has been created by the local Power Structure. This is affirmed by the listing of the Amphitheater Project, which is just one of the many projects that Grand Action 2.0 is pushing for this city.

6) Supporting policies that address talent and workforce development opportunities, to include increased investment in successful programs like Going Pro. First of all, Going Pro is a program that allows businesses to use public money for employers to assist in training, developing and retaining current and newly hired employees. Why should the public fund this? In addition, the general idea of talent and workforce development is code for using public funding to attract and retain the professional class. Instead, the City of Grand Rapids should adopt a living wage policy, which for right now would be at least $20 an hour or higher, This would allow for lots of people to stay in Grand Rapids, people who are making minimum wage or slightly higher. Wanting people to stay in this city would not be driven by policies that benefit those who are already upwardly mobile, it should primarily benefit those who are experiencing poverty.

7) Promoting policy and investments that increases accessibility of affordable broadband service for all residents, as well as robust broadband infrastructure that supports business growth attraction and retention. The later part of point 7 already exists, with commercial broadband systems that primarily cater to and benefit the business class. As for providing more affordable or even free broadband, then Grand Rapids would have to offer something in place of Comcast and AT&T, meaning they would have to offer public broadband.

After reflecting on the City’s Legislative Agenda for the coming year, there are two things that stand out. First, while some of the rhetoric sounds good, the City’s track record on racism, equity, the environment, housing and policing are pretty awful, especially for the most marginalized in our community. Second, it also seems pretty clear to this writer, that the City’s legislative priorities disproportionately benefit the business class, while leaving thousands behind. In the same way the City of Grand Rapids would benefit from a participatory budgeting process, they would also benefit from adopting a process to allow the public to be involved in crafting legislative priorities. Isn’t that was the democratic process is all about?

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