Tree planting and 3 other talking points on $440 million Grand Rapids city budget

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A week before a budget hearing, city commissioners on Tuesday, May 27, made their final public comments about the $440 million spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July.

The broad overview of the budget shows a $967,000 surplus in the city’s $122 million general operating fund and also socks away $808,000 in a separate cash reserve. Income tax rates will hold steady and, due to voter approval of a parks millage, property tax rates will go up 12 percent.

As for specifics, here are a few line items that caught commissioners’ eyes:

• Tree planting

The proposed budget includes $160,000 of parks money for a tree inventory, with plans for a similar expense in the city’s 2016 budget. The inventory will take stock of trees – age, size, type, condition – in Grand Rapids parks and public right-of-way “so that we understand a number of attributes for each tree,” City Manager Greg Sundstrom said. 

“That helps us set up an asset management plan,” he said.

The commission has not contracted for the work.

Background: The city aspires to have lots more trees, enough for the tree canopy to cover 40 percent of Grand Rapids. The idea is that trees provide aesthetic benefit and also can reduce storm water pollution and energy consumption.

Revenue from a voter-approved streets tax – along with some of the city’s $1.2 million forestry budget – will help fund tree plantings along Grand Rapids streets.

“Our objective is to fill every spot in every right-of-way on every street in Grand Rapids with a tree,” Sundstrom said.

The inventory would guide city forestry staff, which no longer includes City Forester Tyler Stevenson after he left Grand Rapids for a job in Ohio, as they maintain existing trees and plant new ones.

“The tree inventory probably is long overdue,” Second Ward City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss said. “How do you have a strong urban forest plan if you don’t know exactly what you have?”


• City Hall remodeling

The proposed capital budget includes $201,250 for remodeling both the City Commission chambers on the ninth floor of City Hall and a sixth-floor conference room. The idea is to make the spaces more flexible by removing fixed seating and usable by several city departments. 

First Ward City Commissioner Dave Shaffer wants that spending delayed until next spring.

“I think there’s a need,” he said. “But maybe just a sign out to the public that this is the last thing that we do.”

Background: The proposed budget this year shifts more money into the capital reserve fund to pay for more maintenance of public buildings. Grand Rapids puts a portion of income tax revenue in the fund, and this year also will put in half of the roughly $5 million it gets from the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive Program.

How Grand Rapids will fund another $3.4 million in capital projects


• Pension funding

The proposed budget spends $1.8 million from the Transformation Fund – where the city accounts for revenue from a 2010 income tax increase – on the now-closed pension system for non-police/fire workers. Mayor George Heartwell questioned using Transformation Fund money on pensions, and Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong called it “a way to facilitate a transformational decision we’ve already made.”

 New non-uniformed hires now get a 401(k)-style retirement benefit instead of a city pension, but Grand Rapids still has to pay what it promised to past workers. That amount is surging this year to 25.5 percent of covered payroll, up from 21.1 percent in the current fiscal year. An actuarial projection forecasts that the rate will fall to 22.3 percent next year, then steadily fall in later years. 

“(The Transformation Fund expense) is simply to take this peak off the contribution schedule,” said Scott Buhrer, the city’s chief financial officer. “In order to get through 2015, we felt it appropriate (to spend Transformation Fund money in this way). We believe the pension change was transformational. In fact, some may argue it’s on the most transformational things that we’ve done.”

$1.8 million for pensions: How new Grand Rapids budget spends 2010 income tax money


• Library services

Grand Rapids Public Library is cutting 18 jobs to cover a $914,000 budget gap. Heartwell directed city staff to look at how the Grand Rapids library can collaborate with Kent District Library. 

“There are bound to be ways that those two independent systems can work together to create efficiencies for both and cost savings for both,” he said.

 The Grand Rapids Employees Independent Union has pushed the Board of Library Commissioners to consider cost-cutting measures other than laying off rank-and-file staff, but the board has told Library Director Marcia Warner not to cut hours or close branches. Meanwhile, Kent District Library also is dealing with revenue constraints due to lagging property values. KDL in August will ask voters to increase property taxes.

Union protest at Grand Rapids Public Library: Will patrons suffer from job cuts?

45 percent tax increase? Kent District Library to settle on millage request


The hearing is 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 3, at Grand Rapids University Prep Academy, 512 S. Division Ave.

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