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Archive for January, 2010

Ten years ago when the West Michigan Strategic Alliance was formed, there were hundreds of people from around the region who met to discuss the problems we faced. That was important work. In the past decade, we have done much to address the problems in our economy, environment, urban centers, and society at large (learn more about WMSA history).

So, there comes a time to talk positively about the state. We can celebrate past achievements, and also address ongoing problems with hope instead of despair.

So it’s nice to see that Rapid Growth Media is launching a speaker series on “Touting Michigan” to do just that.

Meanwhile, a new Pure Michigan Living Web site and campaign were launched this week to also celebrate the positive attributes of Michigan.

Here’s hoping both the event series and campaign generate some positive momentum for both the state and the West Michigan region.

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The Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) at Grand Valley State University–a WMSA partner–has released its 2009 annual report, or a “year in review” of their various projects related to studying and improving water quality throughout the region. It’s an impressive list of achievements, including a significant contribution to the “Vital Signs” report WMSA publishes each year. This is mentioned on page 2 of the AWRI report. You can view the entire report online.

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The December 17, 2009 editorial in The Grand Rapids Press, “Kent County Governments Should Take a Serious Look at Consolidation,” is a timely and important call for units of government to rethink how they provide services to citizens. But, while I agree with the editorial, I would make two changes.

First, consolidation is only one option. Many are opposed to consolidation and the loss of autonomy it represents. Collaboration, by comparison, allows for cost savings and more strategic delivery of services while still respecting the separate authority of local units of government.

A second change in focus from the original Press editorial has to do with the scope. The Press focused on Kent County; and I would advocate expanding collaborative discussions to local units of government throughout the eight counties the West Michigan Strategic Alliance (WMSA) has identified as “West Michigan.” This would allow for collaboration among local units not only within counties, but across county boundaries as well.

As it turns out, government leaders in West Michigan have been collaborating all along and see the need for more. We met the last several months with government officials from 31 units of government in the region who affirmed this. Among other things, these officials indicated that the public generally is not aware of the role of government until services are eliminated. There is also consensus that the current financial crisis will demand that all units of government—from county to village—will need to go beyond incremental change and consider broader restructuring in order to more effectively and efficiently serve the needs of residents.

Government leaders recognize that collaboration isn’t always easy. It requires time to devote to it. Trust and good relationships with partners are essential, which makes it easier to collaborate with immediate neighbors. Sometimes, collaboration involves giving up a little in order to gain a lot. Also, it may be wise to start small and build, since collaboration is a work in progress. Sometimes state law and other realities can be a barrier to collaboration.

Government leaders also stressed that collaboration is not always about cost savings—it is also about improving services. There are hundreds of existing examples of collaborations that work. Some of the more interesting examples include: rural ambulance service; a jointly owned fire hall; a river dredging/composting project; partnerships with local school districts for cooperative fueling arrangements and recreational programs; waste hauler agreements; cemetery tending by those on community service; and joint planning commissions. These existing collaborative efforts can serve as best practice examples to stimulate other innovative ideas to save money and maintain or improve service.

In our discussions with government leaders in West Michigan, numerous additional ideas for collaboration emerged. Among them were: pooled purchasing power; expansion of fire authorities; combined wireless infrastructure; coordinating protection and use of environmental assets, or “green infrastructure”; coordinated planning and zoning; developing inventories of able equipment and human resources and linking transit systems between Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties.

Because we understand the difficulty of bringing ideas to action, WMSA stands ready to help governmental units work toward more collaboration. In the months ahead, we will work to help educate citizens on the functions and responsibilities of government. We will promote a targeted agenda and help local units of government in West Michigan to have a unified voice on key issues. We will also bring the business community and others to the table, to explain the impact on them and to solicit their involvement in public/private partnerships.

In the near future, WMSA will build a database of existing government collaborations and case studies of a few highly successful examples in the region to help officials see and share best practices already in place.  WMSA, at the suggestion of those we met with, is evaluating the facilitation of two pilot projects. One will be a project of collaborating across counties; the other will be a collaborative effort within a county involving the county, city, township, and village levels of government.

As WMSA celebrates its 10th year, our mission “to be a catalyst for regional collaboration” is perhaps even more relevant. Focusing on intentional collaboration among local units of government will benefit all residents of the region.

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