Providing more with less, looking to the future a common thread
by BETH ALTENA
Representatives from the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, schools, City of Rockford, Kent County, the State House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate spoke Monday, Dec. 12, at Rockford High School, presenting a variety of opinions about the state of our community. A common theme of looking ahead to face challenges of our state and country as well as accomplishments achieved seemed to run through the discussions.
Rockford’s Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Shibler spoke first, describing the district’s work on long- and short-term goals. He explained that in his early years with Rockford, he helped establish a Ram Action Model for Success (RAMS), now in its eighth cycle of three-year comprehensive plans. He said each RAMS plan takes into account the opinions of residents across the demographic spectrum—from empty-nesters, business people, seniors, parents of school-age children, etc.—who took surveys, including answering questions and providing narratives.
Shibler said the district began the process in 1989 because the school leadership felt it was important for the community to decide what is important to the district. He said despite increasing financial challenges, the RAMS has helped the district complete 96 to 97 percent of the identified goals. He pointed out that Rockford Public Schools is a base-foundation district—among those schools in Michigan who receive the lowest level of funding per student. Today, he said, Rockford receives $7,046 per student, compared to $7,300 per student the district annually received in 2008. He said in 2012, cuts may bring the per-student funding for the district to $6,846.
Despite continued lower finances, Shibler reported that Rockford is fortunate to have “a performance school district.” Rockford and East Grand Rapids are the only two districts in Kent County to have all schools receive As in state evaluation, and the only large district in the state of Michigan to receive the all-A recognition.
In 1994 Rockford became the only school in the state to offer a guaranteed diploma—students who fail to be successful in jobs that require high-school level skills can return to receive additional education at no charge. This year, 50 juniors received a 30 or higher on their ACT tests, and the Rockford marching band earned the top 25 in the United States and the third highest in the state of Michigan. The girls volley ball team just took the state championship, which is Rockford’s 36th state championship in 17 different sports.
“There is no limit to the human spirit,” Shibler said of the secret to success at Rockford Public Schools, crediting community support for much of the success at all levels within the district.
Shibler said he will continue to fight for school reform to create an even playing field for all districts. “I’m 65 years old,” he said. “If Newt Gingrich can run for president at 68, I think I can stay here until they find me laying across my desk.”
Rockford City Manager Michael Young was the second speaker of the luncheon. He said at 16 years with Rockford, he has not been here as long as Dr. Shibler, but has also seen considerable changes in funding.
“Last year we said it was a difficult year. This year was more difficult,” Young said. “Despite challenges, the City is in good financial shape.”
The reason for the City’s stability is the City Council’s foresight to look more than one year into the future and plan for change. Young said some communities have fallen into difficulty due to unwise decisions on such issues as compensation and legacy costs. “We have not done that,” he said.
“We are at a point right now where we have to prove [to the state] that we are applying the best practices,” Young said, or the remaining minimal funding the state provides will be forfeit. He described this burden as “a huge anchor hanging over our heads.”
The council and City are concerned about the possibility of the elimination of the Personal Property Tax for businesses, which is 12 percent of the City’s budget. Young called the possible elimination of the tax without any replacement, “drastic.”
“Right now that is on hold and we hope it stays on hold,” said Young.
Young noted of the current governor, “When he makes a decision, it happens quicker than we’ve ever seen.”
Like Shibler, Young said tough times have not eclipsed a wealth of positives for the City, its residents and business community. “It’s neat to be part of a strong partnership with our business community,” Young said.
He recounted the growth of the Rockford First campaign, including the series of commercials intended to bring visitors and new residents to the community. “We were criticized early on for that,” Young said. “We were told that is not the role of government.”
Young said 42 percent of the City’s tax base is from businesses—industry and retail. “They support the residential services we supply.”
Among accomplishments, Rockford is the first city in Michigan to have an app developed. Young also praised the Wolverine Worldwide redevelopment of the former tannery site, saying the company took a financial risk in the demolition of the buildings, leaving “a beautiful site on one of the area’s best trout rivers.”
Young also enthusiastically mentioned the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC) sports complex right at Rockford’s front door. “Imagine the number of people coming into our community,” he said. He briefly discussed finding a way to implement a trolley or shuttle service to make it easier for visitors of the complex to come to downtown Rockford.
Finally, Young reminded the audience that the City is still actively working to maintain or improve services during a time of reduced income. In 2012 the City will merge the police and fire departments into a Department of Public Safety.
“We will take existing resources to provide a higher level of services and cut $100,000 from our budget.”
Young said the merge will provide all police officers and firefighters with cross training as a cost-cutting measure. “Everyone is on board with this,” Young said. “Even our 56-year-old police chief who never thought he’d be dragging a fire hose.”
Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan described $20 million in cuts in recent years for the county of Kent. He said the county is fortunate to have a rare AAA rating, enjoyed by only one percent of counties. Also happy with the development of the WMSC, Morgan said he was fortunate to be chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners when the organization was founded to bring sports-related activities to West Michigan.
Created in 2007 and under the leadership of Mike Gusweiler, the WMSC brought in an estimated $1 million in its first five years. The commission has a $400,000 agreement with the Kent County Department of Public Works to take ownership of 80 acres in Rockford in Plainfield Township, southwest of the City of Rockford off Ten Mile Road. That sports complex would have an incredible economic impact for this area, Morgan described.
Morgan said he is also fortunate to serve on the county’s Aeronomics Board, and considers the Gerald Ford International Airport the gateway to West Michigan. He said improvements to the airport have allowed it to attract eight major carriers reaching 23 markets and employs 100 people. He said the airport brings in $32 million annually; $12 million from parking. It is the second busiest airport in Michigan and serves 2.2 million passengers annually.
State Representative Pete MacGregor also spoke, describing his decision to work on the appropriations committee—a tough job in a time when appropriations were being cut across the board.
“Everybody’s ox was going to get gored,” he said.
MacGregor explained the need to make changes in Lansing on all counts, reform in tax code, spending and regulations and red tape. “We made a lot of positive changes,” he said, describing the state’s credit rating upgrade to positive.
He said Michigan was also recently moved up to the seventh state in the nation in which to do business, and upgraded from 30th to 16th in economic growth. Finally, Michigan has been recognized as having the second fastest economic recovery in the country.
“Businesses want confidence, consistency and clarity,” MacGregor stated.
Among bragging rights are the recent elimination of the Michigan Business Tax, healthcare reform for businesses, crackdowns on welfare fraud and credit card fraud. He said legislators have taken cuts to heart and taken a 10 percent pay cut, an 18 percent cut in office expenses, eliminated lifetime healthcare benefits for legislatures, and are paying 20 percent of their healthcare costs.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, via a remote video recording, also spoke on the theme of looking to the future.
“In Michigan we grow things and make things,” she said.
Stabenow said agricultural jobs are increasing five times faster than any other industry, and one out of five jobs is in agriculture, and one out of three in manufacturing. She said Kent County is the first in Michigan and eighth in the United States in the new, emerging area of bio-based engineering.
Stabenow said during the last number of months she has been involved with the Supercommittee in a deficit reduction strategy. “Even though the Supercommittee didn’t get the work done, we have provided them with a framework,” she said.
Michigan has more diversity of crops than any other state with the exception of California, Stabenow said.
She also noted that the majority of jobs in Michigan come from small business. “In Michigan, when it’s tough, we put our heads down and get work done.”
Dr. Carl Stites, president of the Board of Directors of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, wrapped up the day’s discussions, speaking about the health of the organization. He said the Chamber, under new structure, doubled and tripled in size during the years of 2004, 2005 and 2006. In the last three or four years, it maintained its membership.
“That’s a testament to our chamber board, members and staff,” he said. “People working together has been amazing. There are hundreds helping and only three on staff getting paid.”
The Chamber has many events in which members have participated in the past and continue to grow as well as new events and programs, such as the Chamber University. Among Chamber accomplishments are the new area map, the Welcome Bag program, the Community Expo, the Chamber Network Circle, Quick Hit e-mails, the annual golf outing, Santa Parade, Start of Summer Celebration, the Cannon Treasure Hunt, and one weekend of the three weekends of Harvest Fest.
“I look forward to a great 2012,” Stites said. “Everything we do here is big—it seems to be huge.”