Rob Verheulen, Mayor of Walker, guest at Rotary
By BETH ALTENA
“This is a total shuffle that happens every ten years,” said Rob Verheulen, current Mayor of Walker and candidate for the newly-organized 74th District, which will include the City of Rockford. Rockford City residents will no longer be in the district represented by incumbent State Representative Pete MacGregor, should he prevail in his bid to keep the position.
Now, in addition to the City of Rockford, residents will be in the district which will include the cities of Grandville, Walker and the townships of Algoma and Tyrone. The redistricting is the result of census figures and is designed to make districts of equal size in population.
Verhuelen spoke at a recent meeting of Rockford Rotary, and said he is in his eleventh year as Mayor of Walker, with an anniversary date of his inaugural day on September 11, 2001. He said the position is a part time job. His most recent full-time job has been as a 30 year employee for the Meijer Foundation and as Fred Meijer’s personal attorney.
Among his duties at Meijer included negotiating with artists for the price of the sculptures and other artwork for the Fred Meijer Garden Sculpture Park, a job for which he was extremely qualified because he knew nothing about art, he explained. Staff there, being aware of the caliber of artists whose work was sought for the park tended to be in awe of the artists, and did not want to offend them while negotiating price.
Verheulen said he considered his general council job for the Meijer Foundation his “dream job” and said friends and family wonder why he would choose to instead run for office. “I decided to retire from Meijer and used my time to devote to public service,” he described. “We grew up in this state and it’s a great state. I want to keep it great for my nine grandchildren. This is a painful time in the state of Michigan.”
He said financial challenges have made an impact on the City of Walker as well, and he is aware of the cuts forced by a decrease in state revenue sharing. In Walker he was forced to combine departments, even for a time cut down to a four-day work week to reduce costs.
He also saw painful cuts while working with Meijer. “In 2003/2004 Meijer was doing well when our friends Walmart entered our market,” he stated. Verheulen said Meijer’s market analysis showed the competitor’s prices were lower, forcing the company to “go through an extraordinarily painful process, and today the company is flourishing.”
“So often you hear about cuts, cuts, cuts, but I don’t believe it. You can’t cut your way to prosperity. You have to invest in infrastructure, you have to invest in technology. You do have to watch spending, but you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
As member of many non-profit organization’s boards, Verheulen said he believes it is often the case that non-profits can do a better job than government, and it is important to see if there is a way to do things without relying on government.
He described himself as a fiscal and social conservative and said his first priority is jobs. He sees Michigan’s economic future in agriculture, manufacturing, and said the state needs to find a way to fund education. He believes in the right to life.
Verheulen said decision-making needs to be as much as possible at the level closest to the people. “If you have a problem with the federal government, are you going to be heard? Not likely. If you have a problem with the state government, are you going to get an appointment with Governor Snyder? Maybe. If you have a problem with a township supervisor, or local mayor you can walk right in and talk to them in front of their commissioner, with the local paper taking notes.”
“This district is so unique, it includes urban and rural areas.” He said he is starting to see a turnaround in Walker as far as finance and jobs are concerned. “We went back to a five day work week. We are an income tax government, and we aren’t back to the levels of years ago, but we are seeing a steady increase.”
Verheulen said Walker recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of being a city, and for the celebration invited businesses who have also been around 50 years or longer. He was surprised at the longevity of some of them, including Bissell with 136 years and another company at 150 years. (Editor’s note, if the Squire were in Walker, we would have made that list, having a first edition on February 8, 1871.)
“We are starting to turn a corner, and when people are working it solves a lot of problems,” Verheulen stated. He did note that Michigan has a long way to go and currently has an infrastructure deficit of $1.4 billion dollars on what we should be spending on our roads to keep them in shape. “When I talk to folks who are looking to move to West Michigan, education is important, but roads are important, too.
The state budget has been ravaged and the money isn’t there,” he said. “When I talk to your superintendent I understand there is inequity going back to the day.” He said in Michigan we have to find ways to do things better, faster, and look out for best practices. He said he has talked to school superintendents, teachers, the Michigan Educators Association, and “there is a lot of polarization.”
“The Democrats are too far left, the Republicans are too far right and there’s no one in the middle.” He said he is fond of a quote from Ronald Regan, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go off a cliff with my flag flying.”
He noted that term limits are likely part of the problem, and should he get the position as State Representative, “After six years I’m done. I voted for it at the time, but now I think it was a mistake.”
Rotarian and Rockford City Councilman Jerry Coon asked Verheulen his thoughts on the proposals. “I don’t like amending the constitution on things legislators should be addressing,” Verheulen answered. On the proposal to mandate the amount of renewable versus non-renewable energy, Verheulen said he thinks that policy could result in extra costs for consumers. He said he read an editorial that stated that these issues are what we elect legislatures to do and if they can’t get it done we should replace them. “Legislatures aren’t making decisions and I’m afraid we could end up like California where they legislate by ballot. You have to look at your deficit, you can’t spend more than you take in.”