Homan retires after 41 years of public service
By BETH ALTENA
Plainfield Township Superintendent Robert Homan was heaped with praise Monday, April 15 as former officials for the municipality waited in line to thank him for his years of work on his last public meeting of a long career.
State Representative Peter MacGregor presented Homan with a plaque with a personal thank-you from Governor Snyder as well as the signatures of other public officials in Lansing who endorsed the good wishes.
Former Township Supervisor David Groenleer was one of the men who stood to talk about the impact Homan has had on the community. He remembered being among those who interviewed Homan after the township made the milestone decision to implement a hired, professional superintendent, moving away from the elected superintendent led form of government.
“It was a big step. He was the first time to go to a full-time supervisor and that was almost 17 years ago,” Groenleer said. He said Homan’s efforts are visible throughout the township, whether in sidewalks, bike trails or other improvements.
Homan agreed to talk with the Squire and share his thoughts on the changes in the township over the years. What has changed? His answer: Everything.
Homan said his first day on the job was August 6, 1996. He said he can go down any two or three streets in the township and see evidence of the passage of years. The first big improvement project was the construction of the Jupiter corridor and bridge. Homan noted that when he started, Plainfield Township had the mall which has since been demolished. The theater had deteriorated into a wreck and was almost demolished, but instead was remodeled to serve as an automobile dealership. Plainfield purchased the former Montgomery Ward’s auto service center and built a new fire station, replacing an old and inadequate facility just across the street.
Another big change was Plainfield Township Hall at 6161 Belmont, which was nearly doubled in size. Homan that this achievement was the mostly to the credit of former Clerk Sue Morrow, whom he described as quite determined over the need to enlarge the structure. He called that a “smart thing to do.” The addition cost $800,000, which was paid for half in cash and half through bonds. In 1994 and 1995 the water plant was also doubled in size.
Homan said the biggest public project he worked on in his nearly two decades was the successful creation of the North Kent Sewer Authority and the building of the North PARCC wastewater treatment plant. He said the
accomplishment was a success story politically, financially and environmentally. “Five communities coming together in such a way and approving this unanimously—that’s amazing. What an experience that was to become reality in 2008.” He said the entire sewer project at one point hung on a single vote at Alpine Township. Alpine Township was the last of the five communities (Cannon, Courtland, Plainfield townships and the City of Rockford) to vote. The agreement had to be approved by all five communities and at Alpine that night three board members voted no, three voted yes, and the last member took his sweet time before he gave his nod and the deal was approved. (The Squire was at that meeting as well and it was nervewracking.)
He said the work and energy that went into making the plant a reality was intense and controversial, despite the fact that in 2003 sixty-three percent of the voters said they approved of the project. “It was inevitable and it turned out to be a good thing.” He said rates for users are about what the typical Grand Rapids user pays while other customers of GR are paying costs that are multiples of what they were in the 1980s. “It’s not cheap for the customers of the North Kent communities but there wasn’t much choice,” he stated.
Homan said there were a score of small projects over the years that were very good for the township’s residents overall. Some were tough to get through because they were unpopular to the people they affected financially. In particular, moving residents from private septic to sewer is important as the township continues to grow, but can be seen as heavy handed to those eventually required to use the service. The entire process “was like pulling teeth,” he said.
Homan noted philosophically that, “a lot of my career had to do with upgrading sewer and water and streets and drainage.” Another big project that took a strong effort was the improvement to the White Pine drainage district , a 250-acre drainage basin that was deepened and widened in 2001, withthe Kent County Drain Commissioner managing the actual work. He said the improvements can be painful and costly, but their purpose was evidenced, in this case, when a huge storm in 2010 on Memorial Day happened, and the improved drain served its purpose, saving residents money through damage that didn’t happen to their homes.
Another milestone moment in Plainfield Townshp’s history was when the Ten Mile landfill property was approved for parks and recreation improvements. “That was huge. I didn’t do it myself, but I had a hand in it and share the pride and sense of accomplishment held by many.” Homan said the growth and improvements of a township takes place largely out of sight of the public eye, but the benefit to residents is nonetheless very real.
In 1996, he remembers, some developers wanted to make a golf course on the property adjacent to the former landfill on Ten Mile Road. It was defeated because some board members at the time remembered that land was supposed to be earmarked for public recreation.
He said the property almost was put a different use in 2004 when it was proposed to be zoned partially industrial with the remaining portion as parks. “Right in the middle of that the Kent County Commission said, ‘Hey, what about a baseball park?’” He said that was the basis for the future use of the property for the West Michigan Sports Commission ball field complex, which is very clearly under development today and doubtless will be a huge economic boon to the area.
Homan said the whole Sports Complex concept was moved along over the years by the vision of Plainfield Township Director of Parks and Recreation John Short as well as the Kent County Board of Commissioners. He also mentioned the creativity and vision of Algoma Township leaders for the success in developing a world class archery center as part of the 10 Mile park development. Homan also allowed that timing and luck played a significant role in all this.
As a side note on the importance of continually improving a municipality’s infrastructure—sewer, water, roads, and drainage—Homan said the sports complex might not have been chosenits location on Ten Mile had not that road and the water and sewer lines to the area been improved before the complex looked at the area as a possible location.
The Road Commission was responsible for the widening of Ten Mile, making it able to accommodate the increase in traffic once the park is up and running. When the Meijer storecame to this area in 2001, the company substantially paid for putting in water and sewer lines, extending Plainfield Township’s utilities to 10 Mile and US 131. Both of those unrelated developments, the road and the water and sewer—implemented far before the ball field was proposed—clearly made the location a prime option.
“They might not have done it if the road couldn’t handle the traffic, and they likely wouldn’t have done it without public water and sewer because wells and septic would have been inadequate,” Homan suggested. “You really can’t really have good development without the proper infrastructure to support it.”
So many new things came to be during Homan’s tenure, but old things also went away. A major example is the hulking, dangerous Childsdale paper mill being partially demolished and the remainder turned into, of all things, a church.
Homan said he knows that few people might understand what his job was and how his work might have affected their lives. He suggested that you could ask twenty Township residents shopping at the Plainfield Avenue Meijer store where they live, most of them would probably say “Grand Rapids” because that’s their postal address. “People need to learn about their local government, what it does, and how it works. Schools need to make that a priority.”
“Just knowing I accomplished things that had a positive impact on people is sufficiently rewarding, but I was paid to do it,” he said. He said if he was independently wealthy, he’d like to think he’d have done it without monetary compensation. “I was alway treated fairly by his bosses—the elected officials of the township who represent the residents.
Homan said he wished his successor, Cameron VanWyngarden well. “He can bring it to the next level as long as he had a cooperative board and the staff and resources to do the job.”
As the challenges facing the township in the future, Homan said decisions about public safety are looming large. He said the cost of public safety to the township through fire and law enforcement are very significant inthe township budget at $3.3 million. He said, based on what the township has in place, it makes sense to structure public safety services the way it currently is, but other townships have found other ways to provide the services. He nonetheless believes something has to change.
“The Kent County Sheriff is our policing. We are paying for one round-the-clock deputy sheriff for forty years. The township has grown in 40 years, and the County has drastically cut the Sheriff’s budget.” He said there were 12,000 residents to the township in 1970 and the 2010 Census put the population at 31,000. “The Sheriff’s Department had more people on duty then than now, it’s intuitive something has to change to address deficiencies.”
Another need that Homan believes must be addressed is the worsening condition of some of the township’s multi-family housing complexes, which he said are “in terrible condition and falling apart.” He said there is a need for inspections of the housing for public health and safety reasons.
Interestingly, at his final meeting, Homan said he believes the township should spend the some of the money it has in its General Fund balance for worthy projects and other needs the township has put off addressing. He said he thinks it is a mistake to keep setting aside money as a buffer for unclear reasons while necessary projects, such as improvements and preventive maintenance to the township property, have continued to be put off.
He said when he started in 1996, the township had about $500,000 in the fund balance. Through cuts and conservation, the balance is up to $2.7 million. He challenged current and future board members to be more creative and forward-looking with spending as the voters make resources available, despite the economic anxiety that municipalities now face.
At his last board meeting, with final remarks reserved for himself, Homan told the board, “Government is not here to not spend money.” He seemed frustrated when the board did not approve the proposal to buy two smaller, lighter vehicles for the Fire Department, instead hedging that the proposal should be considered more fully at a future time, perhaps by a committee of citizens. “What the heck is wrong with leadership?” Homan said.
Following up on Supervisor Jay Spencer’s comments about “unfinished business,” Homan said that he wants to pay whatever role the Board wishes in the Township’s quest to bring local government programming through RCTV to all of Comcast’s cable TV customers in Plainfield Township. Doing this through Comcast’s cable TV system can be done. The technology is there and the Township Board wants it to happen. Rockford Schools’ education and government channel broadcasts through Charter and AT&T U-Verse. Comcast needs to step up to the plate and make this happen.
After a 41-year career, the last 17 at Plainfield, in a sometimes difficult and thankless job, Homan said he cherishes the notes, letters and phone calls whenresidents have personally thanked him for his service. Despite some instances ofugly and vicious attacks on the board and himself in recent years, he believes the genuine appreciationof his efforts far outweighs any negativity. “When you know you are doing worthwhile and good things, no one can take that satisfaction away from you.”