The City of Grand Rapids is facing a fiscal crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression. After nine years of budget cutting — during which time we reduced the municipal workforce by over 27% — we now stare down the barrel of the greatest threat yet: the elimination of both Statutory Revenue Sharing and the economic development tax tools that we have used effectively to create jobs and bolster our sagging manufacturing economy. I was pleased when the US Chamber of Commerce awarded us its “Most Sustainable Mid-sized City” designation in 2010…but I know that the challenges ahead put that title at risk.
The City Manager, Commission and staff have been working closely to ensure that we remain sustainable for generations to come. We know that means that no stone can be left unturned as we transform the delivery of municipal services. I have challenged our staff and each Commissioner to look for creative solutions to the daunting fiscal challenges we face. Among all the other transformation activities we are exploring I also asked them to consider privatization of any City service that might be more cost effectively handled by the private for-profit or non-profit sectors. As an example, we have contracted with WMEAC for storm water systems evaluation services that we might previously have managed with our own staff. This contract is already proving to be invaluable to the City.
In the course of our transformation exploration I asked the City Commission to consider privatizing the management of water and wastewater services. I told them that I would not consider sale of the public water assets to a private company but would like to explore the possibility of turning over management under a contract that would ensure independent testing of our water or waste effluent. I am aware of other cities that have successfully privatized water management and I know that these large, international companies can bring a level of expertise in research and innovation to the service that no city can afford on its own.
After Commissioners individually considered this idea they concluded that it is not an option they wish to pursue. And so, rather than bringing the idea to the community for consideration, I have withdrawn it. There is much work remaining for us to do in our journey toward sustainability; none of us can afford to take precious time and energy exploring an option that has little chance of succeeding. There are many other opportunities for transforming local government and we will vigorously pursue those that have the greatest possibility of success.
For those troubled by the possibility that the City might privatize water services, you may be comforted.
Mayor George K. Heartwell
In late September of 2010, with the City of Grand Rapids facing significant serial budget shortfalls, Mayor George Heartwell sent a memo to City Commissioners asking them to consider the privatization of water and wastewater management services. Water management privatization was one of a host of ideas and city services put on the table. The memo was part of an effort to dramatically transform a City government that has faced funding gaps, cuts, and tough decisions for nine straight years. WMEAC and other environmental groups strongly oppose water privatization. The Mayor has decided to withdraw the idea due to lack of initial support.