On Saturday, January 28, Mayor George Heartwell gave his 3rd State of the City address during a community breakfast at the DeVos Convention Center in downtown Grand Rapids. The focus of the talk was on what the Mayor referred to as “economic sustainability,” even though the term was never really clarified. News coverage of the Mayor’s speech primarily focused on just one of the main proposals, the possibility of raising property tax for residents of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Press ran as it’s headline on the day of the speech, stating simply “Mayor: GR needs tax hike.”
With all the focus on a possible property tax increase, little attention was given to the issues of government efficiency and the increased corporate welfare in the form of tax abatements discussed in the speech. The Mayor said that there was a need to find more efficiency in terms of the City budget and cited the examples of cutting down on paper work and the purchase of 2 electric parking enforcement vehicles, which he claims will save the City $3,000 a year. There was no mention of evaluating the salaries of administrative positions, such as City Manager and his support staff. Heartwell did mention that 63% of the City budget deficit was due to the cuts in state revenue sharing and that Commissioner Roy Schmidt was involved in a regional campaign to reclaim those funds, even though no strategy was presented on how that would be achieved, nor how citizens could get involved. The Mayor also mentioned the need to cut city staff health and pension benefits to be “in line with the private sector.”
Most of the Mayor’s speech was focused on a variety of tactics to support business growth and business development. He proposed a knowledge-based tax abatement as one way to do this, with tax incentives given to industry in the areas of health care, life sciences and environmentally sound business practices. This would lead to a greater possibility of more environmental friendly products being produced in West Michigan, such as alternative fuel cells. Heartwell also mentioned the need to partner with regional municipalities to create what he calls “sustainable business industrial parks.” These environmentally friendly industrial parks would promote buildings that are LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Here again, Heartwell provided no concrete examples, just possibilities.
Many of the ideas for this State of the City Speech came from a report put together by the Mayor’s New Economy Task Force. The report from this task force was released in December of 2005, with a number of recommendations that are reflected in Heartwell’s economic proposals. The report is extremely business friendly, which is not surprising when looking at who sits on the task force, as the majority of the members come from area corporations and development firms. Overall, the State of the City address clearly indicated that it is local corporations that matter the most in the economy, with president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Jeanne Englehart introducing the Mayor and the event itself being underwritten by AT&T, 5/3 Bank, Alticor, Amway Grand Plaza, Macatawa and Mercantile Bank. In her introductory remarks, the Chamber of Commerce President said that the Mayor was a great advocate for the underserved, yet nowhere in his speech were working people, the poor, or poverty mentioned in Heartwell’s State of the City speech.