The Kent County Land Bank is Crony Government Gone Wild

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) announced its educational and electoral campaign opposing the Kent County Land Bank and the Kent County Commissioners who support it. KCTA has been active in Kent County for years fighting government corruption, inefficiencies, excessive taxation, and abusive election practices. This newest front represents their attempt to bring more sunshine on the new practices of this unaccountable government authority that is distorting local real estate markets.

The Land Bank is a local governmental authority that has as its mission the purchase of dilapidated and blighted properties that are over 3 years behind in paying property taxes. These properties are owned by the county and the Land Bank’s role is to return them onto the tax rolls as soon as possible. Land banks are used in 41 of Michigan’s 83 counties right now, most prominently seen in severely blighted counties like Genessee and Wayne.

Every year in mid August, the county holds an auction for the properties it has seized for failure to pay taxes. The goal of the auction is to create a market for private investors to purchase properties and to raise revenue to pay for essential county services like police, prisons, courts, roads, and parks. The Board of Commissioners’ own policy states that it is to maximize the return to the taxpayers on these properties which it has done for many years through the auction process.

However, on July 12, the Board of Commissioners, in a vote of 13-4, chose to hand over 40 properties to the Land Bank for just the minimum bid (the amount of delinquent taxes) before allowing private citizens to participate. Although it is impossible to know the exact amount that the county would have received for these properties it is very reasonable that they would have sold for five to ten times their minimum bid. This means that the nearly $500,000 that was spent by the Land Bank potentially ended up costing the county hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “The actions of the Board of Commissioners in their collusion with the Land Bank shows a complete disregard by the majority of county commissioners of their fiduciary responsibility towards Kent County. At a time that the county is contemplating cutting sheriff deputies and other services it is leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions on the table which is revenue that it will need to make up either in higher taxes or cutting services. This Board action was reckless and shows that most of the commissioners are more comfortable giving property away for a steal to central planners than allowing the market of private investors at an auction to operate as it has for years.

“The whole point of the Land Bank is to be the buyer of last resort for properties that no one wants at the minimum bid. The ‘impossible to sell’ properties they purchased included a farm home on the bike path in Byron Center (2796 64th St), a beautiful residential property in Alpine Township (5076 Montauk Dr.), and numerous other properties that were about as dilapidated as the new Children’s Hospital. This is exactly the type of crony government action that KCTA has been fighting since our inception. We have an unaccountable board running the Land Bank with the ability to circumvent the normal auction process and purchase property before private entrepreneurs or current homeowners can – all at a massive financial loss to the taxpayers.”

KCTA plans to run a social media campaign targeted at eductating the public about this crony government practice and highlighting the role that the Kent County Board of Commissioners had in violating their own policy for maximizing the taxpayers’ return on these properties. KCTA has begun a fund raising campaign to air a radio ad explaining the Land Bank and the reckless actions of the Board of Commissioners to the public.

To learn more about the Kent County Land Bank, please see our Issues page on the Kent County Land Bank.

KCTA Praises Channel 3 Reporter David Bailey for Courageous Reporting on The Rapid

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance today praised David Bailey, lead reporter from Television News Channel 3, for his hard-hitting reporting on yesterday’s news broadcast. Bailey’s broadcast involved an interview with Peter Varga, the CEO and director of The Rapid, the area’s local government agency that provides public busing service to Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville, and Kentwood. Unable to answer the most basic questions about The Rapid’s services and use of public money, Varga walked out of the interview and refused to answer Bailey’s questions.

Prior to this report, Bailey contacted KCTA for help in getting information from The Rapid because of the unwillingness of The Rapid’s staff to be helpful and forthcoming. Our own experience is very similar. Last year, The Rapid tried to slap KCTA with a $450 bill for a Freedom of Information Act Request, but backed down when we appealed that bill and pointed out that The Rapid’s actions were illegal and a violation of the Act.

Eric Larson, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, said, “Our experience mirrors the Channel 3 reporter’s experience. The Rapid works hard at preventing openness, transparency, and accountability to the public. Frankly, The Rapid has the worst record in the county of all local governments we’ve dealt with.” Larson went on to say, “Trying to get information from The Rapid on how our tax money is being spent is frequently frustrating and disheartening.”

The must-see Channel 3 report can be viewed in two parts online:

Part One:

Part Two:

KCTA Opposes Abusive Tax Election in Northview Public Schools District

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (formerly Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility) announced that it is opposing the tax increase election to be held by the Northview Public Schools district on Tuesday, May 8th. Voters rejected the same tax increase request in November of last year.

“Our organization did not take a position on the original tax request last year, but we are opposing it now because this is a classic case of an abusive tax election,” said Eric Larson, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. He continued, “We believe that elected officials need to respect the wishes of voters, not schedule election after election until their tax hike passes.”

An abusive tax election is defined as an attempt by a local government body to pass a tax increase shortly after it was already rejected by voters. Michigan’s laws do not prevent local governments from returning to voters every three or four months to ask for the same tax increase, over and over.

Northview Public Schools had two tax issues on the ballot last November; one of them passed, the other did not. The school district has decided to try again on the issue that did not pass.

KCTA will be reaching out to voters in the Northview Public Schools district to remind them to vote and to oppose this abusive tax election.

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance opposed a similar attempt by the leaders of Wyoming Public Schools to pass a tax hike after it was rejected by voters in May of 2011. KCTA got involved when Wyoming tried again just three months later to pass the same tax increase. After KCTA’s involvement, the request failed by an even larger margin.

KCFFR is Now Kent County Taxpayers Alliance

Kent County’s premier (and only) non-partisan taxpayer advocacy organization today announced that it changed its name and reorganized as an independent political action committee. The organization, formerly Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility, has changed its name to Kent County Taxpayers Alliance.

Earth Friendly? Not The Rapid as it Posts an Even Worse Pollution Record Than Last Year

As Earth Day approaches, the people of West Michigan are encouraged to be conscientious of the planet and its resources. Citizens are asked to rethink the way they live their lives in order to reduce their carbon footprint and the detrimental impact that they may have on the environment. People are often encouraged to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels whether it is by walking and biking more or riding the bus.

But does riding the bus really help the environment? Does riding mass transit decrease a person’s carbon footprint?

Last year, Kent County Taxpayers Alliance showed definitively that The Rapid transit system buses were less green than the average SUV. After reviewing the newest data that The Rapid provides annually to the federal government and its National Transportation Database, we have determined that The Rapid is actually getting worse performance from its bus fleet and is even more harmful to the environment than it was last year.

In the latest data, Rapid buses averaged 4.10 mpg which is down from the 4.17 mpg it posted the previous year.  Its greenhouse gas emissions were worse too as the amount of carbon dioxide released from each passenger mile traveled increased from 0.762 pounds to 0.774 pounds. After calculating the total amount of miles driven by the buses this comes to 25.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide produced by the bus fleet. In comparison, if people had instead used SUVs, there would have been 3.9 million pounds less of carbon dioxide produced in the Grand Rapids area.

“The simple fact,” said spokesman Eric Larson, “is that the buses get lousy gas mileage and operate mostly empty throughout the metro area to be an environmental benefit to the community. The fact that The Rapid is going to be adding even more stops and run more buses through the streets will probably worsen its already dismal environmental record. We will continue to report on The Rapid’s performance and work on improving its transparency as long as it fails to provide this information voluntarily to the public.”

A full explanation and example of the calculations can be found on the ITP Watch website as well as many other facts about The Rapid transit system.

KCTA Successfully Fights Wasteful Tax Increase in Wyoming

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, a local non-partisan taxpayer advocacy organization, is celebrating another victory at the ballot box. Today Wyoming Public Schools again asked for a 0.5 mill property tax increase for a so-called sinking fund. This fund would have enabled Wyoming Public Schools to pay for building repairs and other capital expenses, without having to dip into operating funds.

The exact same issue was on the ballot in May of this year, and it was defeated by a vote of 58% to 42%. Wyoming Public School leaders believed that voters didn’t understand the tax issue in May and decided to try again only three months later. KCTA did not oppose the tax increase in May.

KCTA got involved in this election because such redundant and repetitive elections display a contempt for taxpayers on the part of elected leaders. This is the only issue that was on the ballot in Wyoming and this election cost taxpayers over $9,000 to administer.

“We have consistently fought to limit the number of tax issues that local governments can put on the ballot each year,” said Eric Larson, spokesman for KCTA. He continued, “Wyoming Public Schools wasted more taxpayer money, hoping that voters wouldn’t show up to oppose the tax increase a second time because this was the only question on the ballot.”

The result today was 63% voting “no,” a higher percentage than in May. KCTA reached out to over 2,000 voters in Wyoming to remind them to vote “no” and send a message that these sorts of wasteful elections need to stop.

Get Out the Vote Effort Organized to Oppose Wyoming School Millage

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, a local non-partisan taxpayer’s advocacy group, began its get-out-the-vote effort opposing the second attempt to pass a Wyoming School millage tax increase. The millage request for 0.5 mils assessed for ten years in a sinking fund is identical to the request put before the voters on May 3rd of this year.

KCTA did not oppose the millage in May but will work to defeat the request on its second attempt this August 2nd.  Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “We are so disappointed in the actions of the Wyoming School Board to bring before the voters an identical tax increase request that voters soundly rejected by 16% only three months ago. Our mission is to promote transparency, government efficiency, and good governance. Asking the people of Wyoming, who pay some of the highest property taxes in Kent County, for a rejected tax increase again is a clear abuse of government power.

“We find it ludicrous that the school board chose to hold an election to re-request a tax increase that will cost the taxpayers over $9000 when those same voters definitively said ‘no’ in May. We believe no means no. Unfortunately, many government officials think no means maybe. In order to protect taxpayers we will begin an extensive get-out-the-vote effort before the election so that Wyoming citizens realize there is an election. We can only hope, if the measure fails again, the government will accept the will of the people after this election.”

KCTA Questions Second Wyoming School Millage Request

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, a local non-partisan taxpayer’s advocacy group, announced its disappointment in the Wyoming school district’s decision to ask for the same millage increase this August that failed in the recent May election. The Wyoming school district is asking for a 0.5 mill increase in property taxes for ten years in a proposal that failed on May 3rd by a 58-42% margin.

KCTA spokesman Eric Larson said, “Our disappointment and opposition to the Wyoming school district millage request is the same today as it was to Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC)’s request in 2007. After a narrow defeat in May of 2007, GRCC officials said the voters didn’t understand their tax request so they reran the millage only three months later. We helped defeat the GRCC millage then and we will seriously consider actively opposing this request. Ordinarily, we do not get involved in single municipality or school district millage requests but we may make an exception this time.”

“We are opposed to governments that continue asking the same question again and again until they get the result they want. Wyoming’s school officials should show respect for the voters and accept their defeat.”

“We find it insulting that the school officials insinuate the ‘no’ voters were voting against the bus millage and were unaware that the Wyoming school district question was a separate tax request. If the government believes you are intelligent enough to vote yes or no they need to accept the results.” Continued Larson, “Placing this issue on the ballot again is fiscally improper as a special election is being called in Wyoming to ask just this question. It is this sort of abuse of the taxpayers that we are committed to exposing and fighting.”

Mayor Heartwell and Backroom Deals Circumvent Democracy in Rapid Millage

On April 22, 2009 the Rapid made a route change to its proposed Silver Line less than two weeks before the election with little fanfare or explanation. The Silver Line’s proposed route to the medical mile connecting with Michigan Avenue was suddenly adjusted from Lafayette Avenue to Ransom. The new route would bypass the newly completed Grand Valley Health Sciences Building.

At the time the Grand Rapids Press vaguely reported the following: “Now Rapid staffers are exploring the possibility of stops near Wealthy Street and Division near Logan, and considering whether the current plan to use Lafayette Avenue through Heritage Hill is the best way to access Michigan Street NE.”

The question though, was why after years of planning did the Silver Line’s route change right before voters were expected to go to the polls?

The answer is one of back room deals, powerful political forces within the city of Grand Rapids, and a total commitment by the mayor of Grand Rapids, a county commissioner, and the leadership at the Rapid to push forth their agenda of implementing the Silver Line, even if democratic processes had to be circumvented.

The Kent County Kent County Taxpayers Alliance received documents from a curious citizen who issued a Freedom of Information Act request for communications from Mayor Heartwell, Rapid CEO Peter Varga, County Commissioner Jim Talen, and others that explain the extraordinary lengths taken to placate a powerful Grand Rapids neighborhood association that had taken the Silver Line millage hostage.

The Heritage Hill Association (HHA) is an influential neighborhood in the city of Grand Rapids because of its residents and its unique status as an historical neighborhood. That designation gives it unique ‘veto’ privileges for projects that are planned either in or through the neighborhood. According to emails obtained, the HHA was supportive of the transit system so long as it did not traverse their neighborhood. The HHA cited safety, vibration, congestion, and noise as reasons for their opposition. Due to those concerns, the HHA said that, if unchanged, it would oppose the millage and that it had to be altered before the election. City commissioner Rosalyn Bliss accurately noted that the HHA had the power to veto the entire project even if it passed at the polls.

Mayor Heartwell, Peter Varga, and commissioner Talen quickly went to work in an attempt to mollify the association. They did this even though, according to Grand Rapids city commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, GVSU was “honked off” that their facility would be bypassed by the new bus route. They then passed a resolution written by the Heritage Hill Association that simply mentioned that the planning board should look at more considerations with the routing of the Silver Line and make a decision right away.

Of course, the only input was from one neighborhood association that dictated a completely revised route of a major millage proposal before six cities. The reasons for the change were not made public to anyone outside of this small group of insiders and certainly not to anyone outside of the city of Grand Rapids. Afterwards, Mayor Heartwell stated in an email that the process was “a very healthy exercise in democracy.”

KCTA spokesman Eric Larson had this to say about the recent revelations, “The very purpose of our county-wide organization is to promote government transparency and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars. This episode with how one Grand Rapids neighborhood behind the scenes held the mayor, a county commissioner, GVSU, and the Rapid staff at hostage without allowing any input or explanation for anyone in the outlying cities is outrageous.”

“One of the major complaints we hear from people in the cities of Walker, Grandville, Wyoming, Kentwood, and East Grand Rapids is that the Rapid system is one which serves primarily the city of Grand Rapids and that Grand Rapids dictates the terms. Many citizens feel that the outlying cities are simply viewed as a tax base by Grand Rapids and that the real political power of the unelected Rapid board lies downtown.”

“During the Friends of Transit kick-off campaign, Mayor Heartwell described those who opposed the millage and expansion of the Rapid as ‘anti-community.’ Yet, he felt that the back-room deals he helped orchestrate are an exercise in democracy. We cannot help but think that the Mayor and his cohorts view the majority of voters who opposed the Silver Line in 2009 in disdain while they work behind the scenes to circumvent a transparent and democratic government.”

For a more complete time line and copies of all the relevant emails, please visit this link.

Rapid CEO Peter Varga Shuns the Bus, Moves to the Country

When it comes to the battle over the upcoming bus tax hike on the ballot May 3rd in the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, and Grandville the arguments have become heated. The pro-millage Friends of Transit and their opposition, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, have been presenting differing visions of the 31% bus tax hike and the performance of the Rapid.

One very common argument the Friends of Transit makes is questioning why KCTA spokesman Dr. Eric Larson is weighing in on the conversation at all since he is a resident of Cascade Township and will not have the opportunity to vote on the millage question. They also point to the benefits of an expansive public transit system that encourages people to stay downtown and shun urban sprawl. They argue that Grand Rapids must have a large public transportation system to be a vibrant town.

This value, however, runs counter to the actions of Rapid CEO Peter Varga. Mr. Varga has been heading the Rapid for 13 years and moved to Belmont in March of 2010. Mr. Varga, who points to the many benefits of the bus system, now lives nearly five miles from the nearest bus stop according to the Rapid’s own trip planner.

“We do not begrudge Mr. Varga’s decision to move to the country nor do we particularly care that he lives so far from the nearest bus stop,” said KCTA spokesman Larson. “However, we find the attacks on me from the Friends of Transit to be hypocritical when their chief executive officer lives more than twice as far away from a stop as me. He contributes financially to the campaign and often points out the advantages of the bus system when he is not in the voting district either.”

“I speak for our organization which covers the entire county with the bulk of its citizens and our volunteers living in the taxing authority. Our volunteer coordinator lives in Kentwood in Bailey’s Grove but is still nearly two miles from the nearest bus stop. Our project manager lives in downtown Grand Rapids and is about ten feet from the nearest stop. Our mission is simply to provide voters with transparency of the Rapid’s operations and the details on their proposals, like the Silver Line, so that voters can make informed decisions on election day.”

The Rapid’s web site says that Peter Varga can’t use The Rapid to get to work