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The making of our city budget

Sparked by the decisions of City Commissioners, the politics beat explores how budget decisions are made for Grand Rapids employees
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How do we budget our city?

The first few City Commission meetings of 2012 sparked an investigation into the planning process of Grand Rapids' budget. Who makes the decisions? How are employees paid? What is collective bargaining? Sitting in on a commission meeting can be difficult without knowing these details. The Fiscal Services Office was consulted so we could be sure citizens are as informed as the elected officials.


Nearly all decisions are made through a committee process. When something is on the agenda, all members of the committee must come to a unanimous agreement before an ordinance is presented in a commission meeting. When a committee agrees on something, it means they recommend it as a best practice for the city to adopt. There are three committees that City Commissioners take part in:

  • Fiscal Committee (Bliss, Lumpkins, Shaffer)
  • Community Development Committee (Gutowski, Kelly, White)
  • Committee of the Whole (This committee includes all commissioners & Mayor Heartwell)

The January 24 commission meeting showed the importance of researching the ordinance and budget process. Commissioners were quickly adopting the pension alterations, salary freezes, reductions, and increases for various city employees. When First Ward Commissioner Gutowski stated, "Our firefighters will get a whopping salary increase of zero," it became evident changes were taking place for the staff of our city in many ways.

In order to cover local politics for The Rapidian well, we would need a better understanding of the process, procedures and structure. This meant Nick Manes and I went down to the seventh floor of City Hall and met with Chief Financial Officer Scott Buhrer. Here we learned that the Fiscal Plan for Grand Rapids is developed by the Fiscal Committee. Once it is established, it becomes the plan of the City Commission. Our elected officials execute and determine final decisions for the budget.

Collective Bargaining

Almost 90% of city employees are covered under collective bargaining, according to Buhrer. This means many city employees work for unions and union contracts are negotiated between the city and respective union leaders. Technically, the city commission is the employer for city employees and they have to approve all collective bargaining recommendations. The collective bargaining negotiations include items that must be agreed upon between the city and the unions including wages, benefits and working conditions.

Sometimes negotiations can last up to 30 months, since some unions represent thousands of employees. Most labor agreements last three years since it is a tireless process that takes careful planning and officials would have difficulty devoting time to it each year. Many of the unions understand that the city has difficulties meeting budget constraints. No decision moves forward until a union ratifies changes to their contracts, however many compromises are made along the way.

Unions & Employees

Buhrer estimated that there are 1,450 regular full-time city employees in Grand Rapids. This number does not include part-time positions (such as seasonal tax assessors).

With the help of the Labor Relations Office, we learned that the following unions work for the city of Grand Rapids:

  • Grand Rapids Employee Independent Union
  • Grand Rapids Police Officers Association
  • International Association of Firefighters
  • Police Officers Labor Council
  • Association of Public Administrators of G.R.
  • Police Command Officers Association
  • General Teamsters - Local 406
  • 61st District Courts**
  • Grand Rapids Public Library**
  • 1 Non-Represented Employees Unit

**The courts and library do their own bargaining, though the city provides their funds. They independently negotiate with their employees on wages, benefits and conditions. 

(For more on the budget problems of the Grand Rapids Public Library, Rapidian reporter Jeremy Moore has a story here.)

Financial Planning & Concessions

The city makes five year plans for the budget and amends them each fiscal year. Buhrer explained the concessions taken by all employees stating, "8.2% is a hell of a concession." Many employees understand the city has a tight budget and recognize the importance of flexibility in salaries and benefits. Buhrer declined to comment when we followed up regarding the time-frame of budget processes and elaboration of specific concessions. We hope to provide more on the bargaining process for wages in the future.

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