Portage voters will elect at least one new member to the City Council next week. Six candidates are running for the three City Council seats in Portage this year.
Incumbents Claudette Reid and Terry Urban are running for re-election, but Ed Sackley decided not to seek another four-year term. Former Council member Nasim Ansari is among the challengers. Connor Farrell, a former candidate for Kalamazoo County Commission, and first-time candidates Richard Ford and Kevin Park are also running.
The election comes as Portage and other communities consider moving to a consolidated emergency dispatch system. Of all the candidates, only Richard Ford says he’s firmly against Portage becoming part of a joint 911 system:
Ford: “And I don’t think it’s a good decision for Portage. I know that the county is really going to be for it because they have the space. And it’s nice to cooperate with other governments, but Portage is fairly efficient in terms of central dispatch and we’re fairly cheap cost wise. So I don’t feel that it’s going to be a good measure for the citizens of Portage.”
Ford says he’s not convinced the proposal for a consolidated dispatch system would provide long-term cost savings to justify the up-front costs. But Ford says he would consider consolidating other government services if it can save money or improve service.
Two other challengers say they support Portage’s involvement in a consolidated dispatch system. Connor Farrell says he’s in favor of the idea even if there may be some details to work out:
Farrell “For example response times have been shown to decrease when there’s a consolidation. And if it saves money and it decreases response times, I think we should really go for it. And I think dispatch is a good place to start, especially for Portage."
Farrell says success with emergency dispatch could lead to consolidation of other government services including fire departments.
Challenger Kevin Park says he’s also in favor Portage’s participation in a proposed consolidated dispatch system. In fact, he thinks consolidation of services could go much further:
Park “The closer we get to county-wide services, I think the closer we get to a county-wide government. And so I’m the first guy to say if we can start making cuts, an easy to cut $60,000 out of the county budget is Kalamazoo could just absorb Portage and we just become one municipality.”
Park admits that’s an unusual stand for someone running for Portage City Council. But he says the city needs to do something that makes it different from surrounding towns. Otherwise, Park says he questions why Portage needs to exist at all.
Former Portage City Council member Nasim Ansari, who’s running again after ten years on the Kalamazoo County Commission, says he’s withholding judgment on the 911 dispatch issue. Ansari says questions about how it would be run and how much it would cost must be answered before deciding if Portage should be involved. But Ansari says he does favor sharing services in other areas like buying supplies:
Ansari “If we do the bulk purchasing, if all of the units of government, they combine their resources, and they say ‘OK we are going to order from such and such place’ we are going to get some good rates, and that will be again to the advantage of the taxpayer.”)
Ansari says there’s a line between cooperation and consolidation. He says local governments can always cooperate. But Ansari says consolidation is more like a merger and needs to be considered carefully.
The two incumbents in the Portage City Council race are also non-committal on a consolidated dispatch system. Terry Urban, who’s running for his fifth four-year term, says questions about governance and union contracts must be answered first. Even so, Urban says consolidating any service in Kalamazoo County is difficult:
Urban “Consolidation gets tough because, funding issues then become wider than the individual community. Governance issues become wider than the individual community. And I don’t know that I see another opportunity like dispatch or like transit.”
Urban says the long path to a countywide transit system shows how hard merging authorities can be.
Claudette Reid, who is seeking her third term and is currently Mayor Pro-Tem, says a survey of Portage citizens shows they support consolidation of services if it doesn’t cost more and if the service is as good or better than what they have now:
Reid “We want to be able to come up with a plan that allows both entities, or all entities, that are involved to have something better at the end that is not as expensive if at all possible.”
Reid says fire service is another area where consolidation makes sense. In her words “a baby toe has been dipped” in the form of mutual aid fire agreements with neighboring communities.
The three candidates who win the most votes next week will serve four-year terms on the Portage City Council. Mayor Pete Strazdas has no opposition to a fifth two-year term.