Driving Excellence through Collaboration
Comm-PAC continued its “Get to Know” event series on Thursday, May 10, with Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema. Eleven Comm-PAC members met with Ritsema at Caffe Casa in Kalamazoo. Ritsema started by explaining his role with the city.
“I’m the CEO of the city so to speak,” Ritsema said. “I create the buffer between the city commission and city operations.”
With 630 city employees from waste water treatment to public safety and street crews to planners and engineers, Ritsema said his office implements policy for a multitude of city departments and services.
Ritsema joined the City of Kalamazoo in November 2013 after serving as Battle Creek’s Assistant City Manager for more than 13 years. That experience, paired with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s in finance, make Ritsema a knowledgeable asset for the city and its citizens.
With eager participants in the room, Ritsema fielded questions about current city issues and upcoming projects.
The Foundation for Excellence
Ritsema was asked how he saw the City of Kalamazoo’s Foundation for Excellence impacting the city.
“The Foundation for Excellence is based on three principles,” he said. “Reducing the tax rate, stabilizing the budget, and pursuing aspirational projects.”
The initiative has already lowered property tax rates from 19.275 to 12 since 2017, Ritsema said, with the goal of further reducing the tax rate to 10 in the future.
In terms of budget stabilization, the foundation’s goal is to build the foundation necessary to carry out and support the work that government demands.
Aspirational projects the foundation is funding include ending generational poverty in Kalamazoo, youth development initiatives which look at children holistically instead of just during the school day and school year, and key infrastructure for operation both now and building for the future.
Downtown Traffic Reconfigurations
Citing an Urban Growth Initiative Development Plan from the W.E. Upjohn Institute, Ritsema touched on the functionality of Kalamazoo’s downtown district.
“The study looks at downtown as everybody’s neighborhood,” he said. “We are trying to think about what we need to do to make it a success.”
One possible option for added success and access is converting one-way streets into two-way traffic.
“We are in the process of taking over roads jurisdictionally from MDOT, but that comes with responsibility to care for the roads as well,” Ritsema said.
The city is working to complete jurisdictional transfers of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Westnedge Avenues; Park Street, and parts of Stadium Drive by the end of the year before Gov. Rick Snyder, who is in support of the transfers, leaves office.
“We want to change one ways and get trucks out of downtown,” Ritsema said.
There is also an idea to create a south loop on the 131-business route interchange at US-131, but that requires a lot more planning and funding.
“Resources are the main thing,” he said of major changes and reconfiguring traffic signals. Once the changes are in place, the maintenance can be handled by the city.
“Can you imagine what downtown would look like with two-way streets, bump outs, and bike lanes?” Ritsema said. “It would be transformative.
“Not everyone is going to be in favor of change, but if support could be given to our elected officials to help facilitate these changes, that would be great.”
Bronson Park Reprogramming
Last month’s removal of Bronson Park’s Fountain of the Pioneers was also a topic of discussion.
Ritsema said removal of the fountain had been completed at a cost of less than $200,000.
“That was a huge issue for us,” he said. “Part of it is having to deal with whether it was staying or to remove it. It was always going to be an issue, so the decision was made to remove the fountain, move on, and reprogram the park.”
Part of the reprogramming in the park will focus on more frequent usage and events in the park as a means of discouraging the homeless from settling in the park.
“That’s another huge issue,” Ritsema said. “Kalamazoo is so resource rich when it comes to social services, that we are a magnet to people from the outside.”
While ordinances are in place to address aggressive panhandling, enforcement can bring about constitutional issues, he said.
Part of the strategy is to increase programming in the areas where transients congregate – specifically Bronson Park and Arcadia Creek Festival Site – making the parks more active.
Flooding within the City
Ritsema said the city is working on a two-pronged approach to deal with recurring flooding issues.
Culvert work near Crosstown Parkway is being investigated.
“What needs to happen,” Ritsema said, “is rechanneling the Kalamazoo River. We need to set up a levy system similar to New Orleans, but on a much smaller scale.”
In addition to investigating physical work projects, Ritsema said the city is working with officials from the City of Battle Creek to evaluate river levels to predict the upcoming surges.
An initiative to streamline city services and customer navigation is in its first year.
“At the beginning of this year municipal planning and economic development were consolidated into one department,” Ritsema said. “The idea was to create a concierge service to enable people to deal with one person instead of six or seven throughout the process.”
Eventually, the city would like to co-locate the newly formed collaboration, ideally downtown.
In addition to working collectively within the city’s borders, Ritsema said Kalamazoo is building relationships and working collaboratively with several agencies.
“Right now, we’re working with Grand Rapids to put in a 311-call center here,” he said. “They are helping us tremendously. Grand Rapids is giving us $250,000 in kind to help us get our center up and running.”
Grand Rapids is also sharing scripts with the city as well as allowing Kalamazoo to purchase licenses through them to reduce costs.
Kalamazoo’s relationship with the City of Portage continues to grow as well, Ritsema said.
“We are working on transportation, 911, and disaster recovery integration,” he said. “And hoping for an additional consolidation of detective services.
“We have good relations when it comes to sewer and water as well,” Ritsema said. “They are a wholesale customer of Kalamazoo’s for those services.”
Ritsema is also working to maintain a strong partnership between the City of Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University.
“We had a great relationship with Dr. Dunn and are looking forward to maintaining that relationship with Dr. Montgomery,” he said.
“We are in communication at the ground level, department to department, as well.”