Guest column: Consensus emerges on local services, but what becomes of transparency?

By Tom Ivacko/Center for Local, State and Urban Policy

A path forward, on common ground?  Yes, but watch for caution signs along the way.  

First, the common ground: Michigan citizens -- Republicans and Democrats -- and their state and local government leaders broadly agree that consolidating individual public services across neighboring jurisdictions is worth pursuing, to cut the cost of government.

They also largely agree that consolidation should stop there, and should not be pushed to the extreme in which complete jurisdictions are eliminated.

According to a public opinion survey just released by Business Leaders for Michigan, 66 percent of Michigan voters support consolidating individual services in general, with even higher support for consolidating public transportation, parks and recreation, and backroom administrative functions like accounting, payroll, and tax collection.

Of course, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature also think service consolidation is the way forward. They created revenue sharing incentives designed to foster more inter-local collaboration, through the Economic Vitality Incentive Program (EVIP).

Citizens and state policy-makers alike should be pleased, then, to know that Michigan’s local governments have been ahead of this wave; they have been pursuing exactly this kind of service consolidation for years now.

The Michigan Public Policy Survey of local government leaders, conducted by the U-M Ford School of Public Policy, has found that intergovernmental collaboration is remarkably common across the state. Overall, 72 percent of Michigan’s local governments reported they were in some kind of formal collaborative effort with another jurisdiction, as of fall 2010. Most of these governments were involved in numerous such efforts.

And that overall figure includes hundreds of small jurisdictions that provide few services in the first place, with few opportunities to consolidate services with others. When looking at jurisdictions that provide a broad range of services, consolidation is even more common. Among the largest jurisdictions, 92 percent report participating in formal collaborative efforts.

Beyond this broad foundation of collaboration, subsequent MPPS surveys have found that the most common action local leaders predict their jurisdictions will pursue going forward is even further expansion in the number and/or scope of their collaborative efforts. 

So we’re largely all on the same page here. As citizens we want our local governments to work together to cut costs, and they’ve actually been ahead of this curve.  

Now, when the question turns to full consolidation by eliminating entire jurisdictions, neither citizens nor local government leaders approve, in general. The BLM survey finds that 56 percent of citizens oppose that more extreme solution, while the MPPS survey finds that 63 percent of local leaders also think that goes too far.

The common path forward, then, involves inter-local collaboration -- focused only on specific services. 

This all seems well and good, especially if it cuts the cost of government in a manner that most of us agree on. But this path forward could have other costs, too -- costs not found in the municipal budget.

As public services are increasingly delivered through a web of temporary agreements among differing sets of local governments, what happens to accountability and transparency? If your police protection is provided by a consortium of cities A, B, and C, while your fire services are provided by cities A and B with Township D, and your parks are maintained by City A along with County E and Township F, a new fog of government could descend. Who is responsible, and therefore accountable, for public services in such a scenario? Where do you turn to address concerns? Will you be able to hold your government accountable, if it’s not really clear anymore who or what your government is?

In this age of high unemployment and widespread economic pain, perhaps decreased accountability and transparency are worthwhile costs in exchange for lower taxes. But if that is the path forward, it would be good to place some caution signs along the way.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Bridge’s mission is to inform Michigan citizens about their state, amplify their views and explore the challenges of our civic life.

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Comments

Thu, 09/27/2012 - 6:10pm
In the first place WE need to CUT the legislature down in Michigan >WE only need 50%.WE sureley cannot afford the numbers we have now! Also the jail officers need to be cut down by 25%1 people in jail need to be cut : only 2 meals aday and ONE shower every 3 -4 days. no more education or college classes(freedon to the nonojailer)...No TV or telefon) only once a week.No contact with the outside only once a MONTHS>