In August 2012, residents of two quiet Manistee County communities faced a choice. They could vote to dissolve Onekema Village and fold it into Onekema Township, a move proponents said would save money, trim tax bills for village residents and streamline their modest government operations. Or they could keep it all the same.
Status quo prevailed – the latest evidence just how tricky the politics can get when it comes to government mergers.
“There may be an opportunity for savings. But that is weighed against attachment to a community, identity and the relationships to the community people live in,” said Eric Lupher, an analyst with the Michigan Citizens Research Council, and author of a report on the proposed merger of Saugatuck and Douglas.
Onekema Village resident Rudi Milasich attributed the results in his community to lack of trust in what was proposed.
“There was a fair amount of distrust between the village and township,” said Milasich, a merger opponent who was elected to the village council a few months after the merger vote.
“At each step along the way, the lack of trust became evident and increased. There was a sense of a loss of control over our identity. It was like a corporate takeover.”
Village voters turned down the merger 139 to 86, while township residents voted 254 to 166 in favor. It needed two-thirds approval to pass.
In 1993, following a five-year effort, voters rejected a proposal to consolidate the Village of Spring Lake and the city of Ferrysburg in Ottawa County. In 2006, voters spurned a proposal to consolidate the city of Grand Blanc and Grand Blanc Township by a two-thirds margin in both communities. A 2011 proposal to merge Kent County and Grand Rapids never got to the ballot, as it dissolved amid strong political pushback.
In the meantime, Gov. Rick Snyder continues to advocate merger and shared services as a means to make government more efficient.
Deputy Press Secretary Dave Murray noted that Snyder “believes communities can look for innovative ways to run more efficiently by sharing services, and, in some cases, merging the local units.”
Past Center for Michigan public engagement campaigns in 2008 and 2010 also found wide public support for the concept of local government consolidation and service sharing to improve government efficiency and save money.
Actual savings possible through consolidations are debatable.
A 2010 study by Michigan's state Senate Fiscal Agency compared local government spending per person in Michigan to that of six other Midwest states. It noted that Illinois had more than 6,000 local units of government compared to about 2,300 in Michigan. But their spending per capita was similar, $4,914 in Illinois and $4,609 in Michigan. Wisconsin had 2,679 local units – more than Michigan – but spent less, $4,508 per person.
“The evidence at least throws into question the assumption that local government consolidation is likely to result in lower spending or cost savings,” the report stated.
In the 1950s, iron ore mining was still a major employer in three small Upper Peninsula communities, the cities of Stambaugh, Iron River and the village of Mineral Hills. Less than 30 years later, it was finished as the last mine in the Menominee Range closed in 1978. The population of Iron River plummeted from more than 3,700 people in 1960 to barely 2,000 in 1990.
In 2000, a majority of the three communities voted to consolidate into a single city, to be called Iron River. The change is noted with pride on the city's Web page, which proclaims Iron River as “Michigan's first consolidated city.”
Long-time local resident and Iron River City Attorney Mark Tousignant believes the community had little choice but to act.
“Things became more and more sparse as far as population and money,” he said.
A 2011 analysis by the city of Iron River – while conceding it is “virtually impossible to accurately identify the precise dollar value” – calculated the merger was saving the three communities about $1.3 million a year through staff reductions and consolidation of services.
But Iron River City Manager Perry Franzoi, who served as city manager in Saugatuck in the 1990s, believes savings can be overstated.
“Any so-called savings as a result of consolidation are generally short term because once the units are merged you end up with essentially the same staff less top management like a city manager and a clerk treasurer,” he said in an email.
“Just an opinion from someone who has been in both communities.”