Should two towns become one? Merger question moves to Saugatuck-Douglas

On paper at least, the match makes sense.

Saugatuck and Douglas, each with about 1,000 residents, share borders, tourists and land along Lake Michigan and Lake Kalamazoo. Their tax base is about the same. Their populations are comparably homogenous, each more than 95 percent white. They already share police and fire, sewer and water services, a library, a school system and harbor authority.

But whether voters should approve a merger of these cities in a ballot proposal on Nov. 5 is a matter of strong, divided, local opinion. It needs a majority in both cities to pass.

Standing on Main Street in Douglas, former three-term mayor and outspoken merger opponent Matt Balmer sees little to gain and plenty to lose.

“It won't be a good thing for the two cities. There really isn't anything to gain by putting this together.”

Look closer, Balmer insists, and you will find communities different enough from one another to have no compelling reason to change.

“We have identities that are completely different. Saugatuck is more like a spring break kind of town. It is so packed with people. Douglas is a much quieter community. It's not worth losing our identity for this.”

Beyond its local import, the vote shapes up as a referendum on a mantra of GOP Gov. Rick Snyder. Like business, Snyder says, government must find ways to cut costs and maximize efficiency. That includes shared services, consolidated school districts – and merged cities and townships.

“It is time that we view both challenges and solutions in a regional context rather than confining them to township, city and county borders,” he said in a 2011 speech in Grand Rapids a few months after he took office.

To that end, the governor has budgeted $30 million the past two years to help local units consolidate or share services.

The record for mergers is thus far underwhelming. In 2012, voters rejected the merger of the Village of Onekema and Onekema Township, Manistee County communities southwest of Traverse City. In Kent County, a proposal to consolidate governments fell apart in 2011 in the face of stiff political resistance. A consultant recommendation in July that Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming merge police and fire departments has found little support.

And if a merger doesn't happen in two adjoining tourist towns of comparable size along Lake Michigan, just where would it?

Local advocates of consolidation see pluses for both communities, while they point to a non-partisan study that projects savings of nearly $500,000 a year.

In July, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan projected annual savings of nearly $470,000 from a merger, mostly from streamlining the offices of city manager, treasurer and clerk and funding one public works department and one city council instead of two. For a home valued at $200,000, it calculated annual savings of $192 in property tax in Douglas and $184 in Saugatuck. Another study by the accounting firm Plante Moran, funded by the group backing a merger, found similar savings.

The author of the report, CRC analyst Eric Lupher, concedes those savings are not guaranteed. The projections assume personnel reductions that would have to be enacted by a new council and include salary levels that would have to be negotiated.

The CRC report cautioned that a merger will likely cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in legal fees and other costs to implement, expenses that could be repaid through state grants. It noted that Saugatuck holds about 80 percent of the communities' long-term debt, $3.7 million compared to $950,000 in Douglas.

But it also found unique similarities in the two communities: “Very few of Michigan’s non-urban cities are conjoined with another city and share an identity, service delivery responsibilities, and stewardship responsibilities for natural resources as do Douglas and Saugatuck.”

Mergers have been so rare in Michigan, the report added, that it will be difficult to predict its outcome there.

Sitting in the vintage lobby of the 150-year-old Maplewood Hotel in Saugatuck, former Saugatuck mayor Catherine Simon is confident a merger is best for both cities.

“I love this community,” said Simon, the hotel owner and a 23-year resident of Saugatuck. She is also a member of the Consolidated Government Committee, the group backing a merger. She has given nearly $4,000 to its campaign through personal contributions and her business.

“It is going to save money,” Simon said. “But I also think we would become more effective as one community. We want to have a voice that is competitive with other communities.”

In her view, many who oppose merger are driven by “fear of change.”

If the referendum were decided by funding alone, it would be no contest.

As of July 20, the group had raised more than $168,000 in direct and in-kind contributions, much of it with a distinct Republican flavor.

It includes a $10,000 donation from billionaire Oklahoma industrialist Aubrey McClendon through his Singapore Dunes LLC. McClendon, who has doled out several hundred thousand dollars to Republican causes, bought 412 acres of Saugatuck Township land near Lake Michigan in 2006 and has battled for years for the right to develop it. Saugatuck resident Bobbie Gaunt, a former Ford executive named to the Michigan Women's Council in 2012 by Snyder, gave $13,000. She is co-chair of the Consolidated Government Committee.

Saugatuck Township resident Travis Randolph gave more than $26,000 in personal and business donations. He has donated to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC and the campaign of former GOP state Sen. Patty Birkholz. Holland-based furniture maker Haworth contributed $17,500. Its chairman emeritus, Richard Haworth, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan GOP candidates and the state Republican Party.

The campaign has funneled more than $60,000 in consultant fees to James Storey, appointed in 1999 to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission by GOP Gov. John Engler. Elected in 2012 as a Republican to the Allegan County board, he also served as press secretary to the Michigan state House GOP caucus.

But Bobbie Gaunt, the committee's co-chair, said merger has nothing to do with politics.

“To me, this is all about the future,” Gaunt said. “The people who have invested in this are people who have deep ties to this community in terms of their own investment in the community.”

Gaunt said “part of the inspiration” for the merger proposal was Snyder's challenge to local governments to reinvent themselves.

In 2011, the group submitted 430 petition signatures to the State Boundary Commission supporting consolidation of Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township. In a June 2012 hearing of the Boundary Commission held at Saugatuck High School, officials from all three jurisdictions raised objections, as did numerous local residents. A few months later, the commission approved consolidation, but just for Saugatuck and Douglas.

In February, an opposition group called Citizens for Independent and Cooperative Communities submitted more than 340 signatures to the state to force a vote by residents of both cities. It has raised just under $4,000.

Douglas resident Balmer, its treasurer and spokesman, is undeterred by the disparity in spending. Owner of a downtown Douglas restaurant, he compares his organization to the “Occupy Wall Street” initiative, a bottom-up citizens group that he believes will prevail on Nov. 5. He donated to the campaign of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Noting the GOP connections of many pro-merger donors, Balmer believes that a merger win would be akin to a pelt on the wall for Snyder.

“We don't need to be his poster child for consolidation,” he said.

Dave Murray, Snyder's deputy press secretary, said the governor's agenda “is to help communities provide better services to their residents.” He added that merger “is a decision for the residents of those communities.”

And so the debate continues. Perched on the steps of his Saugatuck home a block removed from the downtown shops and galleries, resident Victor Gutierrez nodded his head when asked about merging.

“I do believe it would save money. We already have one fire department and one police department. Why not have one city?”

His biggest issue: What to call it?

“That's my biggest concern. I sure don't like Saugadoug.”

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Jim Storey
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 1:21pm
Mr. Roelofs forgot to mention that Mr. Snyder's predecessor, Governor Granholm, also had a consolidtion initiative as part of her administration, so unlike how he tried to paint it, the common sense approach to combining redudant government operations, crosses party lines. It is denial of reality that leads to bankrupt cities like Detroit where like in the two redudant city governments, pols who have ossified in office put more ephasis on staying in office than delivering efficient services to residents at a cost they can afford.
Doug Petter
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 2:20pm
Balmer is correct in that the unique character of these two towns is why they should stay as individual entities. They have the economy of shared services where it's appropriate and yet they have their own codes and community management where appropriate as well. What's good for a quiet bedroom community is not the same as a resort with a massive influx of tourists every summer. Mr. Storey compares the community to Detroit which had a long history of big government corruption serving the needs of a few rather than the needs of the community, exactly why Saugatuck and Douglas should not combine. The few big donors that are trying so hard to drive this merger are exactly what causes the failures in leadership like Kwamee Kilpatrick the ex-mayor of Detroit headed to jail for a decade or so.
Mike Pontoni
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 2:35pm
I lived in Saugatuck for 8 years, and in Douglas for 4 years. There is no way these ywo towns should merge. They are WAY too different! Each one is delightful in its own way, and should keep their own unique identities. This is nothing more than McClendon and other Republicans trying to throw their weight around and "get their way" just because they have more money than the average citizen. Don't let this happen people, vote NO to this bad idea!
Jane Verplank
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 3:54pm
Mr. Storey, to compare the well run cities of Saugatuck and Douglas, with extremely healthy fund balances, to the mess in Detroit is ludicrous. We, ossified people who hold offices in these two cities run for office every two years and are reelected, I would take that as people are satisfied with what we do. The people who want our cities consolidated should run for public office and at least become responsible for their promises. I don't see your name on our ballot, oh thats right, your not from here.
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:02pm
Something noticeable is happening in Saugatuck-Douglas, and not for the better. Instead of city leaders and tourism czar Felicia Fairchild promoting our great town as an inclusive, diverse and, yes, quirky little duo of villages, there seems to be a concerted effort to make Saugatuck-Douglas look like South Haven, Grand Haven or many other vanilla coastal communities. Heck, we're not even part of the award winning Pure Michigan campaign thanks to Ms. Fairchild and others who seem to be focused on their own agenda, one which isn't true to the diversity of this great area. City leaders should re-evaluate who we have in key roles of city manager, tourism czar, etc. and clean house. If it takes consolidation to nudge this type of change, let's do it!
Jane Verplank
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:38pm
Kevin how would consolidating the cities make us look less like South Haven or Grand Haven. I would think two distinct communities nestled together gives us an identity like no other towns along the coast of Lake Michigan. Bigger makes us more like South and Grand Haven. The cities have nothing to do with who runs the CVB.
. John Thomas.
Mon, 10/07/2013 - 11:34pm
You wrote that 430 people signed a petition supporting consolidation. That isn't accurate. The fact is 430 people signed a petition calling for a referendum. about the consolidation of all three communities. I know because I was one of the people who signed the petition. The whole premise was later changed to just two communities by the consolidation committee AFTER the signatures were obtained and submitted to the Boundary Commission. No one was told that the committee would have that kind of authority at the time the signatures were obtained. Had I been told that, I would not have signed the petition. Furthermore the committee was not honest about the process. They didn't tell anyone that the consolidation would take place without a referendum if no one challenged the consolidation by submitting another petition to the state. The whole thing was a shill game from the start. Furthermore, the consolidation committee originally said their only goal was to put the question up for a vote. But then they raised $168,000 to convince people to vote Yes. Another part of the shill game.
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 8:36am
Michigan has way to many units of government and school districts. In Florida, school districts are county wide. With the exception of large cities, everything else is county for local government. Taxes in FL are about 60% lower than in MI, and that is not because of the homestead exemption. A unit of government for 1,000 citizens? Give me a break, as in break up the individuality and merge them. Sorry, Mr. Mayor and everyone else that will lose their jobs, but we can not afford government the way it is.
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 10:45am
While we're at it do away with the townships, a layer of government which has long outlived it's purpose, if it ever had one!
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 8:44am
I moved to Douglas as a kid 60 years ago. Spent 14 years growing up in Douglas, 10 years living in Saugatuck and now own a summer home in Douglas. Please keep Douglas Douglas and Saugatuck Saugatuck. The villages are two different and unique characters with their own special qualities. What a shame it would be to blur identities by merging into some kind of megacommunity that looks just like another one of the lakeshore tourist traps we have to the north and the south of us.
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 4:53pm
My husband maintains--you have to be at least 3rd generation in order to vote!
John Q.
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 10:05am
Too many units of government? Let the voters and taxpayers of those communities decide that for themselves. Not everyone wants to live in a low tax, low service community and often times bigger isn't better.
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 1:28pm
Fascinating. Consolidationists always point to "savings." This despite absolutely zero credible evidence that southern states and their county wide school districts are more cost efficient. Indeed, I would argue that they tend to be less efficient and less effective. One thing they are, though, is easier for a small faction to control.
John Q. Public
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 11:28pm
Consolidation has an ugly flip side: the consolidation of political power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. That's when you really start to learn what "expensive" is all about. If consolidation is so darned wonderful, why are Republicans leading the charge to create more and more single-school districts--what they call "public school academies" and everyone else calls charter schools. Every call for consolidation is about consolidating power so it's easier to fleece and loot the taxpayers. If they value open government, both communities will reject what is little more than an readily transparent money grab. How to monetize the "brand" is all the consolidationists are about.
Wed, 10/09/2013 - 3:09am
In response to the quote from this article, "And if a merger doesn’t happen in two adjoining tourist towns of comparable size along Lake Michigan, just where would it?" I respond with: The Village of New Haven and Lenox Township! Lenox already engulfs New Haven, and New Haven is currently cleaning house by means of 4 recalled officials who [likely corruptly] tried to sneak in a 1-mile landfill into their municipality.....oh wait, it was proposed to New Haven, though 99% of the land-in-question was actually on Lenox Twp, assumed through the contract offered by a private corporation to somehow smoothly be annexed or otherwise acquired by New Haven through Public Act 425 of 1984. New Haven has had money problems in the past, but their new treasurer is cleaning up house and is really passionate about really helping set their feet in the right direction. Lenox Township has services that the cash-strap village of New Haven redundantly offers. Much is to be gained by the merge, for both communities. And with recent discoveries of alleged corruption and ongoing mishandling of funds and authorities in New Haven [that are now being brought to light and cleaned up], I'm sure their village residents would be more open to the idea of being absorbed by Lenox now than ever before. Just saying, something to look into if you're interested... A facebook group dedicated to the cleanup of New Haven politics can be found, called "Citizens For A Better New Haven" - give 'em an inbox, if you have the time!
Thu, 10/10/2013 - 12:24pm
Consolidation will never work if the policy makers and all stakeholders understand the importance of how the impact of each communities culture fits into the larger picture. Policy makers should never base policy solely on fiscal statistics.