Guest column: Leave consolidation decisions to locals

By Larry Merrill/Michigan Townships Association

The August primary ballot question in Onekama Village and Onekama Township to dissolve the village drew statewide attention from media and policy pundits who portrayed the election as a harbinger of voter willingness to consolidate Michigan local governments.

In the aftermath of its defeat, proponents contend that failure resulted from an unreasonable state law requiring a 2/3 affirmative vote threshold. They point out that the measure was supported by a narrow majority of the total votes cast in the two entities, 340-305, or 53 percent.

Sixty percent support from the 420 township voters residing outside the village made the total vote appear more favorable, however. The measure only had 38 percent support among village voters, who arguably would have been more impacted by the dissolution than their neighbors in the township.

Rationing democracy is a hard sell anywhere, but especially in small communities, where people choose to live for reasons other than their quaint character and nice scenery. Small town people tend to want to keep their friends close, and their government closer.

At a time when local government enjoys considerably more trust than the state and federal governments, people in small towns like the assurance of having control and influence over local matters. They will not easily surrender their local democracy unless there are compelling reasons other than a dubious promise to reduce the cost of government services 10 years or so down the road. 

The Onekama dissolution defeat doesn’t mean that residents in other communities won’t consider consolidations. Where adjacent communities share common values and transitioning to a single governmental entity can achieve efficiencies without redistributing power, wealth and resources, consolidation might stand a chance of approval by an informed electorate. Nonetheless, in recent memory, consolidations have failed in four or five other villages.

While experts might help resolve consolidation and dissolution logistical issues and honest brokers help mediate the political issues, local people will likely resist the value judgments of outsiders telling them what is in their best interest. In the current environment of public cynicism and distrust of state and federal political intent, pursuing a full court press to encourage dissolutions and consolidations is, at best, a waste of resources; at worst, the suspicion of a hidden agenda could undermine support for local government collaboration on regional prosperity initiatives -- collaboration that would be far more beneficial to both local governments and the state in general.

Up to the day prior to the Onekama election, lawyers were arguing in court whether the dissolution had to pass in both jurisdictions separately or just in the total area. Recently in another county, confusion over statutory timelines resulted in the county commission first authorizing and subsequently rescinding a consolidation vote. Because of ambiguities in state laws related to local government reorganization, lawmakers and interested parties should take a broad, comprehensive look at all of the current local government reorganization statutes.

Does Michigan have too many local governments? Are consolidations and dissolutions the solution?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Michigan neither ranks high in the number of local governments per capita nor local government expenditures per capita. There is no link between the number of local governments and unemployment or per capita income.

Whether Onekama Village or any other local government dissolves into history is of virtually no consequence to solving Michigan’s significant challenges. It matters only to those who live there.

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