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Merger bills won't change names on fire trucks -- yet

For years, officials charged with managing local government services and finances have pointed to a variety of provisions in state law they say make the sharing of services with neighbors financially unappealing. With Gov. Rick Snyder's signature last week on a set of bills, the state believes it has removed a large hurdle to increased sharing of key public services.

"Local governments, willing to share common services are often held back by the very laws intended to help them," Snyder said in a statement last week. "The reforms I have signed into law offer municipal leaders a clear path to common sense collaborations. By reaching across historical boundary lines, dynamic communities are built and valuable taxpayer dollars are saved."

The move was applauded by the Michigan Municipal League, though two experts on local government operations in Michigan openly wondered about an immediate impact from the legislation that took most of 2011 to work their way through the State Capitol.

"This was a really good compromise," said Samantha Harkins of MML. "It will change the way we do things. ... Both (labor and employers) said they wanted certainty. This legislation created a more certain (bargaining) process."

Eric Lupher, director of local affairs for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said that the impact of these changes is likely to be political, not legal.

"The reality is that the law (the Urban Cooperation Act) appeared to create the illusion that (local governments) had to round up or pay the higher salary (when merging two public service agencies). It didn't say that," Lupher said. "Local governments used that as an excuse."

Lupher was quick to add, however, that there's a fair amount of service cooperation going on in Michigan now -- and that by making it more clear that local governments are not locked into higher pay scales, the changes may propel action in at least one region of the state.

"Part of the charge (for the bills) was from some of the Grand Rapids communities. They seriously are interested in cooperating. They found that the illusion was getting in the way," Lupher said. "Grand Rapids, Walker, Kentwood, other communities -- they are collaborating much more than anywhere else in the state and have ideas on more collaboration."

Broad-ranging merger efforts are unlikely, noted another observer.

"The Michigan Public Policy Survey at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy finds that only 10 percent of Michigan’s local government leaders say their jurisdiction has suffered direct negative impacts from the employee protection provisions in state laws that enable service sharing, such as the Urban Cooperation Act," said Tom Ivacko, who helps oversee the survey. "The percentages reporting direct negative impacts are significantly higher among counties (41 percent) and cities (27 percent) than among townships (5 percent) and villages (3 percent)."

Ivacko added, "Service consolidation across jurisdictions is no magic bullet. While there certainly are cases where consolidation can lead to cost savings, academic research has also found that costs don’t always fall after consolidation."

MML's Harkins agreed that Michigan residents are unlikely to see many changes on their communities' streets in coming weeks or months.

"If you are going to create an authority for anything, it takes time," she said. "From our members' perspective, they know they have to cut costs. This encourages them to look more for savings."

Such reviews fit the mood expressed by thousands of state residents at listening sessions conducted by the Center for Michigan and incorporated into a citizens' agenda in 2010. In Michigan's Defining Moment, "intensify consolidation and service-sharing in local government" was one of 10 key points identified by voters.

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