Consolidation seems simple enough

One of the great challenges in good governance is the paradox that seemingly obvious solutions may not be solutions at all.

Such is the case with the oft-repeated desire to streamline Michigan's plethora of local governments and their functions. The human mind sees Michigan's 2,300-odd units of local government and instinctively knows that some pruning of the bureaucracy would lead to some savings.

This week, Bridge and the Center for Michigan were alerted that Van Buren County and all of its local governments had hired a firm to study the potential for efficiencies in sharing services across the county.

I have doubts this search will reveal any easy or even straight-forward answers.

Take a look at a memo written by Eric Scorsone back in 2010. It briefs the Senate on the whole question of number of local government units and costs. Scorsone wrote:

"As shown in Table 2, there is no clear relationship between spending per person and total number of local governments or number of persons per local government."

Later, he writes: "(I)s there a relationship between number of units of local government and per-person spending?

"In fact, as Table 3 reveals, there is no clear relationship between those two variables. Illinois, with many local units of government, spends nearly the same as Michigan, with the fewest local units (in the Great Lakes states). The number of local governments does not appear to make a significant difference on spending per person."

OK, well what about having all of these local units exist, but do a better job of sharing services and people -- will that save money?

"(T)he evidence seems to point to the fact that a policy of local government consolidation may not be effective in reducing or slowing the growth rate of governmental costs."

Finally, Scorsone reports: "The evidence presented here suggests that there are significant challenges in using the policy reform of intergovernmental cooperation and consolidation in attaining cost efficiency."

There is a great deal more nuance in his memo, particularly on the question of labor-intensive services vs. capital-intensive ones. I encourage you to read the draft in its entirety.

The idea of streamlining Michigan government is not without merit. The policy danger, though, is that streamlining is being sold on a result (big cost savings) that it cannot provide.

And how will the body politic respond if streamling occurs and big savings don't follow?

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Comments

norm gage
Wed, 09/21/2011 - 4:25pm
The gov , leg and the media thinks that consolidation is the answer to all governments woes. If this is ao then the leg should introduce and the gov sign a bill that establishes one governmental unit per county and one school district per county. This process will reduce duplication for gov unit to gov unit and will lead to significant savings because there will be less workers wasting tax payer mkoney and it will allow the state greater ease in controlling home rule, which seems to be big on the current regimes mind, even though they prefer to hide behind blameless retoric.
Jim Storey
Thu, 09/22/2011 - 8:58am
The Consolidated Government Committee of Saugatuck Douglas is working to bring the matter of consolidation before Douglas, Saugatuck and Saugatuck Township voters at the November 2012 general election. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the average U.S. local government population, as reported in the June 8,2011, edition of the Wall Street Jounral is 7,100 souls and the average size is 90.6 square miles. If the consolidation is approved by voters, the resulting unit would have a population of 5,151 and a size of 27 square miles. Dr. Scorsone when he was with MSU Extension Service completed a study of a Plante & Moran business anaylsis that confirmed consolidating the three existing units of government with 19 elected officials, 3 professional managers, and 141 various advisory board members would cut at least $1,000,000 annually from local government operating budgets, improve efficiency in delivering services to one of Michigan's iconic communities and focus local government attention on serious issues, such as job crfeation and economic development, for which there is no overall strategy. Waste and inefficiency are not exclusive to the governments in Lansing and Washington.