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?