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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Comments

John B. Czarnecki
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 8:55am
Michigan residents complain about the high cost of government but are not willing to look at consolidation as part of the answer. Their solution is lower wages for the employees. That is not the answer. Do we really need 83 counties? Probably 60% of Michigan residents have no idea on what services county government provides. Likewise why do we elect a sheriff, drain commissioner, prosecutor, register of deeds, clerk and treasurer. Those positions are administrative and we should be selecting individuals that have the experience and background knowledge to run those departments. Thirty five (35) counties sound like a good number.
Derek Melot
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 9:17am
John, Thanks for commenting. You make an excellent point about residents not knowing what services that county governments provide. I wonder, though, if reform should move in the other direction ... by giving counties more responsibilities? A large number of townships in Michigan have small populations and provide few services. Would there be efficiencies in eliminating most of them and centralizing their basic services at the county level?
David Forsmark
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 1:24pm
That is EXACTLY right. Township governments required every six square miles when there are sometimes only a few thousand or even merely hundreds of residents might have made sense in horse and buggy days, but not now.
Hardvark
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 10:47am
The option of consolidation of County Road Commissions in to a department of County government is going to be realized as a huge mistake. Currently, Road Commissioners are either elected by the people or appointed by County Commissioners. In each case they can be changed based on their performance in a single responsibility task, taking care of the roads. With the merger in to a department of county government, the people only have the option of voting for a new county commissioner. This commissioner may be very responsible in other areas of county business but not concerned or knowledgable on road issues. Our County Road Commission has an annual budget of $17 million and 5 appointed road commissioners. They are non-partisian and focus on the actual condition of the County road system as a whole, not districts or who has political clout. Keeping politics out of the decision making makes selecting projects in the 15 year CIP based on pavement conditions expedient and justifiable. The total pay for the Board is $51,000 per year. Show me any Board that responsibly oversees a $17 million budget for 0.3% of the revenue. Even more important is the hidden responsibility that goes with elimination of the Road Commission. Road Commissions can not tax for funding. As the revenue from gas tax has eroded to 1997 levels, the county road commissions have lobbied state government for a revenue replacement mechanism. So far to no avail. Once County government accepts responsibility for maintaining the county roads and with it's taxing athority, the state is off the hook and more of the financial responsibility will have to be assumed by the local tax payers. Of course, county roads are used by all the motoring public no matter where they reside, but Gov. Snyder thinks pushing more responsibility to the local level is good for the people. The end result will be if you want paved roads in your county, pay for them. For the first time in history, we are seeing a major deterioration in our transportation infra-structure.
Donald Coe
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 11:23am
Derek is correct the real regional collaberation target should be the 1,200 units of township and village government. In the name of "home rule" we have perpetuated an inefficient and costly duplication of government services that we can no longer afford. In my area of northwest lower Michigan I cite one county as an example - less than 25,000 residents, six fire departments, four school districts, eight units of government. Over 200 elected or appointed, paid, local officials, many whose only qualifications for the job is getting elected or appointed - very few of which feel any responsibility for job creation or investment while most are dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We will not turn Michigan around until we remove this barrier to development of our economy.
Thomas W. Donnelly
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 5:27pm
I could see governmental units at all levels using the same accounting software and using one countywide payroll system. I could see bulk purchase of gasoline,salt,diesel fuel, health insurance through a county or regional collective system to save using economies of scale. I could see a part-time unicameral legislature, all drug-tested to make sure that their lifestyle doesn't interfere with their responsibilitiesand paid by the hours actually worked. No lobbyists allowed. I could see gasoline tax raised to fund road repairs. I could see limiting pay of school superintendents to 150,000. per year, based on student population.
norm
Tue, 01/03/2012 - 4:36pm
Why not start the consolidation at the state level, 25 members to the house, 11 members to the state senate, 83 governmental units (one for each county) with 83 school districts. That reduces much duplication of services and the associated costs. With regard to schools, the sooner that the legislators and gov can figure it out, we can get the state out of the education business by priviatizing, that seems to be the answer to education, and by privatizing avoids a conflict with those pesky damed unions,.
John Q Public
Thu, 01/05/2012 - 12:49am
I cannot disagree more on the need to combine government bodies. The fewer government bodies we have, the more consolidated political power is. That is, not to put too fine a point on it, horrible for democratic representation. For a hyperbolic example, let's take it to its logical extreme: no counties, just the state as the sole governing entity. When a member of a political party wins the statewide election by say, 51-48-1, 49%, arguably, of the population is left without zealous representation of its views. Fragmentation of government, and elected rather than appointed officials, together go far to ensure more people have their views represented. Let's look at Mr. Czarnecki's desire for only 35 counties. I will venture that one of his consolidations would be Ingham/Eaton/Clinton. An almost certain result of such a consolidation would be the taxation of current Eaton and Clinton residents to support the Capital Region Airport, Potter Park Zoo, Capital Area Transportation Authority, and a host of other largely Ingham County programs that are constantly characterized as "regional assets". While the typical CFM supporter argues that an expanded tax base is a positive outcome, the fact remains that tens of thousands people in the region live in Eaton and Clinton Counties in order to escape what they see as the oppressive taxation in Ingham, all to support programs and services for which they care little. It is ironic that in its pursuit for cost efficiencies, consolidation proponents favor eliminating the governments closest to the people (townships) with a documented record of the current governor’s vaunted “value for money” exceeding what is found in nearly all cities. The ersatz nation-builders, operating on a smaller scale, unable to persuade in pursuit of their Floridian (the person, not the state) nirvana, are attempting to use procedural manipulation to achieve what they cannot at the ballot box. The decades-old response of “If you don’t like it, move!” is being replaced with, “Oh, no you don’t; you can’t escape being an unwilling ‘revenue provider’ in our pursuit of a mega-government vision by moving a mere 10 miles down the road!” I fully appreciate the sincerity with which the new-urbanists believe in the correctness of their vision, even as I disagree with it. Their methods, though, reek of a minority-faction tyranny, not to mention symptoms of policy schizophrenia: if consolidation is so desirable, why the increase, via the authorizing of unlimited single-school districts we call charter schools, of the number of educational governing bodies? For all the economic inefficiencies found in a highly pluralistic organization of state/ municipal corporations, it is a rare example of tax money well spent. Positioning taxpayers farther from the seats of power, insulated by more bureaucratic layers—the inevitable outcome whenever the ruling class contracts and the size of their domain expands-- is a certain prescription for eliminating responsiveness to voters and increasing it to moneyed interests. Attempting to build an urban Walden Pond is acceptable; thrusting, via the consolidation of municipal corporations, a mandated communitarianism on the disinterested and outright-opposed in order to make them provide the capital, is not.