Introduce Municipal Fiefdoms To The 21st Century

 

Statewide Initiative 4

Michigan's EVIP: A stick cleverly disguised as a carrot

Michigan’s EVIP: A stick cleverly disguised as a carrot

As the history of nearly every township will tell you, the township government is the oldest form of government still operating in the United States. It follows the pattern of the 17th-century settlers in the New England colonies, who organized into “towns” by geographic proximity. The township offered a simple and effective form of local home rule.

As states joined the United States union, they each had, of course, a state government. To efficiently administer government services down the line, those states were subdivided into – in most states – counties. But counties were still pretty large in the days when roads were ruts of dirt and the main means of transportation was horseback. So to ensure a more direct line of local service – and to make sure everyone could get to his or her local government office, transact any necessary business and still get home that same day, county governments in most states were further subdivided into townships.

For the expediency of travel, they were generally restricted in size: most Michigan townships are 36 square miles. That way, when you went to pay your taxes, vote or speak up at the town meeting, you didn’t have to travel more than eight to 10 miles to do it.

Where population became a little more dense, new subdivisions broke off – as villages and cities, each with their own local government structure. And, as years went on, the range of services local units of government were expected to provide grew.

Today, Saginaw County, Michigan has 815 square miles and just under 200,000 people – making it just a hair smaller in area than Jacksonville, Fla. … and with just a quarter of its population.

Yet we have 35 local units of government: 27 townships, five villages and three cities. At least eight police departments (not including the county Sheriff), more than a dozen fire departments, 35 elected bodies and nearly that many paid elected or appointed (or both) officials.

In a time when resources grow more and more scarce, we have neighboring municipal governments competing for them – often to provide services that are, essentially, redundant.

Why?

Because we’ve always done it this way. We set it up so Farmer Brown could get to the township hall to pay his taxes and cast his vote and still get home in time for supper.

In many cases – Saginaw is a good example, as are most distressed industrial-age cities – there’s a secondary reason. The surrounding suburbanized townships are, by and large, heavily populated with people who left the core city. And they will tell you they got out to get away from a litany of urban problems –  crime, blight, rising taxes, declining property values,  congestion (and, if they’re completely honest, people of color.) They don’t want any part of “the city’s problems” and they will put up stiff resistance to the very idea of regional consolidation.

Of course, this is like your liver saying, “screw that colon cancer; it’s not going to affect me.” And we’ve already seen many “urban” problems metastasize, particularly to inner-ring suburbs.

But I’ve heard countless township officials say something very much like this: “I think consolidation would be a great idea … but my voters would kill me.”

In the meantime, core cities are cutting police and fire personnel. Urban firefighters struggle with aging trucks, while, often less that five miles away, brand-new firefighting vehicles sit largely unused.

I don’t draw these parallels because I think this is “unfair” – although the conditions that led us to this point haven’t always been fair. I draw them because they simply do not serve the best interest of a region – any region – as a whole.

The attempt by Gov. Snyder and the Michigan legislature to incentivize voluntary consolidation of services is interesting, but ineffective. Statutory revenue-sharing formulas are now tied to an Economic Vitality Incentive Program (EVIP), and one of the key scoring criteria of that system is consolidation of services.

It has two main flaws.

First, the bulk of the incentive goes to the wrong party. If you want to encourage a city and several surrounding townships to form, say, a metropolitan police and fire district, the parties most likely to resist will generally be the townships. See “we got out of the city” above, but they will argue that they have the most to lose from the merger. And in many ways, they do.

On the other hand, townships will argue, the city involved has the most to gain. And in some ways, it does. But the greater incentive goes not to the party that will resist the move, but the one that will more likely welcome it with open arms – and, for all practical purposes, shouldn’t even need an incentive.

After all, a two- or three-percent bump in revenue sharing is negligible for a suburb that has a smaller budget, gets a smaller share and has a more stable (and probably growing) tax base and far lower legacy costs. As we have seen, suburban and rural townships took a 10-percent hit on property values while cities lost 23 percent. Most townships remained relatively unscathed. Cities haven’t.

The second flaw is more fundamental. Gov. Snyder is  trying to turn a stick into a carrot. It takes revenue that was, through the original intent of the legislation, intended to be the cities’, and transmogrifies it into an incentive. “I’m screwing you, but if you do this, I’ll give you back some of what I screwed you out of.”

If the legislature and governor truly understood the difference between a carrot and a stick, revenue sharing would have been left in place, and EVIP would incentivize new money.

Saginaw, like many other cities in Michigan that straddle rivers, was once two cities: Saginaw City on the west side of the river, and East Saginaw on the other. An act of the Michigan legislature forced them to consolidate into one city in 1889.

So why are we taking such a passive-aggressive approach to consolidation and shared services now?

When Saginaw and several other cities were consolidated in 1889, it was controversial. As we have seen recently as schools have consolidated, people hold on hard to the past, and giving up your municipality’s identity is a bitter pill.

We know what happens to elected officials who force voters to swallow bitter pills.

Lansing has the ultimate hammer in forcing municipal consolidation and shared services. It doesn’t have the courage to use it.

Instead, it opts for an “incentive” that really isn’t … one that allows the state’s legislative and executive branches to wring their hands over all they’re doing to help cities if only the elected officials would do what’s right.

The only way we’ll see real regional consolidation of municipal services into a far more sensible and efficient delivery system is through acts of legislators who are elected to represent those entire regions. Forcing might not be the best approach, but they could better encourage it through an incentive that is as attractive to the townships as it is to the cities – and one that is more carrot than stick.

But that takes a brand of political courage I don’t believe exists in Lansing today.

 

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