By JACOB KANCLERZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – While the state pushes cooperation among Michigan’s local governments, some local officials say consolidating services doesn’t always save money while others say their communities have been consolidating for years.
Gov. Rick Snyder encouraged municipalities to work together to solve fiscal problems earlier this year. Consolidating local government services, such as police and fire, have been a reoccurring theme of his local reform efforts.
He replaced a portion of the local revenue sharing system for municipalities with incentives for eligible communities to present a plan to consolidate services with other local governments. Municipalities have until January to submit their plan to be considered for funding.
Meanwhile the Legislature sent the Municipal Partnership Act to Snyder for his approval in early November. It sets guidelines for merger agreements, allowing combined municipalities to levy a millage and use tax revenue. It has not been signed into law yet, but Snyder has said he supports making the merger process easier for local governments.
Not all local officials embrace consolidation as a quick financial fix. Combined services may lead to downsizing, which can harm the quality of services, said Summer Minnick, the director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League.
“Municipalities are in the business of providing services,” she said. “When you’re providing service, it takes people. It takes people to pick up the garbage, it takes people to plow the streets, it takes police officers to have a public safety department. Just because two cities merge those things, doesn’t mean you don’t need the same amount of people.”
And consolidation doesn’t always mean cost savings, Minnick said. The Citizens Research Council of Michigan discovered that was the case after studying a proposed merger between the village of Onekama and Onekama Township.
The two municipalities west of Cadillac have long cooperated and are considering merging. Residents questioned why two governments are needed to govern a combined population of more than 1,300 people, said Eric Lupher, director of local affairs with the Citizens Research Council. The council found that eliminating the village made sense because it would bring the region under a unified elected government, he said. But there weren’t significant cost savings to be gained from the move.
“Making government work better doesn’t necessarily result in less costs, in fact it may result in more costs,” he said. “The underlying issue with these two communities is that they don’t do a whole lot relative to southeast Michigan or a lot of our cities. The village is providing very minimal services, the township even fewer. Where do you propose to find savings given they’re not doing much to begin with?”
The two municipalities are reviewing the move before the proposal is put on the ballot next year.
While many communities consider consolidation, there aren’t many studies on its effects, said Jeremy Wilson, the research director for the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Wilson is beginning a two-year study of police and fire department mergers to identify the long term benefits and disadvantages.
“It’s important for communities to get a better sense of the different ways in which consolidations can be done and the advantages and disadvantages of all the models so they can be better informed decision makers in regards to their own community policies,” he said.
While some communities mull if consolidation is right for them, others have moved ahead. In the Upper Peninsula, local governments have cooperated for years out of necessity, said Bill Vajda, the city manager for Marquette. The city’s police and fire forces cooperate with surrounding communities, and the city is a member of the regional authorities that manage waste and wastewater.
“Anywhere you go in the Upper Peninsula, what you’re finding is that the level of local service provision is highly cooperative, highly collaborative and it’s been working like that for the better part of 160 years,” he said.
Wexford County shares assessing, prosecuting and building code permit services with the city of Cadillac, said Kent Hinton, the county administrator. Most of these changes have taken place since 2009 and resulted in the cost savings the county projected.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JACOB KANCLERZ