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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Oct 27. 2013 (MML Letter as it appeared in Detroit Free Press Oct 27, 2013)
Michigan Municipal League: Blame state, not number of governments, for struggling communities
Certainly there are ways and reasons to “shrink government” in Michigan, as John Truscott opined Oct. 20 in the Free Press. Reducing the number of local governments in Michigan, as he advocated, is an idea proposed in Lansing for at least the past four decades.
Truscott argues that Michigan has too many local entities and should pare some and better manage others because they “have taxing authority, yet they rarely, if ever, coordinate to determine what is best for their region.” He tells local governments that they can learn lessons from the State of Michigan, which is “back on track” and where “budgets are beginning to stabilize.”
To have an honest debate about reducing local government, it’s important to have all of the facts, many of which were missing from his column.
Local government — not the state — provides the essential services that Michigan residents demand and need: police and fire; clean drinking water; plowing local roads; ensuring homes and businesses are built to code and are safe; schools; parks and recreation, and more. To suggest that Michigan local governments “rarely, if ever, coordinate” and share local services is false. There are thousands of examples across Michigan of service-sharing. There could always be more, but local service-sharing is about as rare in Michigan as deer.
And saying local governments have much to learn from state government must be a joke. In September, the independent Citizens Research Council (CRC) of Michigan issued a report that sheds light on how the state has been able to “stabilize” its budgets and get “back on track.” The report found that the Legislature and governor have slashed revenue-sharing to local Michigan governments by $5 billion over the past decade. Basically, CRC found that the Legislature ignores laws that require them to send revenues to local communities for essential services. Instead, the state has kept the revenues and used them to cut taxes, to balance state budgets, and increase state spending by 26%.
So exactly what is the lesson to be learned from the state’s example? That it’s OK to take money from local governments to pay your own bills, increase spending, and build up a rainy day fund. The CRC report also found that as state spending was increasing by 26%, local governments were making significant service cuts and shedding 16.6% of their workers. If that’s not shrinking local government, I’m not sure what is.
The Michigan Municipal League has long stood ready to discuss reducing the number of local governments. But far more important than the number of local governments is the quality of local governments.
Instead of taking $5 billion a decade from local communities, we need state government to embrace and advance policies that enable communities to become the types of places that can prosper again. Failure to invest in our communities means Michigan will continue its nosedive to become a poor state, where per capita incomes will continue to lag the nation. Our state will continually see nearly half of our college graduates flee Michigan to exciting communities with places you never want to leave, instead of places you can’t wait to get through.
Jacqueline Noonan President,
Michigan Municipal League Mayor of Utica