Michigan’s structure of local government is characterized by a quilt of townships with cities and villages sprinkled among the townships. Because each of these local governments acts as an autonomous unit, there is a sense that this structure creates duplication and inefficiency.
Added to the problems with the structure of local government are the economic conditions in which Michigan businesses, residents and local governments are currently operating. The erosion of jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector; an exodus of people and businesses to other states; and plummeting property values and tax revenues have made it difficult to operate in the private and public sectors.
The seemingly logical response to these issues is for state and local government policymakers to seek ways to streamline the delivery of local government services. Efforts to achieve this goal can take three forms: policymakers can (1) take action to consolidate the number of local governments; (2) pursue a city/county consolidation; or (3) use intergovernmental collaboration to seek efficiencies for individual services. In the context of Michigan’s economic malaise and scarce tax revenues, government leaders, civic leaders, residents, and others are asking how the provision of local government services might transform to continue to meet the needs of the communities.
This report develops a vision of the structure of local government in Lenawee County, Michigan, that will streamline the provision of local government services. It discusses the compelling reasons for consolidating government service provision, including discussion of the people and places in the county, identification of current service providers, reporting of the cost of providing services, and identification of duplication and overlap that exists in the current service provision model. It explores the consolidation alternatives available to the leaders of Lenawee County and identifies a path for change, identifying the functions and services for which consolidation of local government services would serve to minimize duplication and lead to efficiencies by capitalizing on economies of scale.
About Lenawee County and its Local Governments
Lenawee County has a population of about 100,000 people with 34 units of government, including four cities, seven villages, 22 townships, and the county government. The City of Adrian, Michigan’s 52nd largest city and by far Lenawee County’s largest, has 21 percent of the total population and the six largest governments constitute 57 percent of the county total. The other governments are either very small geographic entities with small populations or sparsely populated townships.
The Goal of Streamlined Service Delivery
Several of the incorporated municipalities in Lenawee County well illustrate the conundrum of local government service provision. The cities of Hudson and Morenci and the villages of Addison, Blissfield, Britton, Cement City, Clinton, Clayton, Deerfield, and Onsted have 2010 populations ranging from 344 people in Clayton to 2,336 in Clinton. Relatively small governments such as these lack the population to warrant independent delivery of some services, lack the critical mass of people to always be able to find ably suited individuals to carry out some technically difficult tasks, and lack the tax base to afford the capital assets or high wages demanded by highly skilled individuals.
However, it is these same incorporated entities that rank high in population density. Densely populated areas create the potential for more negative externalities and demand more governmental services. Sound, smell, and visual pollution tend to affect more people in densely populated municipalities than is the case in relatively sparsely populated unincorporated areas. Planning and zoning tend to take on added significance. Water and sewer services are in greater demand. Fire fighting techniques tend to be more aggressive, as required to keep fires from spreading to adjacent properties.
In order to streamline local government service delivery, local governments must take actions to match the area provided by governmental services with the optimal service areas for the capital intensive or technically-intensive services. This can occur by consolidating existing governments or by using intergovernmental agreements to consolidate service providers for individual services.
Consolidation is used to reduce the number of governmental units. This can be achieved when cities or villages annex unincorporated territory, by merging two or more adjoining governments into a single entity, or (because villages overlay townships and village residents are served by both the village and township governments) by dissolving villages to leave only the townships. Michigan has not had cities annex whole townships and has only had one merger of existing governments in the past 50 years.
The people in each jurisdiction within Lenawee County are similar. Also, the benefits of having larger governments might be seen with more diversified tax bases, better land use decisions, and better opportunities to attract social and economic development. However, the differences among these jurisdictions in the tax bases, tax efforts, the services provided result in an analysis of little opportunity for savings. For each jurisdiction that would benefit, another community would be taking on the cost of services previously not provided, and the consequent higher tax burden to fund the services.
City/county consolidations have been used in other states to eliminate duplication between the county governments and largest cities in those counties. Those regions have benefited with the realization of operational efficiencies, aligning those contributing to the funding of municipal services with those benefiting from their provision, and with increased stature that allows the regions to better compete for economic development on a national stage. However, an analysis of the finances of these local governments fails to identify costly service overlap between the county and municipal services and it is not necessarily a primary goal to increase the stature of the City of Adrian or Lenawee County to attract economic development.
It is recommended that the Lenawee County governments concentrate on intergovernmental collaboration as a means of gaining the benefits of local government consolidation and city/county consolidation without surrendering their identities and independence. Each governmental service can be handled independently, allowing those governments interested in providing particular services to their residents to voluntarily participate in collaborative efforts.
Furthermore, by understanding the people and places in Lenawee County it is possible to recommend a clear direction that Lenawee County and its local governments should take to strategically identify the functions and services that will be most productively provided through collaboration.
About Intergovernmental Collaboration
Michigan local governments use intergovernmental collaboration to provide services more efficiently and to avoid duplication of effort; provide services or service levels that individual governments cannot afford to provide on their own; provide services or deal with problems that transcend the boundaries of individual units; and minimize externalities. Collaboration is used to effectively deal with economic development, land use planning, quality of life assets, and to better manage the delivery of services provided by multiple jurisdictions. Local governments cooperate in a multitude of forms, including: consultation; voluntary regional commissions and councils; mutual aid pacts; joint service provision; joint purchasing; contracting to have functions performed and services provided to their residents; and special authorities.
Intergovernmental collaboration that occurs between two or more local governments – cities, villages, townships, school districts, special authorities, and special districts – to jointly provide any services that each is authorized to provide individually can be thought of as horizontal collaboration. Although one partner in a collaboration of this type may bring more to the partnership than the other(s), horizontal collaboration exists when two or more units at equal levels of local government agree to work together. (For purposes of this analysis, cities, villages, and townships are considered equal levels of local governments.)
Intergovernmental collaboration also occurs when local governments collaborate with the State or county governments. Such collaboration may take the form of municipalities sharing the cost of functions performed by their counties; municipalities contracting with their counties or the State to have functions performed; or the county governments simply assuming responsibility for the performance of specific functions, thus relieving the municipalities of function performance duties. These forms of relationships can be thought of as vertical collaboration. Unlike horizontal collaboration in which two or more units at the same level of government work together for the provision of services, vertical collaboration exists when local governments have functions performed by different levels of government.
Recommendations for Lenawee County
Extensive and meaningful new horizontal collaboration will be difficult in Lenawee County because the local governments display wide variance in population and housing units; the local governments display wide variance in the number of services provided; the local governments have varying capacity to tax themselves to provide services; and the local governments exert varying tax effort to fund those services. Only a few governments are positioned to take on greater service provision responsibility – Lenawee County and the cities of Adrian and Tecumseh and the Lenawee County government. Of these, the Lenawee County government has the best working relationship with all of the local governments in the county. The recommendations that follow are designed to capitalize on that dynamic.
Most Significant Actions
The first set of recommendations will have the most significant results in reducing the cost (or keeping future costs from escalating) of local government in Lenawee County.
Adopt County-Wide Practices to Control Urban Sprawl Analysis of the services provided by the Lenawee County local governments and the methods employed to deliver those services revealed little duplication at the present time. However, analysis of the population trends revealed an out-migration from the county’s core cities and steady growth in a few townships. The urban sprawl that is evident in the growth that has already occurred has not amounted to significant problems. But if streamlined service delivery is a goal, with minimal duplication in service provision, that sprawl must be reigned in soon.
The most significant set of reforms that can be enacted to control future urban sprawl in Lenawee County is to shift the focus of land use planning, zoning, community development, regional marketing, and economic development from the individual units to a regional or county-wide focus.
State law enables county, regional, and multi-jurisdictional land use planning and zoning, but the laws generally require positive action by the local governments to defer those powers beyond their boundaries.
The structure is in place for county-wide economic development with the Lenawee County Economic Development Corporation (LEDC). The November, 2011, vote against a dedicated tax levy will hamper the ability of this body to perform the tasks it was created to perform, but county and local government officials should seek ways of working with the LEDC to keep economic development focused at the county level. Even without dedicated county-wide funding, county, regional, and multi-jurisdictional is possible as voluntary actions by the individual local governments.
Tangential to the soft functions of planning, zoning, community development, regional marketing, and economic development, are several functions related to the ability to inhabit structures, including the issuance of building permits, building inspection (mechanical, electrical, etc.), code enforcement, and well and septic permits.
County Leadership to Facilitate Collaboration Strong Michigan counties are those that recognize that they are only as strong as their weakest local government. The ability to attract new economic development and to fund county services is enhanced when all of the local governments within the county are solvent, well run, efficient in their use of taxpayer dollars, and welcoming to residents and visitors. County governments are in a strong position to help their local governments become and stay strong economic actors, but it can require a champion to point the county in that direction.
The authorizing act under which most Michigan counties operate does not create the best structure for counties to serve that role. It creates a multi-purpose county commission, vested with both legislative and executive responsibilities, and divides other executive responsibilities among a number of independently elected officials. County commissioners are independently elected from county districts that usually contain multiple local governments. While they are elected to serve the whole county, it is inescapable that they are beholden to the residents in their districts that elect them and to the local governments that serve those residents.
That dynamic can be changed by moving to a structure providing for an independently elected county executive.
County Support of Police and Fire Operations It is recommended that the sheriff position the county department to continue providing police protection where the county is the current provider, but to provide support services to the independent police departments. The idea is to free up officers in the municipal police departments to perform the tasks they do best – providing patrol/emergency response services. The county should provide the capacity to handle all other tasks associated with operating a police department.
The county sheriff should extend the role it currently provides so that all emergency dispatch 9-1-1 services are handled through the county. All special units – child sexual abuse, vice, auto theft, cold cases, drugs, etc. – should be at the county level. The county also should provide support to handle all administrative tasks on behalf of the municipal departments.
The county should explore the ability to provide similar support for the municipal fire departments in the county.
Finally, all purchasing for the public safety organizations should be handled by the county.
County Support of Road Care The Lenawee County road commission should make its services available to any jurisdiction to care for the roads on a contractual basis. The road commission has the necessary equipment and can better leverage its resources by specializing solely on roads.
Even if contracting with the county road commission for full care of the municipal roads is not amenable to the smaller cities and villages, the road commission should position itself to provide a number of auxiliary services for those municipal road agencies. Purchasing, road signs and traffic lights, and engineering are examples of functions for which the local governments might find savings by contracting with the county road commission.
General Government Reforms
An easy starting point for the county to extend its strengths to the operations of the local governments is in the internal operations of government. These are functions that happen out of the public’s eye, and thus, collaboration should not be threatening to the elected officials or the taxpayers that support each individual government.
Greater involvement by the county to perform certain functions could streamline local government operations. Instead of having personnel in as many as 34 individual local governments performing each function independently, the county could have a few personnel performing the functions for multiple units of local government.
Create a “Cloud” A first step in initiating this form of vertical collaboration would be for the county and local governments to integrate their communication infrastructure by investing in a broadband system to connect all of the local governments to the county.
By wiring the government facilities, Lenawee County could situate itself and the local governments to collaborate in an economical, efficient manner on many service areas. Establishment of a high speed intranet connecting all county, city, village, township facilities within Lenawee County would better enable these governments to operate in the 21st Century and would create an infrastructure for improvements in many of the areas for which the county and local governments interact.
Creation of a secure intranet among the local governments would improve opportunities for file sharing and development of resources to capitalize on advances in communication. Building off of the interconnectedness offered by a local government intranet, the county could develop sufficient computer infrastructure to host websites, email service, databases, and other services for the benefit of the local governments. It should begin by focusing on functions that the county performs as part of the business operations of running the county.
Information Technology With or without the investment in a broadband network to tie the government centers in Lenawee County together, the county is in a position to help the local governments with their information technology needs. Information technology includes the management of computers and peripheral equipment within the governments, the use of geographic information systems (GIS) for strategic placement of governmental assets, and the provision of websites to disseminate information to the public.
Forms. All forms that are common throughout the governments should be standardized and made available for download through a common portal on the county website. This could include forms for such things as zoning, business licensing, animal licensing, property assessment appeals, parks facility reservations, and so on.
Printing of Municipal Documents. The county should investigate the potential of serving as a resource for the local governments when large volumes of any documents do need to be produced. The county facilities are readily accessible to the local governments throughout the county and the savings the county could potentially offer would make it worth the time and fuel of the local governments to transport printed material from the county offices.
Records/Archives. Like printing, local governments in Lenawee County and throughout Michigan largely house and archive records in house. The ability of the county to invest in the necessary machinery and software would allow the local governments to migrate to an electronic storage of their records in a more cost effective system.
Elections The counties could do more to facilitate the conduct of elections by the cities and townships. This role could include the education of city and township clerks on election law and the mechanics of conducting elections, joint purchasing of machinery and other materials needed for the conduct of elections, and for archiving of elections records.
Fiscal Services Creation of an intranet to tie together the government centers throughout the county would also allow the county to offer certain fiscal services to the local governments. The county could provide, or contract to provide, property assessing and tax collections on behalf of the local governments. It could also assist the local governments with their treasury functions, accounting and financial record keeping, and provide a gathering point to benefit the local governments with joint purchasing.
Human Resources CRC’s survey of local governments found that the human resource functions are typically provided independently by each governmental entity. This stands in some contrast to the private sector where a market niche has been created by companies providing human resource services for small and mid-sized companies to allow them to remain focused on their core mission. An intranet would allow the county to assume the role that payroll and HR companies play in the private sector.
Building Regulation Creation of an intranet to tie together the government centers throughout the county would facilitate collaboration in the performance of local governments’ building regulation functions. Whether the building regulation functions are kept at the local level or moved to the county, an intranet would allow the local governments to better utilize their resources in issuing building permits, performing building inspections, doing code enforcement activities, and, where applicable, issuing well and septic permits.
A number of services lend themselves to collaboration and/or contracting with private providers.
Building and Property Services Local governments provide a number of services related to the maintenance of their own assets or designed to service the privately owned properties within their jurisdictions. As it relates to the local governments’ assets, these services include building security, janitorial services, and cemetery services. They include the provision and operation of parks and playgrounds, community/recreation/senior centers, swimming pools, and forestry services. Local governments have fleets of vehicles that vary in number and character for which they have programs for the purchase, maintenance, and storage of their vehicles. Local governments also provide services to service the properties within their jurisdictions, such as solid waste collection and disposal and recycling.
These types of services do not lend themselves to horizontal collaboration in Lenawee County for a number of reasons. First, these services are not uniformly provided throughout the county. Smaller local governments, especially lightly populated townships tend not to provide many of these services. Second, it is not clear that economies of scale exist in the provision of these services. Most are fairly labor intensive services that require little capital investment for their provision.
It is recommended that the Lenawee County local governments explore contracts with private providers (many already do so) or joint service provision arrangements with the school districts for the provision of these types of services.
Position the County for New Services Twenty years ago, the provision of broadband and Wi-Fi infrastructure for computer access to the Internet is a prospect few government officials contemplated. Those that quickly recognized the importance of these services as an economic development tool and to provide quality of life services for their residents were best able to define the government’s role and vest the proper level of government with responsibility for their provision.
Lenawee County and its local governments need to be vigilant that governments may be called upon to provide new services. Without ties to past performance, they should be open to fitting the governmental service to the level of government best suited to its provision based on the economic characteristics of the service.
It is recommended that Lenawee County concentrate new intergovernmental collaboration efforts on strengthening county operations to better serve the needs of the local governments. These efforts should begin by focusing planning, zoning, community development, regional marketing, and economic development efforts with the county, instead of the individual local governments, to better direct new development to those governments with the capacity to provide services. This will relieve several fast growing townships from having to develop new service delivery capacities and help to preserve green space to keep agriculture as a valued economic activity in the county.
Additionally, the county should be positioned to perform a number of functions that would allow the cities, villages, and townships to concentrate of their core missions. The county provision of specialized and auxiliary police and fire service would allow the local governments with police and fire departments to focus on the core public safety missions they were created to perform. The county can also create an information technology infrastructure that would allow it to support local government services related to document creation and management, elections, fiscal services, human resources, and building regulation.