In a nutshell:
- Most local government services currently are provided at the most local level (i.e., city or township).
- Service improvements and cost savings in some areas can be achieved by allowing counties to provide local government services at a more regional level. This is made possible with modern methods of communication and transportation.
- Counties can vary dramatically, so regional collaboration will look different across the state. But regional service provision can benefit all, and allow municipalities to focus their resources on placemaking and the vital services that remain with them.
Michigan’s 83 counties are uniquely poised to handle many local government service functions and responsibilities. In many cases, a precursor to counties taking on expanded roles and responsibilities will be to rethink Michigan’s regional governance and service funding structures.
Counties in the past: The long arm of state government
Counties in Michigan range in size from 321.3 square miles (Benzie) to 1,821.1 square miles (Marquette). Each provides some services, but also encompasses constituent local governments providing more services, sometimes overlapping, to residents of both these counties and the cities, villages and townships within.
Counties were originally organized to be “agents” carrying out state laws and functions at a local level (e.g., sheriffs to keep the peace and prosecutors to enforce the law). This was necessary in the 1800s, when state officials could not easily get to nor communicate with far-flung residents.
While counties provided some local services, most others were provided closer to home. The state was carved into townships, typically 36 square miles in size, to provide officials and service centers more easily reached via horse. If enough people lived in proximity to one another, they could vote to create a city or village and adopt a charter giving residents more say over its organization and structure.
This system is now antiquated. Traveling to and communicating with one’s county government is very easy. Consequently, many local services can be better-provided at the county level.
Counties today: An exercise in regional government
In 2017, we released a report on county governance that recommended service areas that could benefit from county provision, including information technology, tax collection and elections, and public safety, among others. The report found that counties are well-suited to provide services to residents of smaller municipalities and to partner with larger ones to maximize economies of scale.
This sharing of services between counties and their constituent local governments is happening to varying degrees across the state. Oakland County, for example, has taken the lead in providing IT-related services that allow its cities and townships to better perform their own functions and services. This requires county investment and some surrender of autonomy by municipalities, but can lead to better service provision for residents.
Some counties work together to provide services, especially in more rural areas. The Alpena County probate judge and prosecutor provide services to Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties for mental health hearings. Genesee, Lapeer, Shiawassee, and the city of Flint share an economic development strategy.
Areas in need of improvement remain, however. A recent editorial in the Lansing State Journal asks: Why aren’t Ingham County, Lansing, and East Lansing working together in support of a regional approach to jail, courts and lockup facilities? Studies indicate this would lead to cost savings.
Examples of failed collaboration due to timing, financial, cultural, political, or other reasons do exist. In the 1990s, Kent County attempted collaboration to provide a modern, centralized property assessment and tax collection system; due to multiple problems in the process, the collaboration was abandoned. More recently, Grand Rapids officials decided against merging 911 dispatch services with Kent County because, although it would save money in the long run, the savings would not be realized for almost a decade and the Grand Rapids Police Department vocally opposed it. While service quality is not guaranteed to improve with county delivery, many provide services more professionally and effectively than local units. In Kent County, Grand Rapids is the only municipality not using the county’s dispatch service.
In some instances, even when savings can be shown, they are not significant enough to sway public or official opinion. This happened in West Michigan when the Zeeland City Council voted to keep its own police department despite a modest savings if they moved it to the county sheriff.
Counties in the future: Regional service providers
The Citizens Research Council is not advocating for local government consolidation, and, as the examples above show, collaboration will not always be successful or desirable. But it has the potential to greatly improve local finances and service delivery.
For increased county collaboration to be successful, counties have to market themselves as partners, rather than competitors, with local units. When the city or township improves, the county improves and vice versa.
It might also require changing how counties are governed and funded. Most Michigan counties are not governed under a charter, but under the state’s general law. That law provides a process for any county to organize under a charter or an optional unified government with a county executive, which would provide stronger governance and potentially a more effective regional leader and unifier. Additionally, if counties take on new services, they will need funds to provide these services.
Finally, it is important to remember that counties vary dramatically in Michigan. Counties are not uniform and a one-size-fits-all solution will not work well in Michigan.