Column: Limited Edition

The party's over – it's time for Michigan to change

The popular political and media rallying cry is “we need bold new ideas to move Michigan’s future forward.” Such visionary statements make for good politics and good press. Well, what about going back to the old ideas that worked. Work, provide, save, and be conscious of the needs of others.

Hey, the party is over. We don’t save much anymore. We spend what we earn, borrow some more from other governments, to buy all of the latest plasma electronics at low prices at Wal-mart. America’s largest retailer then ships the $10 billion we borrowed in merchandise payments back to China each year and we start the cycle all over again.

When the financial market’s balloon recently exploded, our government blows up another balloon by printing more money and distributing it out to banks to loan to us so we can keep spending and avoid the party-ending migraine hangover. This new infusion of money cheapens the value of the dollar so we have to borrow more to just maintain the same lifestyle. In some respects this spend-and-borrow lifestyle is our own Madoff ponzi scheme with our children and grandchildren being the eventual victims of our own actions.

To withdraw from this spend-and-borrow addiction, we in the private sector need to start making competitive American products for the global marketplace and saving a part of the profits. Those of us in the public sector need to shrink the size of government and make it more efficient.

Why do we need 1,242 townships in Michigan? Can’t the townships’ duties of assessing property, collecting taxes, conducting elections, and providing fire and police services be turned over to local counties (who also provide most of these services) in an effort to pull Michigan from its fiscal crisis? I could just as easily send my taxes to the county offices as to the township treasurer’s farm on Old U.S. 12 (who then remits the taxes back to the county). On second thought, why do I have to mail the payment anywhere? I should be able to pay the taxes over the Internet, just as I do many of the other household bills.

Why do we need 84 county road commissions in Michigan? Are the roads in Washtenaw County so different than the roads in Livingston that we need separate commissioners, lawyers, accountants, auditors, maintenance supervisors, etc.? Recently I was trying to get to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a snowy afternoon. I had no problem on Washtenaw roads but when the snowplow got off at the county line, the Wayne section of the freeway had not been plowed and traffic was at a crawl. If the Washtenaw road supervisor had more regional responsibility, I likely would have made my flight on time.

These local entities were established before Michigan became a state and their size allowed people living on the perimeter to walk to the township hall and return the same day. The argument for the status quo is that the township people are friendlier and provide more personal service. Unfortunately, this form of localism is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Public and private sector consolidations will eventually happen. A weak dollar and a shrinking property tax base will require that hard choices be made. The party is over. Let’s not leave our hangover to our children.


  1. January 26, 2009 at 9:11 am | permalink

    The first half of this article is reasonable, but I was surprised that when I got to the bottom of the article all that it has specifically called for is

    1) merging country road commissions
    2) turning the functions of 1282 townships over to the counties

    This strikes me as

    a) unlikely to happen
    b) likely to be counterproductive.

    As your own illustration points out, if we merge Washtenaw and Wayne country road services, Washtenaw is likely to suffer. And county governments throughout Michigan, and the country, have not established such a great reputation for efficiency and honesty that I want to give them all the power that the townships hold.

    Centralization can be an effective efficiency technique, but it is not the only one; there is a large body of thought that decentralized systems are more flexible and resilient. Do you want to get rid of our “inefficient” 50 state system?

  2. January 26, 2009 at 9:12 am | permalink

    The problem goes further. In rural areas, you have as many as 16 volunteer fire departments protecting a county. All with their own separate equipment and rules. And then they try to work together under mutual aid agreements when there is a big fire. In California, the county I lived in had its own county-wide fire department. It was more efficient and also more effective.

    Another question: Why do we have state police and also a county sheriff? If we have those, do we need township police departments? Some townships have them.

    I wouldn’t eliminate townships, because I know most people prefer local control. But I would leave it up to the county to deliver emergency services and take care of the roads.

  3. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 26, 2009 at 10:14 am | permalink

    This is a timely discussion because the Board of Commissioners just heard a presentation about regionalization of services. Here are the issues as I see them:

    1. Loss of sovereignty (control). You may not agree with the policies being implemented by a central authority, but will not have direct electoral control over them. Voters in each locality can complain, but have little say in decisions.

    2. Uneven taxing rates. Should low-tax areas receive services directly or indirectly supported by high-tax areas? Or do those low-tax areas want to pay only for a low level of services, but policy and reality mean that a higher level is indicated? Or does that mean that residents willing to pay for a higher level of service will be forced to the minimum level?

    3. Uneven service. If you pool services, you may see an adjacent area receive more service based on either good central judgment or political influence. Or your area may simply not receive the service to which you believe you are entitled. Remember all the discussion about Michigan being a donor state for federal taxes?

    If you want a good thought experiment – whoops, a real-time experiment – on how these issues play out, study the efforts to pay for policing across the county. As far as I can tell, no one is happy with that situation.

  4. By James H. Botsford, MD
    January 26, 2009 at 10:19 am | permalink

    I agree with everything in your column here. It is certainly a step in the right direction to begin talking about these changes. Without a doubt you will be tramping on a great many people’s toes.
    I’m sure that the only way these changes will every be accomplished would be by
    1) bankruptcy of the state or
    2)a large scale grass roots movement by the people, which is now possible with the advent of the Internet.

    Keep on stirring the pot.

  5. January 26, 2009 at 10:36 am | permalink

    Michigan townships have a long, storied tradition of self-rule. In some cases, people will move from one township to another in order to live in a place where they are happier with their local government. Marquette Township is a different place from Powell Township, Negaunee Township, Ishpeming Township, Turin Township etc.

    I’m all for efficiency in mutual aid agreements, and for the redundancy and resiliency that you get when you have multiple independent agencies working together to solve a common goal.

    Having multiple government organizations with overlapping jurisdiction gives you some enormous ability as a citizen to get representation for your views by addressing questions to public bodies – e.g. to note that the Ann Arbor District Library district includes a portion of Pittsfield Township, and as such it is relevant to ask through them about advocacy for Ann Arbor Transportation Authority service to the Pittsfield Branch Library.

    I’m all for efficient government – for having city departments get mulch for free from the city recycling center, rather than buying it at the hardware store – but you don’t get efficiency by doing a massive politically fueled re-org. You do get efficiency as a matter of necessity when you don’t have as much money. If you have a long enough memory (e.g. to the automotive depression of 79-85, or the 00-02 end of the dot-com era) there’s some idea of what this looks like: you get efficiency by effective repurposing of scrap materials and by forcing innovation from necessity.

  6. January 26, 2009 at 11:18 am | permalink

    I have always seen the township system as a relic of the past that has outlived its usefulness. I grew up in a merged city-county area, but elsewhere, you are either in a city/village or just unincorporated areas in the county.

    Incorporated townships should be given the options to:
    - join a neighboring municipality in full or in part
    - incorporate into a proper municipality in full or in part
    - dissolve

    Unincorporated townships should simply be dissolved.

    Washtenaw County has a population of about 323,000, of which 114,000 are in Ann Arbor, 4,400 are in Chelsea, 4,800 are in Milan, 8,000 are in Saline, and 22,000 are in Ypsilanti. The villages are Barton Hills with 335, Dexter with 2,300, and Manchester with 2,200. Total: 153,200 in cities, 4,800 in villages.

    Ann Arbor Twp has 4,700, Augusta has 4,800, Pittsfield has 30,000, Superior has 10,700, York has 7,400, and Ypsi Twp has 49,000. Charter Township total: 106,600.

    The remaining unincorporated townships have populations ranging from 1,300 (Saline) to 15,800 (Scio), with a total population of 58,400.

    Along with such a change should come, as Clarence pointed out, a merger in other services. What if Washtenaw County had a county-wide school district, and only municipalities were permitted to set up separate districts? There would still be local schools, but administrative functions could be consolidated. What about fire departments, police, libraries, and so on?

  7. January 26, 2009 at 1:05 pm | permalink

    CMadler’s comment about seeing the township system as a “relic of the past” was an interesting one and made me realize that part of the reason I am attached to the idea of townships is precisely the opposite — townships are a connection with a principle of local control and limitation of central authority that dates back to the Magna Carta.

    Del, you had me nodding along in complete agreement all the way through the first half of your post, you only lost me when you locked in on a solution … maybe we should go back to the premise and see if there are other ways that we can attack the spend-and-borrow cycle.

  8. January 26, 2009 at 1:20 pm | permalink

    The problem with having multiple government entities that receive tax revenue is it is too hard to track how each one spends money and what the impact will be. A good example of this is where did the money come from for the new police court facility? Some comes from the DDA that does not have the same oversight as the City. What is the impact of taking that money? What are they not going to buy that they may need to? Will the DDA need to borrow money back from the City at some point?

    Who actually loses if a Brownfield is awarded? The Library, the DDA, The schools?

    These overlapping units makes it too easy to push, hide, misspend or manipulate money in seemingly harmless ways that we as taxpayers can never get our arms around. We never will really know who is ultimately paying the tax.

    It also builds inefficiencies into the system like preventing our City bus system from running to our new maintenance facility because it is in the Township! Another pet peeve of mine is that businesses that locate in the township can still use an Ann Arbor address because the postal service says they can.

    Lets combine every non-school, government unit like Paul Dimond suggests in the “Other Voices” column last weekend. Lowering property taxes would be a major attraction for new business that we desperately need.

  9. By Ed Thierbach
    January 26, 2009 at 2:38 pm | permalink

    Amusingly, but seriously, I think the odd-numbered posts so far are right on the mark. I lived in a county-centric, no-township state (Maryland) for over a quarter century, and it wasn’t any better than having townships. In fact, in my opinion, it was much worse, for the reasons already stated by others.

    Anything else I might write here would just be a re-hash of what Zimmerman, Armentrout and Vielmetti have already written. (Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? :-) I’ll just add that what they wrote is borne out by my experience.

    Although I’m sure the original author and even-numbered posters are sincere, the cost savings they write about are, IMO, false efficiencies (remembering that efficiency is more than just spending a little less money). We should all be concentrating on more effective (and less political) solutions to the very real problem described in the first half of the article.

  10. By Bob Martel
    January 26, 2009 at 2:58 pm | permalink

    I think it’s funny that we seem to have an “odd” and “even” cycle going here. I think that I will be an “even” post (unless someone else slips in ahead of me,) and I don’t know where that will put me in the mix, but let me point out that Washtenaw County is atypical of most counties in our state. We have a degree of sophistication that is probably only matched by fewer that dozen of our fellow counties. Let’s rethink Del’s ideas, and the objections raised by the “odd posters” and apply these to counties such as: Allegan, Benzie, Gladwin, Missaukee and see if we come up with a different answer?

  11. January 26, 2009 at 3:44 pm | permalink

    Bob (in the odd thread), you can find someone to speak for those counties; I’m thinking of Houghton, Keewenaw, Marquette, Alger, Schoolcraft, Delta, Iron, Dickenson, Mackinac, Luce (did I miss one?) and a few others in the UP. There are no city governments to merge with or very few, and the counties are very large compared to the number of people who live in them. In rural areas you need some sort of township governance or else you need to plan to vastly expand the size and scope of county government.

    To give you some idea of how large counties can be, realize that it takes two hours by car to go from Big Bay, MI to Republic, MI, both of which are in Marquette County. Even if you did have one huge county-wide fire department incorporating all of the little local fire stations, you’d still have to have mutual aid because if a forest fire hits near the camps on Lake Michigamme you want all available responders to come in.

  12. By Jeff Lopez-Stuit
    January 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm | permalink

    As a Michigan native who now lives Washington, a state where the most powerful government entity is the county government, I can tell you that I much prefer the Michigan model. County governments in Washington are actually much more powerful than the state government, and in my opinion, it’s a model that breeds machine politics and corruption.

    Possible correction to the column: Michigan has 83 counties, so I’m not sure why there would be 84 county road commissions.

  13. January 26, 2009 at 4:42 pm | permalink

    from :

    Do all counties have road commissions?

    Every county in Michigan has a county road agency. All but one have county road commissions. In Wayne County, the road commission was merged with county general government in the 1980s. In every other county, the road commission is a separate unit of government, removed from county general government.

    So I guess that makes 82 county road commissions! (And when you drive across the UP, you notice that; the color of the road changes at the county line to reflect the prevailing color of the aggregate, and there’s a snowplow turnaround at the county line for the county plows to turn around.)

  14. By Del Dunbar
    January 26, 2009 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    Thomas Jefferson came up with the idea of Townships long before he sent Lewis and Clark up the Missouri. A 36 square mile plot of land at the time seemed fairly large. Washtenaw County doesn’t seem all that large to me in 2009. To fund full government services,provide local control and central authority for every 36 square mile parcel no longer seems to me to meet the sanity test, much like the absurdity of requiring the same full menu of services from every ward in the City. I could still have a township representative on the County Board of Commissioners to speak for the neighborhood community without having to have a Township Clerk, Supervisor,Accountant,Teasurer, Secretary, Auditor, Assessor, Planner, Fire Department, Police Department, Legal Counsel, etc. Maybe the starting point is to ask what the functions of all units of local government should be and who can do what best and for the least cost. This is just not a Township issue. I see the public school trucks clearing snow from the Pioneer parking lot and 90 feet away the city snow trucks are in action, not to speak of the university snowplow hard at work across the street. Do we need three fully manned departments for three different public entities to plow snow in the same neighborhood? To respond to one I think the township/county consolidation will happen? The answer unfortunately is probably not. The Michigan Township Association will see to that. It is sometimes difficult in our system of government with all of its constituencies, lobbyists, checks and balances to create change even change for the better.

  15. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 26, 2009 at 7:06 pm | permalink

    To continue being “odd”: before the passage of the one-man-one-vote law, townships and cities all had one vote (equally) on the County Board of Supervisors. So Ann Arbor had one vote, as did every township and city in the county (I’m not clear on villages and haven’t looked this up). It meant a huge Board of Supervisors biased to the rural areas of the county. I met the last Ann Arbor Supervisor on my 2002 campaign (I believe that he is dead now). He cast the only vote for Ann Arbor on that Board.

    The frustration for many townships is that now representation is on a population basis. They often don’t feel that they are equally represented because the big urban areas can out-vote them. (Going to Del’s point, there could be a “township vote”, but not a vote for his particular township.)

    So which is fair? And how would so many issues play out against that backdrop?

  16. January 26, 2009 at 8:33 pm | permalink

    Collecting revenue and other such functions should be quick and efficient; why should you have to wait in line? Other things like
    plowing snow should be coordinated, not done in a vacuum. We have too many boards and commissions handling “routine” matters as a matter of first impression because of inexperience and caution.

    Simply, we can longer afford to maintain our infrastructure with the revenue losses facing us. If I can’t sell my house for 25% less than I paid for it (or owe on it), then why should I pay taxes on the part that vanished? That is “phantom revenue” supporting “phantom jobs” and the well will run dry.

  17. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 26, 2009 at 9:43 pm | permalink

    Some corrections and additions: I should have said the “one-man-one-vote decision”. It was about 1964.

  18. January 27, 2009 at 9:01 am | permalink

    “If I can’t sell my house for 25% less than I paid for it (or owe on it), then why should I pay taxes on the part that vanished?”

    If I understand correctly, your tax bill will reduce as soon as the appraised value is adjusted. In the meantime, you should pay what’s due because

    1) it’s the law.
    2) you took a calculated risk in the value of your investment.

    Show a little grit.

  19. By James H. Botsford, MD
    January 27, 2009 at 9:43 am | permalink

    In response to Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Kallewaard, I’m sure it will be a cool day in hell before our taxes are ever lowered, regardless of our property values.

  20. By anonymous observer
    January 27, 2009 at 10:18 am | permalink

    Regarding post 18, your assumption that property taxes decline at the rate of value decline is faulty. The assessors are ‘forced’ (by budgetary requirements) to reduce assessed value slower than true market value.

    Also, it seems that Pittsfield may be taking a baby step towards Del’s goal…


    Pittsfield Township considers contracting for human resources services
    by John Mulcahy | The Ann Arbor News
    Monday January 26, 2009, 7:39 PM
    Pittsfield Township trustees will consider whether to contract the township’s human resources functions to Washtenaw County when the board meets Tuesday.

    Supervisor Mandy Grewal said the step would save money because of “economies of scale.”

    A proposed resolution would set the cost at not more than $25,000 per year.

    The township’s last human resources director, whose job was terminated when Grewal and a new board of trustees took office in November, cost the township a little more than $98,000 in salary and benefits in the last year of her employment.

    The township would retain control over who is hired and fired, but the county would handle labor relations, retirement issues, worker’s compensation and other tasks, Grewal said.

    Last year, the Washtenaw County Road Commission contracted its human resources to the county. Pittsfield Township would become the first township in the county to do so.

  21. By Sue Lackey
    January 27, 2009 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    In the spirit of even/odd, I may need to wait for someone else to post.

    It’s clear that we can’t continue to do things the way we have since the NW Territory, or even since the ‘new’ constitution of the 1960′s. The worst approach we can take is the position that either countywide services OR township based services are THE right delivery method. If we were to study this closely, we’d probably find that some things are more effective the closer they are to home, while others might be even better handed back to the state to provide. We might also find that effective and cheap aren’t necessarily the same, which would raise a whole lot more questions. Moreover, what works in the UP may not work in Southeast Michigan. The challenge will be to free up governments to work together, study these issues, and come to logical conclusions. To a large degree, the tools are there to allow for these experiments, if only the political will exists. That means that both elected officials and citizens need to breath deeply and be willing to give up their preconceived ideas. As my mother says: ” A pre conception is the most efficient form of decision making – you don’t need to spend all that time thinking.”

  22. By Mary Morgan
    January 27, 2009 at 2:59 pm | permalink

    A couple of links for this discussion:

    1) The Jan.. 18 Other Voices essay by Paul Dimond, mentioned in Stew Nelson’s #8 comment:
    2) At its Jan. 14 meeting, the county board of commissioners heard a report from deputy administrator David Behen, outlining shared-services projects between the county and local cities/townships. This report also reflects some of the concerns that commissioners have over pursuing these strategies:

  23. By Mary Morgan
    January 27, 2009 at 3:01 pm | permalink

    Oops – that county commission meeting I mentioned happened on Jan. 21.

  24. By Bob Martel
    January 27, 2009 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    We’ve had some pretty scrappy and vivid discussion on this point. It seems that Del Dunbar and Paul Dimond may have found a subject with surprisingly broad interest. I hope that the Observer will keep this subject moving along with follow up pieces.
    Keep up the good work!

  25. By Mary Morgan
    January 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm | permalink

    Bob, perhaps The Chronicle can, too!

  26. By Steve Bean
    January 27, 2009 at 4:41 pm | permalink

    I thought it was interesting how Del made the leap from the “party” of consumption, our “spend-and-borrow addiction”, to concluding that government needs to be reduced in size and made more efficient, as if that were the cure.

  27. By Del Dunbar
    January 27, 2009 at 8:55 pm | permalink

    The spend and borrow addiction of the private sector accompanied by institutionalized greed from Wall Street is just as much a problem as excess spending in the public sector. As you well know the private sector is now taking its hits, with significant contractions in the workplace, business and personal bankruptcies, housing foreclosures, etc. The public sector impact is the next shoe to fall. Governments spend more than they take in. These excess expenditures often for infrastructure improvements are deficit financed by issuing bonds. Many state and municipal governments (not Ann Arbor) have actually added employees over the last few years as the private sector has been contracting. Currently, pension funds are demanding higher interest rates on municipal bonds before they will buy them. With shrinking tax bases that have not as yet been factored into a reduced property tax levy, and with increasing interest costs on their debt, governments will have to quickly find consolidations in the public sector and joint venture partnerships with the private sector (the only people with the money) in order to survive.

  28. By Steve Bean
    January 28, 2009 at 2:13 am | permalink

    Another interesting perspective in your first sentence of #27. I’d say that the private sector contributions to the current economic mess are far more of a problem than “excess” public sector spending.

    Beyond that, I think the federal government has a much larger role to play in turning things around.

    “Governments spend more than they take in.” I’ll assume that you ‘misspoke’ and were just referring to bonding. I’ll also note that local government spending has a positive impact on the local economy, which hasn’t been mentioned yet.

    The party was over for Michigan governmental units years ago. It’s been steady work since then, and that work continues. (Anyone else making the “party”/”partisan” connection wrt who does the partying and who cleans up the messes?)

  29. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 28, 2009 at 10:21 am | permalink

    Picking up from Del’s comments about overspending on infrastructure, maybe it’s not too late for some city-county cooperation on court space. Why does Ann Arbor press ahead with the city hall expansion in these difficult economic times, using up a noticeable fraction of our fund balance in the process, while the county is in a severe slide (most services not mandated by state law have already been cut or compromised) and yet is losing the lease payments at the courthouse?

    Of course, if the city hall is not built, another location will have to be found for the joint county-city IT operation. That space was already programmed into the city hall as it was being touted to be a lean solution to a courts security and police offices problem.

    Our city administrator has posted a blog comment ( that indicates he expects a continuing budget crunch and loss of services in years to come. Why does he also continue to insist that we can afford a new city hall? Let’s continue what was a successful regional cooperation by keeping the 15th District in the county courthouse.