Article

City Limits: Home Rule or Just Old Fashioned Turf

Thoughts About Snyder's Marshall Plan for Michigan
Posted In:Politics, State, Local, Finance, Taxes, News, Local, State, National | From Issue 723 | By: | 31st March, 2011 | 0


I've lived on the city side of the Saginaw city limits for 30 years; the border with Saginaw Township is my property line.

I have considered the opportunities lost to our entire Saginaw Valley community, and to me personally, on account of the artificial wall, which divides my neighborhood into separate government jurisdictions.            

That line determined that I should go to failing city schools rather than first class modern schools. That line means my beautifully restored home, nestled on the beautiful street I grew up on, is worth far less, pound for pound, than the homes across the lawn in the township. My property taxes are high, but I also pay a high city income tax. Even my insurance costs more. Geographically, since townships are meant to be square, my house falls in the township. So why am I displaced?
                 
Our Saginaw Valley community, which really embraces the whole Tri-counties area, has suffered too; fractured into literally hundreds of overlapping jurisdictions that stumble all over each other, duplicate effort and cost, squander community resources, and which simply cannot come together to implement common sense community solutions.
                  
Borders come and go, and I have pondered what function, or what sentiment for that matter, city government serves that could not be served better, cheaper, and more equitably by township, county wide, or even regional forms of government? That boundary line served the long forgotten personal interests of the people that manipulated it in the first place; it has never served any important legitimate community wide purpose. 
                 
When former Governor Granholm oversold a misguided "cool cities" initiative, progressives failed to recognize that city governments are not cool; Communities are cool, and community action should not be limited by arbitrary city limits.  
                 
Michigan's visionary new legislative package empowers local emergency financial managers, transcends "turf", and brings certainty and accountability to the process.                   
 
Once upon a time our city fathers ruled a bustling industrial city, and half interest in a state of the art 65-mile water pipeline system. Saginaw's business partner, Midland, expanded its city limits, as the population spread out from its urban core to outlying communities, by absorbing areas that wanted access to the City of Saginaw’s super high quality water. 
                 
Contrarily, Saginaw politicians closed the city's political borders.
                 
These city fathers knew that territorial expansion might bring with it an unacceptable side effect: more population means more revenue and efficiency, but it also means competitive elections.
                 
Political competition might quickly erode, and even destroy, the stranglehold on power enjoyed by a small elite political class, so they refused to annex the various townships into one city government. They made the best deal for themselves, personally, and just sold off the water instead, even below value; they would not risk the political uncertainty (to themselves) of an expanded pool of voters, even though outlying areas, like Saginaw Township, begged to be annexed.
                 
While Midland flourished to the mutual benefit of all involved, sadly, City Hall ran Saginaw into the ground; it fell into ruin and decay, with less than half its population remaining. Saginaw fell early, and never really recovered from the 70's. By contrast, our neighboring townships bled the city's population and wealth, using the city infrastructure everyday but not paying for it. Now they are suffering from legacy costs too.
                 
The old guard was self-serving and short sighted; their political handy work continues to cripple our community decades later. Petty turf wars make change impossible. No one gives away his or her power willingly. Jurisdictional boundaries exalt form over substance, and only erect barriers to change that are so distracting and debilitating that community problem solvers end up boxed in by what they can't do because of jurisdictional complications; they end up just putting band-aids on local problems rather than seeking logical regional solutions.  
                 
Many township governments have developed big government budgets of their own, and the economic toll on our Saginaw Valley community continues to be staggering.
                 
Crime knows no boundary, but we have over a dozen separate police jurisdictions just in Saginaw County alone. In the age of 911, crime response should be regionally coordinated and consolidated with fire protection, but government officials are not keen on phasing themselves out and sacrificing their personal ambitions and livelihoods to give the community at large cheaper and better services.
                 
Who can blame them, in these lean times. Besides, they seldom live in the jurisdiction that employs them, so why should they care? No local government employee, and no official in charge of any city, township, village, or school system, wants to lose their job in the process of consolidating many jurisdictions into more logical order. 
                 
The governor and the legislature took ownership of Michigan's financial crisis a few weeks ago by allowing the wholesale reorganization of obsolete, expensive, and overlapping local government fiefdoms, including school systems held hostage by the MEA war chest.
                 
They also injected accountability into the preexisting process of municipal receivership and ultimate bankruptcy authority, and added the power to avoid some government union strangleholds on local governments.
                 
This new process gives municipal governments the power to legally make some tough cost cutting choices to avoid Chapter 9 Bankruptcy, which would trump the Michigan Constitutional protections and result in catastrophic unilateral write downs of government employee "pension and retirement system" obligations owed to unsuspecting, over-promised public sector careerists. If they fail to embrace change, as some will, then the governor can step in and take responsibility for the needed changes. 
                 
With these new changes, I can hear opportunity knocking for everyday people. We private citizens must insist that our local officials answer the call; they must focus their attention on this new process of self-examination and embrace change. 
                 
We all live life our real lives in communities without borders. Ultimately, the new law gives city governments a chance to live within their means, to evolve, and to move forward without the shackles of the past. 
                 
Who among us has not said, "We have to do something."  
                 
Michigan is broke, but an economic Marshall Plan for Michigan, a real plan that puts everything on the table and that removes the old barriers to change, can fix it.

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