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Fletcher: Consolidating governments into one: Thunder Bay County

September 11, 2012
Stephen Fletcher , The Alpena News

There's been a lot written about political consolidation of government. While everyone is pretty certain the job of government could be accomplished less expensively, no one is actually presenting a plan.

Locally, I'm pretty sure it could be construed that we have too many government units. So, I considered how I would go about consolidating government.

First, I considered how small to make an effective unit of government. I settled on 75,000 people, based on the fact that there seem to be a lot of governments which represent about that number and they seem to perform pretty efficiently.

I looked at 2011 U.S. Census estimates on the Internet and discovered Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, Oscoda and Presque Isle counties combined had 71,802 residents. I then looked up the number of government units in our five-county consolidation group and came up with more than 60. I excluded school districts, intermediate school districts, sewer and water districts, and the like. I included only townships, counties and municipal governments in the five counties. In reality, there are many more taxing units than I counted for this column, but even the 60 appalled me, so I just say "more than 60."

Let's call the combined new government Thunder Bay County. I propose a five-person board elected in districts of 14,000 citizens. I'm talking one sheriff, one clerk, one treasurer, one register of deeds, and so forth to govern this new county.

There are several reasons to expect a consolidation would work. First, there is every reason to expect that right after the November election, a new state personal property tax bill will be approved. Once that happens, there no longer will be personal property tax revenue for any of these government units except that paid by electric utilities. For Green Township alone, the personal property tax amounts to 14 percent of its revenue. That's a significant amount of reduction in taxes for a government to lose. If for no other reason, budget pressure will begin consolidation discussions around the state.

Conversely, there are more than 300 elected reasons for not considering consolidation. That's the number of elected officials in the 60 combined cities, villages, townships and counties. Imagine no longer having mileage or per diem reimbursements, let alone health care.

I'm not going to go out and have printed Thunder Bay County sweatshirts just yet.

In banking there's a saying that "your first loss is the smallest." What bankers mean is that if a loan is going bad, you deal with it quickly, as the problem will not go away.

While such a philosophy, if applied to the consolidation of Thunder Bay County, would result in a less expensive alternative for taxpayers, don't bet on that happening.

Why would politicians want to make themselves unemployed? First, there will be complaints about how mean and unfair Michigan legislators are for not bailing out small government entities. Second, there will be endless studies performed as to how best to proceed. Third, should the economy improve, officials will adopt a "wait and see" attitude to see if a boat load of new jobs and tax money might happen locally. Finally, when all else fails and they face a financial crisis, only then will they reluctantly begin consolidation discussions.

I'm thinking it will take another 20 years of procrastination before Thunder Bay County becomes a reality. In the meantime many of those elected officials will continue collecting their mileage, per diem and health coverage.

On the presidential campaign we keep reading about how inefficient our federal government is, but we don't apply that same barometer to our local government.

With more than 300 elected officials in the five-county area, it appears that we are being more than a little hypocritical by just complaining about Washington, when we have similar opportunities here at home.

Government at all levels can stand some trimming, whether in Washington, Lansing or here in Thunder Bay County.



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