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Townships in the 21st Century

The federalist system of national, state and local governments is intended to not only delegate responsibility for dispensing services, but is also intended for local governments to guard against excessive power being exercised at the state level, in the same manner as the states are intended to reign in excessive power from the federal government.

How this system of government was intended to operate was best described by Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century French scholar who visited America to learn how America functioned without a king. His analysis of American government, Democracy in America, was widely hailed for its objective, insightful critique of the checks and balances intended to prevent democracy from deteriorating into either “despotism” or the “tyranny of the majority.”

In Chapter V, Tocqueville focused on townships:

It is not without intention that I begin this subject with the township. The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.

For Tocqueville, townships were an essential check and balance against centralizing too much power in state government, which he considered too distant from the concerns of individual citizens and which had no business meddling in affairs that were purely local in nature. By distributing power into the hands of decentralized administrators like clerks and treasurers (or in the New England terminology, the “Selectmen”), the potential for abuse of government power, according to Tocqueville, is greatly diminished.

The townships are generally subordinate to the state only in those interests which I shall term social, as they are common to all the others. They are independent in all that concerns themselves alone; and among the inhabitants of New England I believe that not a man is to be found who would acknowledge that the state has any right to interfere in their town affairs.

The township, taken as a whole, and in relation to the central government, is only an individual, like any other to whom the theory I have just described is applicable. Municipal independence in the United States is therefore a natural consequence of this very principle of the sovereignty of the people.

Townships also invigorate an active and engaged citizenry. The independence and authority of townships, according to Tocqueville, attracts people to actively participate in civic affairs that would not exist if the ability to exercise real power, even in a limited area, was curtailed.

The New Englander is attached to his township not so much because he was born in it, but because it is a free and strong community, of which he is a member, and which deserves the care spent in managing it … the township, at the center of the ordinary relations of life, serves as a field for the desire of public esteem, the want of exciting interest, and the taste for authority and popularity; and the passions that commonly embroil society change their character when they find a vent so near the domestic hearth and the family circle.

The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free: his co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interests, the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions. He takes a part in every occurence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms without which liberty can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.

Today’s local government critics may dismiss the views of Tocqueville as yet another relic of a bygone era. But if local governments such as townships would cease to serve as checks and balances against an over-reaching state government, what government systems will need to be created to keep the state from excessively interfering in matters that strictly local in nature? Is civic engagement engendered by townships no longer valued? Should we now conclude that state government has demonstrated that, in all matters, it has earned our complete trust, and the notion of potential abuses of power by over-zealous state agencies that are poorly governed by inexperienced lawmakers is just another quaint, out of date notion of paranoid frontiersmen? And finally, if local democracy is to be rationed, by what criteria will it be decided who will get to enjoy the exercise of local control, and which citizens will not?

Townships Respond to their Critics

The form and structure of governmental entities, as well as the delineation of roles and responsibilities, is a constant source of debate. Monarchies, theocracies, democracies, republics, dictatorships—they all have their supporters and detractors, and each arguably offers advantages and disadvantages to fulfill various governmental needs and expectations. Even within each of those government models there is plenty of room to debate the scope of government powers and whether a particular governmental function is better delivered at federal, state or local level.

Critics of township government argue that small governments, with boundaries created in “horse and buggy” days, are no longer needed given 21st Century communications. They point out that people no longer need personal contact with government officials to vote, apply for permits or to pay taxes. They often allege that services provided by townships could be provided at less cost, or more effectively, if they were configured over larger geographic areas. The problems that local governments address can transcend political boundaries. Government, it is argued, has become too complex for untrained citizens to manage and contemporary issues need experts to effectively resolve. Local governments, critics contend, should be consolidated into larger entities.

Local government boundaries as they are currently configured may be due for a reexamination. Township boundaries aligned with surveyor or “congressional” township lines may or may not be optimal to meet local needs and circumstances, but the goal of reducing the number of local governments—if such a goal is truly worthy of serious consideration--should also address all types of local governments, particularly those communities facing chronic fiscal problems resulting from their small geographic size and declining tax bases, which are very common in southeast Michigan. Today’s cities were originally created to take advantage of the 18th Century “interstate”—the navigable waters of rivers, canals and the Great Lakes, or the railroads, or just to capture the tax base of factories that may even be long-gone today. Counties administer many federal and state programs that address problems and issues that are more regional in nature than county-specific.

Michigan citizens have a strong preference for local control, and to date the arguments that Michigan has too many governments has not gotten much traction. Some of the many arguments against a broad-brush policy to reduce the number of local governments include the following:

  • Michigan local governments, on average, provide services at less cost than local governments in all but a few other states (see the following Michigan Local Government Performance Measures)
  • A preponderance of academic research does not support local government consolidations as a cost-reduction strategy (see Bibliography)
    • Studies of prospective mergers and consolidations sometimes predict savings, but post-merger studies find that promised savings did not materialize, costs actually increased
    • No relationship has been found between the number of local governments and cost of local government services
    • Consolidations result in bigger governments with weaker financial stewardship than that of smaller entities
    • Economies of scale do not exist for most local government services
    • Bigger bureaucracies offset purported efficiencies
    • Transition costs exceed initial estimates
    • “Homogenization” (leveling up) of service levels across larger geographic area raises overall service levels and costs
    • Volunteerism weak in larger entities
    • Employees of larger entities expect higher compensation levels
    • Governing bodies in larger entities require more staffing
    • Consolidated governments act as monopolies; reduce choice for service mix and taxation rates
    • Blending disparate millage rates creates winners and losers
    • Reducing the number of elected governing bodies and public officials “rations democracy” (See attached polling data)
      • Voters recognize their personal influence on elected officials diminished
      • Voters do not support the concept of consolidation, are generally even more opposed to losing their own local government
      • Requires extensive analysis and planning for three-five years
      • Proponents often focus on entities with small populations that already enjoy lower cost governments
      • Potential benefits result from unique circumstances
        • Entities geographically small, existing service area inefficient (law enforcement)
        • Existing water and/or sewer systems failing or undersized, benefit from reconfiguration and economies of scale if they can be merged
        • Existing services over staffed in relation to workload
        • Opportunity for merged services to be more efficiently redeployed (i.e., fire stations relocated

 

Michigan Local Performance Measures

Performance Measure

Per Capita Amount (except where noted*)

National Per Capita Ranking (compared to other   states)

  •   Total General Purpose Local Governments

1,858*

33

  •   Total Local Governments, Including Special Purpose Districts

2,893*

28

  •   Local Elected Officials

19.4/10k

26

  •   Average # Elected Officials Per Local Government

6.6*

38

  •   General Revenue For State And Local Government Operations

$7,310

32

  •   Federal Funding For Local Government Services

$1,487

33

  •   Number Of Local Government Employees (noneducational)

12.2/1K

43

  •   Funding From Local Governments’ Sources

$5,823

31

  •   Property Taxes

$1,412

16

  •   Salaries and Wages,  Local Government Employees (noneducational)

$617

37

  •   Law Enforcement Expenditures

$242

28

  •   Fire Protection Expenditures

$95

37

  •   Financial Administration (tax collections, assessing, accounting)

$94

44

  •   Other Government Operations (governing boards, planning and zoning

$68

43

  •   General Use Public Buildings Expenditures

$38

38

U.S. Bureau of the Census data, except where noted

 

Small Governments the Norm
in the United States

Area Covered

Total

Under 1,000 Population

Pct.  Of Total

United States

36,011

18,366*

51%

All Michigan Local Governments

1858

607

26%

Villages

257

161

63%

Townships

1,240

305

25%

Cities

276

14

5%

*extrapolated from Census Data by Demographia Institute

 

Majority of Michigan Residents
Do Not Support Consolidating Local Governments

 use_local_governments_chart.jpg

Source: Marketing Resource Group (MRG), December 2009, Degree of confidence +-4%

 

Compared to Other States, Michigan Does Not Have “Too Much” Local Government

Michigan has 2,805 local units of government.[1] This includes 1,240 townships, 533 cities and villages, 366 special districts, and 739 school districts, of which 159 are charter schools. In terms of the number of local governments per capita, Michigan ranks 32nd among the fifty states, (figure 1) [2] ranking lower than states that are often held as models of local government structure, Washington and Oregon.

In states that do not have the township form of government, a plethora of special districts emerge to provide fire protection, utilities, libraries and other local government services. Consequently, the abolishment of townships would likely result in a proliferation of such special districts that are generally unelected, unaccountable, and do not provide the fiscal oversight currently performed by townships.

Figure 1.

State

Local

Population

Units of Local Governments

Governments

in Thousands

Per Thousand Residents

North Dakota

2,736

642

4.26

South Dakota

1,867

754

2.48

Nebraska

2,792

1,711

1.63

Kansas

3,888

2,530

1.54

Wyoming

723

493

1.47

Montana

1,128

858

1.31

Vermont

734

608

1.21

Idaho

1,159

1,293

0.90

Alaska

176

244

0.72

Minnesota

3,483

4,919

0.71

Iowa

1,976

2,926

0.68

Missouri

3,423

5,247

0.65

Maine

827

1,274

0.65

Arkansas

1,589

2,673

0.59

Indiana

3,086

5,220

0.59

Wisconsin

3,049

5,363

0.57

Illinois

6,904

12,419

0.56

Oklahoma

1,799

3,450

0.52

Colorado

1,929

3,746

0.51

New Mexico

859

1,819

0.47

Pennsylvania

5,032

10,763

0.47

New Hampshire

560

1,235

0.45

Massachusetts

842

1,895

0.44

Delaware

340

783

0.43

Oregon

1,440

3,421

0.42

Kentucky

1,440

3,781

0.38

West Virginia

687

1,808

0.38

Mississippi

1,001

2,844

0.35

Ohio

3,637

11,353

0.32

New York

3,421

10,968

0.31

Washington

1,788

5,894

0.30

Michigan

2,805

9,938

0.28

Utah

606

2,233

0.27

Alabama

1,172

4,444

0.26

Texas

4,785

20,851

0.23

Georgia

1,449

7,698

0.19

Tennessee

931

5,106

0.18

South Carolina

702

4,012

0.17

Connecticut

581

3,405

0.17

New Jersey

1,413

8,414

0.17

Louisiana

474

3,276

0.14

California

4,410

33,094

0.13

Arizona

639

5,130

0.12

North Carolina

961

8,049

0.12

Rhode Island

119

1,048

0.11

Virginia

522

4,720

0.11

Nevada

211

1,945

0.11

Florida

1,192

15,203

0.08

Hawaii

20

335

0.06

Maryland

266

4,645

0.06

 

Constitutional Issues

While townships are “creatures of the state,” they are created pursuant to the Michigan Constitution, not by statute. Consequently, their abolishment as a form of government would require numerous amendments to the Michigan Constitution, adopted by the voters at a statewide general election.

Fiscal Issues

In relation to the magnitude of the state’s structural deficit, the amount of state money transferred to townships is extraordinarily small. Townships have seen their statutory revenue sharing reduced from $90 million to $2.5 million. They also receive approximately $7.5 million in payments-in-lieu of taxes for providing services to state-owned land. Assuming that all state aid to townships was eliminated, the savings to the state would not begin to resolve the state budget crisis. In addition, whatever entities absorbed the governmental obligations previously performed by townships would expect to receive the state assistance formerly received by township(s).

Illusion of Greater Efficiency

A frequently cited justification for consolidating municipal governments is that larger units of government have lower costs. However, the actual evidence, as indicated by spending experience, indicates no such relationship. Generally, greater local democracy, resulting from smaller local jurisdictions, does not result in higher government costs per capita. Michigan is among the states with greater local democracy, ranking 29th in average local jurisdiction size as determined by average population of local governments.[3] Michigan’s local government spending per capita is also below the national average (figure 2).

 

Local government spending 

While some capital-intensive services such as utilities and road maintenance provide economies of scale, labor intensive services such as law enforcement and fire protection actually cost more to produce as they increase in size and scope, due higher administrative costs resulting from expanded span of control and higher personnel costs.

University of Western Ontario Professor Andrew Sancton generally finds that municipal consolidations in both the United States and Canada have not led to materially lower costs per capita.[4]

Sancton’s conclusions are echoed by an analysis of U.S. local government spending patterns by average jurisdiction size at the state level.[5] Among expenditure categories that are principally made at the local level, per capita spending does not follow the predicted pattern that would associate higher spending with greater local democracy. The quintile of states with the largest local governments (in average population) have the second highest spending per capita, approximately five percent above average. The lowest spending is in the third (middle) quintile of states, with spending approximately 15 percent below average. The highest spending is in the quintile of states with the second smallest average jurisdiction size. But this result is driven by the excessively high spending of Alaska, without which average spending is $1,512—well below average. The second lowest spending level is in the states with the smallest average jurisdiction size.[6]

With respect to debt per capita, the evidence is virtually the opposite of the expected result that greater local democracy is less efficient. The quintile of states with the least local democracy have the highest per capita debt. With each quintile of increasing local democracy (decreasing average jurisdiction size), per capita debt declines. The lowest per capita local government debt is in the states with the greatest local democracy.

This is also illustrated by the expenditures per capita of governments in the five Midwestern states that make up the former Northwest Territory (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin), all of which have comparatively small units of government and include township government. Among the five Midwestern “township” states, per capita spending on principally local government functions was approximately seven percent lower than in the other 45 states. Local government debt per capita was approximately two percent lower than in other states. If larger units of government were inherently less expensive, this relationship would be the reverse.[7]

Local government tax burden per capita in Michigan is below the national average as well, ranking 41st among the states.[8]

Existing Incentives for Local Government Efficiency

Michigan local governments must operate within state-imposed revenue limitations that local entities in other states do not have. Townships, in particular, are characteristically low-cost entities. Revenue limitations force townships to limit services and configure their operations with economy often first and foremost. Township official compensation is lower than that of other local government entities. They typically operate with minimal administrative overhead, and rely on community volunteers for many functions typically performed by employees in other entities.

Sharing services is far more prevalent than local governments are generally given credit for. Utilities are most commonly provided by intergovernmental contracts and through multi-unit authorities. Communities collaborate through mutual aid for emergency services and commonly discuss and resolve cooperatively issues that are of a concern to multiple entities.

Governing bodies of smaller entities are able to scrutinize expenditures to a degree that is impractical in larger entities. Budgets are more detailed, and the greater degree of legislative oversight results in more efficient use of government resources.

Revitalizing Urban Core Areas

There does not appear to be a strong case that the urban consolidations of recent decades (Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami and Nashville) have induced unusually significant revitalization of core areas. The downtown areas of each of these urban areas have added significant new construction. Yet, at least as much construction has occurred in the cores of urban areas that have not implemented large urban consolidations. While reliable indicators are not readily available, it appears that downtown development in, for example, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee and New Orleans has been at least as great as in consolidating Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Nashville. Non-consolidating Atlanta’s core development appears to be every bit as substantial as consolidating Miami’s.

Democratic Principles

Township residents have at least the same expectations of governmental self-determination as their counterparts in cities and villages. They want local issues resolved by elected officials whom they can access and hold accountable. To a greater degree than is found in other entities, township residents have a strong sense of ownership of their local government.

If townships were to be abolished, the services they currently offer would be shifted to some other entity. It is doubtful that Michigan’s counties would be receptive to developing the policy expertise to govern and administer local government services.

There remains throughout Michigan a strong commitment to the principle of grassroots, citizen-led government. The Michigan Townships Association is confident that state-led attempts to treat those who live outside of cities and villages as citizens who are not entitled to their own strong, efficient and accountable local government will be met with strident grassroots opposition.


[1] Bureau of the Census, 2001-2002.

[2] Bureau of the Census, 2001-2002. See chart 1.

[3] Average population of counties, municipalities and townships.

[4]Andrew Sancton, Merger Mania: The Assault on Local Government (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2000.

[5] Per capita spending on functions in which more than 50 percent of spending is at the local (county, city and township) level. Excludes primary and secondary education.

[6] Calculated from U.S. Census Bureau data. Excludes education.

[7] Calculated from U.S. Census Bureau data. Excludes education.

[8] Wayne State University State Policy Center, Comparing State and Local Taxes: Michigan and Other States, 2004.

Bibliography:

Local Government Consolidation: Assessing the Evidence for Cost Savings and Economic Improvement, Dr. Eric Scorsone, Senior Economist, Senate Fiscal Agency, Summer 2010

Municipal Consolidation: Saving Money or Growing Government? C. Jarrett Dieterle, Mackinac Center, Aug. 4, 2011

Supersize Me? Regional government may not be the silver-bullet solution to rising local public spending, published in The Connecticut Economy, A University of Connecticut Quarterly, Summer, 2008

Nice Theory. Too Bad It Doesn’t Work. Special to MaineToday Media; Dr. Brian Lee Crowley, Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a national think tank in Ottawa, Canada.

The Toronto Megacity: Destroying Community At Great Cost; Wendell Cox, Demographia | Wendell Cox Consultancy - St. Louis Missouri-Illinois metropolitan region; Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris

Merger Mania: The Assault on Local Government; Andrew Sancton (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2000

Local Government Consolidations: Discredited 19th Century Ideals Alive in the 21st Century; Robert L. Bish C. D. Howe Institute, No. 150, March 2001.

Is Municipal Consolidation the Answer? Is Bigger Always Better? Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, Summer 2003, pp. 1-5.

Cooperation Not Consolidation: The Answer For Milwaukee Governance, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Report, Vol. 15, No. 8, November 2002.

Bigger Is Not Better: The Virtues of Decentralized Local Government, Sam Staley Cato Policy Analysis 166, 21 January 1992.

Does City-County Consolidation Save Money? Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, Public Policy Research Series Vol. 1, No. 2, March 2000.

Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, Altshuler, Morrill, Wolman, and Mitchell, eds., The Committee on Improving the Future of U.S. Cities, Governance, and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, National Academy Press: Washington, D.C, 1999.

Sandy Springs: A Case Study on Centralization of Local Government, Eva C. Galambos, Georgia Public Policy Foundation, 3 November 1999.

Smaller Government Prescriptions for Big City Problems, Stephen Goldsmith, The Fraser Institute, September 1998.

Competition or Consolidation? The School District Consolidation Debate Revisited, Vicky Murray, Goldwater Institute Policy Report 189, 12 January 2004.

When Civic Mergers Don't Save Money, Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2011

Merging systems may not cut costs for municipalities, Collin Binkley The Columbus Dispatch, August 22, 2011

 

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