Typically I like to write posts that celebrate the good things going on in communities across the State of Michigan. This serves to present a different dialogue and change the conversation from the usual norm. It is an honest effort to showcase the efforts of local leaders, from public officials, to those in business and non-profit as well as caring and thoughtful residents and neighborhood activists. But it is not meant to gloss over the challenges facing folks such as these and our communities in general. So without further delay, it is time for a reality check.
I have heard it said many times in many places over the last couple of months that Michigan is coming out of its recession. This is due to a number of factors, from the federal bailout of the auto industry to aggressive and sometimes controversial actions at the state level as well as efforts at the local level. As is usually the case it is never any one thing.
But despite all the talk about Michigan’s economic recovery there is no amount of relentless, positive action that can disguise the fact that many of our communities, large and small, still face, and without immediate policy changes will continue to face, fiscal distress.
We are all too familiar with the financial troubles besetting Detroit. However, a recent article in the on-line publication, the Bridge, brings to light the financial issues facing other cities across Michigan. And these are communities that are generally considered to be well run.
The article features a study by a private sector firm, Munetrix, which found dozens of communities around the state, from SE Michigan to SW Michigan and Northern Michigan facing financial stress.
Examples include Kalamazoo, which I had the opportunity to visit not too long ago. I was told by local officials and city staff that deep cuts to the budget will continue without some changes and as the article points out they are seeking to trim their work force through early retirement. Our state capitol city, Lansing is also facing some tough times as they try to close a $5 million deficit.
As the article notes, and my organization, the Michigan Municipal League has been pointing out for some time; it has been a series of events over the past decade that is taking their toll on local revenues. This includes lower property values, foreclosures, $6 billion in lost state revenue sharing, limitations of Proposal A and of course the rising costs of pension and health care benefits.
There is also a second part to this reality check and that is the worsening relationship between the state and local units. As noted above over the past decade, the state (legislatures and governors) has reduced revenue sharing payments by a total of $6 billion in order to shore up other areas of the budget. The new revenue sharing program, known as the “Economic Vitality Incentive Program” has, since its inception two years ago, only become more burdensome and less helpful as local leaders continue to do all they can to collaborate with other communities.
And this leads to some thoughts about another article I came across last week, noting that worsening relationships between state and local governments is not just confined to Michigan.
The article, titled “States Power Grab Quashes Local Governments’ Authority” is written by David Morris, director of the Public Goods Initiative at the “Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In it, he notes that Republican governors and legislatures are pre-empting and abolishing the authority of communities to protect their residents’ health and welfare.
- Earlier this year Wisconsin passed a law eliminating the authority of cities, villages and counties to require public employees to live inside city limits. Michigan banned local residency requirements for police and fire employees many years ago.
- A few weeks ago Kansas enacted a law prohibiting cities, counties and local government units from requiring private firms that contract with them to pay more than the state minimum wage or to require other benefits and leave policies.
- The Florida House recently voted to pre-empt local governments from enacting “living wage” and “sick time” ordinances. It would overrule counties, like Miami-Dade and Broward, which require companies they contract with to pay wages higher than the federal minimum wage.
- In November 2010, Pittsburgh became the first U.S. city to ban fracking within city limits. In February 2012, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law allowing fracking in all parts of the city, in essence abrogating cities’ traditional zoning powers to protect against noise, odors and industrial dangers.
- 19 states (including Michigan) severely restrict or abolish the right of local governments to build their telecommunications networks.
Now I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated to learn that these actions are occurring in Republican states. And while it is true that over the course of our country’s history court cases have made it clear that municipalities are creatures of the state, it is also true that there has been much said, a lot of it critical, about the federalist nature of our system of government. And with over 300 million people now part of our great nation, it is hard to argue that some form of consistency is needed.
But, consistency in thought and action is also needed from those who argue against federalism in terms of the relationship between states and local governments. In Michigan, time is of the essence. Local communities need a partner, not a parent, to work with them to ensure that quality services are not just maintained but enhanced. At the end of the day, this means resources must be made available through a system of governance and finance that makes sense for the 21st century. Without such a platform, the economic momentum we are beginning to gather will surely stall as discerning workers and business will go elsewhere to find the quality of life they say is so important to their well being.