Keweenaw County: population 2,305. Bois Blanc Pines School District: population 63. Pointe Aux Barques Township: population 10. That’s right, T-E-N.
Michigan can boast about a grand total of 2,573 local governments, and that’s only counting school districts, intermediate school districts, townships, cities, villages and counties. That’s one major unit of local government for every 4,000 Michiganders.
The number and borders of Michigan counties and townships have not changed in more than 130 years (and not in any fundamental way). In the late 1800’s, there was no such thing as the automobile, much less automobiles that could safely travel at 60 miles per hour and were easily affordable for all but the very poorest. There were also no phones. In fact, the subdivision of Michigan into endless six-mile by six-mile townships goes back to the Northwest Ordinance, enacted in 1787 by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Yes, that’s before George Washington won his first presidential term.
Back then, a farmer needing to visit the local township office might be unable to travel more than three or four miles without great inconvenience; or more than twenty miles to visit the local county building. But in a world in which the U.P. county of Schoolcraft has been shuttered, Luce has been liquidated (both amalgamated into Alger county (creating a county of 24,000), one could still drive to the county seat of Munising from the farthest point in the consolidated county in 75 minutes. Or, they can pick up Alexander Graham Bell’s 140-year-old invention.
How can local governments be made to consolidate? Simple. The legislature can pass a law stating that Sigel School District (pop. 80) and Grand Island Township (pop. 45) no longer legally exist. That is, the legislature must not give them a choice; otherwise they will choose the status quo. All stick, no carrot. Sorry, buy real change requires, well, real change. Reducing the number of each type of local government by 15% might sound drastic. But by forcing the consolidation of the smallest units, the smallest township would still be Cleveland Township in Leelanau County at 1,040. That’s still pretty damn small.
Setting a minimum threshold population of just 20,000 people per county would still leave us with 69 counties, the median population being 50,000 people. Eliminating the 14 tiniest counties would end 126 political careers of (county clerks, prosecutors, drain commissioners, sheriffs, treasurers, road commissioners and registers of deeds and about 100 county commissioners).
On the other hand, the people of Lake County would be forced to (gasp) intermingle with that strange alien race of foreigners in Manistee County. I’m sure some champion of infinite local governments will stand in one of Michigan’s 525 school (district office) doors to prevent the horror of the inevitable inter-county marriages which would ensue.
Will such a reform result in the savings of hundreds of millions of dollars a year? No, though it will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and knock down dozens of political silos. But more importantly, if we can’t bring ourselves to consolidate – even on this microscopic level – we might as well pack it in. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let’s at least rearrange the deck chairs, if only to get our local government consolidation blood pumping.
Jake Davison is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, Michigan’s premier campaigns and elections publication since 1987. Prior to purchasing IMP, Jake was a political consultant, drawing on his years of public relations, legislative and campaign experience. He has been a frequent on Off The Record with Tim Skubick, WDIV-TV, FOX 2 Detroit, The Frank Beckmann Show and other programs. Jake can be reached at [email protected].