Saturday, April 23, 2011

Home Rule and Governor Snyder’s Monumental Challenge (Part 1)

When the average Michigan citizen hears the term “home rule,” they probably think you are talking about a method of raising and educating your children. Yet, if you are a local mayor or supervisor, or sit on a city council or board of commissioners, you know a lot more about what “home rule” means than the average citizen.

“Home rule” is term used to describe the strong powers of local units of government vis-à-vis the State of Michigan as outlined in Public Act 279 of 1909. In essence, the act empowers local self-determination in the formation of government instead of the Michigan Legislature playing the primary role in creating subunits of government. This means that if you and the folks on your block wanted to create your own unit of local government, you essentially could as long as you met certain criteria.

Home rule not only entails the delegation of functions like law enforcement and education to local units of governments, but it also means that zoning and planning (what land can be used for and where development should go) are all performed at the local level. In the past, “home rule” has taken almost a corporate governance model, most notably when Henry Ford incorporated the City of Highland Park to protect the interests of his automobile plant. Surrounded entirely by the City of Detroit, Highland Park formed its own government structures, educational systems, and police forces.

In general, home rule translates into decentralized government within Michigan. The logic behind decentralization it isn’t too dissimilar to when our nation’s founding fathers wrote the Articles of Confederation. Not long after their adoption, our founding fathers realized that too much decentralization put the nation as a whole at risk, particularly when it came to raising funds for a national army. The Articles were eventually replaced by the U.S. Constitution, which enhanced the powers of the federal government vis-à-vis the states.

While Michigan doesn’t have to worry about raising a standing army to defend itself against other states, there are parallels between the failures of the Articles of Confederation and the negative impact of unchecked home rule in Michigan. While we certainly should be skeptical of too much centralized power within Lansing, particularly given our elected leader’s inability to handle the many booms and busts of our state’s economy, we cannot place the blame solely on our elected leaders. Instead, it is important to look at the specific negative consequences of home rule (unchecked government decentralization) in Michigan.

The Consequences of Home Rule

  • Too many local units of government. Wayne County has 43 cities and townships, all with their own mayors and supervisors and their own boards or councils. Many also have their own educational boards. Macomb County has 27 cities, townships, and villages. Oakland County has more than 60 cities, townships, and villages. The amount of bureaucracy, duplication, and overlap of services and infrastructure is economically inefficient. While some regions in the U.S. have simply absorbed their suburbs and expanded the geographic scope of their central cities, Detroit did not, and it’s pretty clear that most suburbs in Metro Detroit are not about to take on Detroit’s huge challenges. Governor Snyder has suggested merging local governments, and he has even offered enhanced State revenue sharing as an incentive to do so. Yet, it is difficult to undo what has already been done in terms of local government formation under home rule, and it may be especially unattractive if you are a locally-elected official or worker at risk of losing your position of authority.

  • Relatively weak county government when compared to counties or parishes in other states. While some might view this as a good thing, weak county government can hinder the organic development of dynamic urban-suburban / metropolitan regions like Metro Detroit. While some cities like Louisville, Indianapolis, and Denver have remedied this by forming combined city-county governments, it’s not clear that there is a political will to do this in Wayne, Oakland, or Macomb Counties. It will probably take a combination of rock-bottom financial conditions and a bold leader who can transcend geopolitical boundaries to make this a reality. In the meantime, county government in Michigan remains little more than super local governments with specific responsibilities but limited powers.

  • Uncoordinated land use and transportation planning. Home rule institutionalizes planning and zoning as a function performed at the local level. This means you can build what you want within the boundaries of your city without really having to consult with your neighboring city. So even if one city has upscale homes on one side of a street, another city could build a factory on the other side of the street. Uncoordinated planning has resulted in inefficient use of land, equalized property values (instead of property values that reflect proximity to things like jobs, shopping and services), and urban sprawl.

  • Urban Sprawl. Urban sprawl entails low-density development and an excess amount of infrastructure to support our population. We have too many 4 and 6 lane roads, many of which are underutilized, and we have large tracts of land that have been abandoned, particularly in the City of Detroit. We have a lot of one-story strip malls, road corridors that are not designated for either commercial use (slower traffic) or simply for the just the movement of people (thru traffic), and we have no real fixed right-of –way transit system that operates on a regional level. Only federally mandated legislation, which led to the formation of SEMCOG, has acted with any check on urban sprawl in our region.

Put together, these individual effects of Michigan home rule have resulted in a collective challenge of finding a way to financially support our region and its economy. Our local governments and our counties are struggling to maintain services for their citizens. If you take it a step further, when there are so few resources to support what we already created (like our crumbling roads), how are we going to build the assets needed to compete on a national or global level?

My reactions to the Governor’s specific reform proposals can be found in Part 2.

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