(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Voters in the southwest Michigan cities of Saugatuck and Douglas roundly rejected a proposal Tuesday to combine their two resort towns along the shores of Lake Michigan.
"There just wasn't enough reward with the consolidation," said Matt Balmer, a restaurant owner, resident of Douglas and leader of the anti-consolidation forces. "We weren't in any financial trouble here, so it was about losing our identity."
Residents in both communities overwhelmingly defeated the proposal on a 650-418 vote, killing the issue for at least two years.
Despite the lopsided defeat, Gov. Rick Snyder, a proponent of consolidation of services in communities, was undeterred by the loss.
"I'm still going to be an advocate for consolidation of services and legal consolidations of communities," he said during a news conference in Lansing on Wednesday. "But it's a local decision that needs to be made."
Consolidation of city services, even mergers of cities, has been a key goal of Snyder during his three years in office.
He's devoted millions in incentives, including $15 million for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, to cities that combine services like police and fire departments.
His reasoning, he said Wednesday, is the need for more efficient government at every level from villages all the way up to the state.
Supporters of the consolidation of Saugatuck and Douglas were counting on the state funding to pay for the costs associated with merging the two towns, had the vote gone their way.
The Consolidated Government Committee raised nearly $200,000 to persuade voters to agree to the consolidation. The Citizens for Independent and Cooperative Communities raised almost $10,000.
"In the end, we've been doing this for years with big-ticket items," Balmer said, noting the towns share police, fire and water departments, as well as a library system. "And maybe that's where the governor's initiative should go instead of trying to eliminate entire jurisdictions."
But communities need to face the reality that some sort of consolidation may be not only prudent, but fiscally necessary, said Lansing political consultant John Truscott.
"Eventually, change will be forced upon them due to finances," he said. "We have 2,700 taxing units in Michigan, and they all keep going back to taxpayers for more money."
Even though most consolidation votes in recent years have been defeated, the loss in southwest Michigan won't stop other communities from trying to shake up their towns. A proposal to merge four townships surrounding Houghton Lake - Denton, Lake, Markey and Roscommon - into one new Houghton Lake Township will be up for a vote on Feb. 25.
"We have 13,000 people in four townships, and paying for four administrations is a whole lot of money," said Marilyn Jarvi of the pro-merger group Citizens for Township Consolidation. "We're doing this for more efficiency and effectiveness. And since we all surround Houghton Lake, we have a common bond."
But Larry Merrill, executive director of the Michigan Townships Association, notes the new township would cover a geographic area comparable to Detroit.
"We promote local control. If it works and makes sense for a local area to consolidate, we don't have a dog in that fight," he said. "But there are real logistical challenges of trying to do this. Presumably, all the millage rates would have to go back to 1 mill. It would be a sheer logistical nightmare."
Craig Cotterman, the supervisor of Denton Township, which includes the largest town of Prudenville, said he thinks the township provides good services.
"We're kind of proud of what we do here for our township, so it's hard for me to take a neutral stance on it," he said. "They have a right to circulate a petition and ask for reform, but if they want to pay less taxes, they can vote the millages down. And last year, millages for operating and street lights got voted down."
With the movement for less government gaining steam in the state, more consolidation votes are sure to emerge, Truscott said.
"The more communities try this, eventually one of them is going to pass," he said.
Detroit Free Press