TIME TO CONSIDER TOWNSHIP CONSOLIDATION?
How it could happen, and whether (or not) it should
A year ago in this newsletter we asked whether Beaver Island poli-tics and governance might be im-proved by consolidating the two townships into one, and that ques-tion was discussed at the annual membership meeting. No consen-sus emerged among members or the board, but a few members said the idea had been raised and dropped some years earlier and opined that the Association should not try to revive it. Attendance at the meeting was light, however, so questions about the issue were in-cluded in a membership survey later last year and 20% of respond-ers said the Association should en-gage in public advocacy on town-ship governance generally and township consolidation is an ap-propriate project for BIA to partic-ipate in or organize.
We have not decided to do that, but in light of continuing compli-cations and disharmony between the separate township governments over the past fall and winter, we think it is worthwhile to keep the subject alive. What follows is our attempt to advance the discussion by explaining the statutory basis and procedure for township con-solidation and identifying some pros and cons of such a project for local government, citizenry and taxpayers.
The Michigan statute authoriz-ing county boards of commission-ers to “vacate, divide, or alter . . . or consolidate townships” was first enacted in 1851. In its original form it permitted a county board to take such action “upon application . . . of at least 20% of freeholders who are actually residents of each of the townships to be affected by the alteration,” but provided no details on how consolidation was to be accomplished. Amendments to the statute 137 years later filled in those gaps and established another method of achieving con-solidation: by voter approval in the affected townships in an election ordered by the county board in re-sponse to petitions from registered electors in those townships.
Specifically, “proceedings for consolidation . . . may be initiated by filing a petition with the county board of commissioners signed by a number of registered electors who are residents of the area to be consolidated equal to at least 5% of the total population of each of the affected townships.” (Accord-ing to the 2010 Census, the Peaine Township population is 292, St. James 365, so only 15 signers would be needed in Peaine and 19 in St. James.) Such a petition “shall name the townships pro-posed to be consolidated, state the name of the consolidated town-ship” and “request that the county board of commissioners initiate proceedings necessary for consoli-dation under this act.” If the coun-ty board finds the petition is proper it “shall submit the proposition to a vote of the electors of the affected townships [and] specify a date for the election . . . on or before May 1 in the year of a general November election.” The county clerk then notifies the township clerks of the date for the election and “question to be submitted,” and the township clerks “shall arrange for [such] an election.”
If a majority of electors voting in each township approve consoli-dation, the county board is re-quired to approve it by resolution and consolidation “is effective at 12 p.m. on November 20 following the election.” If petitions from Beaver Island were to be signed and submitted to and approved by the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners later this year, an election on the question could be held next spring, and if approved by the electorate, consolidation would take effect November 20, 2012. If there is a desire to move more slowly, the whole process would be pushed back two years, with consolidation to be voted on in the spring of 2014 and, if ap-proved, take effect November 20 that year.
In the resolution approving con-solidation, the county board also is to “call an election of the township board for the consolidated town-ship at the next August primary and November general elections,” to “replace the elections of the boards of the townships that are consolidated” with a new township board consisting of a supervisor, clerk, treasurer and two trustees, and all five board members would be elected in the general election in November 2012 or 2014.
If consolidation is approved by voters in both townships, a “coor-dinating committee” is created to “assist in the planning and imple-mentation of [the] consolidation” from the date of the election on that question until consolidation takes effect the following Novem-ber 20. It is to be “composed of the supervisor, clerk, and treasurer of each affected township” plus a resident of each of the two town-ships chosen in an election “held at the same time” as the election on proposed consolidation.
If voters reject consolidation, the election of coordinating com-mittee resident members is void. But if it is approved, the coordinat-ing committee has these duties: to “prepare and adopt an interim budget for the consolidated town-ship” for the period from Novem-ber 20 until the start of its first full fiscal year; establish initial salaries for the officers of the consolidated township; recommend persons for board appointment to other boards and commissions of the consoli-dated township; and “study and make recommendations concern-ing the coordination, consolidation, repeal, and reenactment of the or-dinances, resolutions, rules, and regulations of the former town-ships for the consolidated town-ship.” This last matter should be the first order of business for the consolidated township board, be-cause the ordinances etc. of the former townships continue “in full force” in those territories until it repeals or amends them.
All rights, claims and liabilities of the former separate townships will pass to the consolidated town-ship, including ownership of real and personal property, money, books and records, positions in pending litigation, and rights to collect unpaid property taxes. The consolidated township will be what is called a “general law township,” as Peaine and St. James are. As such, they have what the statute calls “extra voted millage,” and the ballot question for consolidation also must identify what the “extra voted millage” of the consolidated township will be.
This is where things could be a bit complicated. There is not much difference between the numbers of registered electors in the two exist-ing townships, but their millages are quite different. The total taxa-ble value of real estate in Peaine Township is now about 50% high-er than St. James, but their operat-ing costs are about the same, so total millage for general operations in St. James is almost 50% higher than in Peaine, and its dedicated millages also are higher because the townships historically have contributed approximately equal dollar amounts for shared services like fire protection, transfer station, EMS, municipal airport and His-torical Society.
As discussed in the last Island Currents, an Island-wide total rate of about 9.75 mills would yield the same total tax revenue, but would increase the township tax bill on a property with $100,000 taxable value by about $170 in Peaine Township and decrease it by about $250 in St. James. Obviously that could be a sticking point for Peaine property owners. But it is reason-able to think a consolidated town-ship might provide the same ser-vices at lower total cost than two separate townships, by eliminating duplicated expenses not only for elected office-holders’ salaries but also such things as town hall utili-ties, other office expenses, insur-ance, and professional service fees (for example, for different lawyers representing the townships to help resolve inter-township disagree-ments or make inter-township con-tracts.) That might reduce the to-tal consolidated township millage rate enough for the average annual tax increase for Peaine property owners to be more like $100. That still might be a problem for some Peaine voters, even if many of the additional taxes would be paid by property owners who can’t vote on Beaver Island, but money probably should be a secondary considera-tion among the pros and cons of township consolidation in any event.
Other possible negative con-cerns could be that interests unique to or in conflict between the sepa-rate townships might be jeopar-dized by consolidation; that the “power structure” at one end of the Island might dominate the other; that earning opportunities would be lost by eliminating five elective offices and assistants or deputies for three of them; that the town hall property of one township or the other would become an unused white elephant; or that transition from two townships to one might be too complicated or time-consuming. There would seem to be two sides to each of those coins, however.
It might be asked, for example, whether each existing township really has unique interests incon-sistent with the other, as opposed to common interests in all the cul-tural, social, environmental, recr-eational and economic attributes that make Beaver Island as a whole a unique place we all love, cherish and want to protect and promote. Also, much of what each township does always has had to be funded and managed collabora-tively with the other, and a process of consolidation within a clear sta-tutory framework hardly could be any more complicated, time-consuming or disharmonious than relations between the two separate township boards have been over the past few years. In any event, both the process of consolidation and, if approved, governance of the new united township should be transparent democratic exercises beyond the control of any power structure, real or perceived.
As for the township properties, whichever of the separate town hall properties is not used for the consolidated township offices could be a valuable asset, either to be converted to another public use or to be sold, with the proceeds used to defray any one-time costs of the consolidation process (which should not be large) and establish a substantial fund that could be used for future capital projects and/or to hold the line against future millage increases.
Finally, it may be noted that consolidation would be consistent with increased emphasis in state government on increasing efficien-cy and eliminating redundancy at all levels of government. Perhaps Beaver Island could gain positive attention in Lansing by leading this movement.
It may be asked (in fact, some already have) if it might be better to change to a village or city form of government for Beaver Island. A possible advantage mentioned is the ability to hire a professional manager, but general law town-ships already can do that, and al-though it may not be realistic fi-nancially for either township alone, it might be for a consolidated township. As a city (but not a vil-lage), Beaver Island could have governing body representation by geographic districts rather than at large, but whether that truly would be advantageous, or simply perpe-tuate archaic notions of conflicting interests between different parts of the island, is debatable. No other potential advantage is readily ap-parent, but converting from town-ship to village or city is not a via-ble option anyway. It would ne-cessitate dissolution of both town-ships, which has no clear statutory mechanism and would be left to the discretion of the county board, and incorporation from scratch as a village or city would be a cumber-some, complicated, expensive process requiring lots of expensive lawyers’ services. In contrast, a clear and relatively uncomplicated statutory template exists for con-solidation, which could enable Beaver Island to be governed with-in a familiar, effective framework, but more efficiently, economically and harmoniously, as one township instead of two.
These may not be all the pros and cons of township consolida-tion, and we invite Beaver Island Association members and all other Beaver Islanders to identify and debate any others that come to mind. But we hope this discussion of how and why our two townships might be turned into one will con-tribute to serious, open-minded, objective consideration of the issue by everyone who cares about the Island’s future.