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Can Metro Detroit's municipalities cooperate?

Hazel Park firefighters

Hazel Park firefighter

Hazel Park Fire Department

Hazel Park Fire Department

Save for a sign on the side of the road, municipal borders are mostly invisible. We drive over these phantom borders every day on the way to work or school, and often the only noticeable change is a variance in pothole size.
 
But there are subtle ways in which these borders, spread across 189 municipalities and four counties in Metro Detroit, impact our lives.
 
Municipal fragmentation isn't inherently a bad thing. And Southeast Michigan isn't necessarily more fragmented than other regions throughout the country. 
 
According to a study from the University of Illinois, Metro Detroit ranks 19th out of 51 metropolitan areas (with a population of 1 million or greater) for local government fragmentation. But changes to our state's municipal finance system and the recession in 2008 have significantly exacerbated issues of municipal fragmentation here.
 
The Headlee Amendment and Proposal A are both state constitutional amendments that, when combined, severely limit how municipalities can capture property tax revenue. The Headlee Amendment, passed in 1978, requires voter approval for property tax increases and limits property tax revenue from surpassing the rate of inflation. 
 
This means local governments can't capture revenue beyond inflation even if property value increases more than inflation. Proposal A, passed in 1994, was primarily intended to overhaul the State's education finance system. It also limited growth in taxable property value to either five percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.
 
The interaction of these two amendments means that during bad years, property tax revenue is limited to the rate of inflation, and even in good years, they aren't able to make up the difference. So when the recession hit in 2008 and property values fell tremendously, cities lost a lot of money. Now that property values are finally picking back up, they're unable to get back to pre-recession revenue levels.
 
Ultimately, our cities are expected to provide all kinds of public services, but with insufficient resources to do so. That's when having so many municipalities, each with their police department, fire department, and library starts to seem inefficient.
 
SMORSA pioneers regional service authorities
 
As a rule, most municipal fire departments have agreements to help neighboring cities when called upon. 
 
Say you live in a large city near the border of a smaller city and your house catches on fire. In most cases your local fire department is going to be the first responder, but what if the neighboring department was able to get there a few minutes faster? Could we save minutes or even lives by redrawing fire department districts based on distance and density?
 
The problem arises in those extra minutes it takes a firefighter to get to a burning house, or when our cities compete instead of collaborate to provide services. These are the instances when we as residents lose at the expense of municipal fragmentation.
 
Public Act 57 of 1988 allows two or more municipalities to create an authority that can levy property taxes for the provision of emergency services. This law allowed Eastpointe and Hazel Park to form the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority or SMORSA.
 
With voter approval in both cities, SMORSA levies a 14 mill property tax to fully fund the Eastpointe and Hazel Park fire departments for 20 years. According to Hazel Park City Manager Ed Klobucher, forming the authority was both inevitable and necessary.
 
"A lot of cities were looking for authorities," Klobucher says. "We knew we had to do this because we had exhausted every form of taxation."
 
Securing funding for their fire department has brought more fiscal stability to Hazel Park, as well as budget flexibility.
 
SMORSA isn't technically a revenue sharing programeach city uses the tax dollars it generates to fund its own fire department. But the authority provides a way for communities to generate revenue beyond the limits of Proposal A and the Headlee Amendment, and does not require the cities to be contiguous.
 
Earlier this year the City of Wayne attempted to join SMORSA, but the proposal was rejected in both Wayne and Eastpointe (Hazel Park voted to approve the measure).
 
Klobucher attributes the election result to a lack of voter education. He fears that repeatedly asking voters to approve the membership of a new city into the authority creates confusion about where their tax money is going.
 
"Hazel Park was able to use social media to explain that the vote was not going to affect Hazel Park, only that it would allow Wayne to fund their fire department," he says.
 
So far SMORSA has no specific plans to bring new cities on board but has positioned itself to help other cities take advantage of Public Act 57.

"The most likely scenario for SMORSA is that we find two communities that are a good match and we help mentor them through the process of setting up their own authority," Klobucher says.
 
Going regional: Lessons from Pittsburgh and the Twin Cities
 
While considerably less scrappy than a regional service authority, regional governance can allow for streamlined services and long-term strategic planning.
 
Most often these bodies are established by state legislatures, and coordinate a single service such as public transportation or water and sewerage. There are a few regional governments in the U.S. however that manage multiple services and can even supersede actions and decisions at the local level.
 
One example of these full-fledged regional authorities is the Metropolitan Council of the Minneapolis/St. Paul region. Conceived in 1967, the Metropolitan Council was created to provide services that could be coordinated more efficiently at a regional level. These include transportation, water and wastewater treatment, parks, regional planning, and affordable housing.
 
Providing public transportation is expensive, and even though riders pay a fare, the operation runs a deficit. The state of Minnesota makes up the deficit in exchange for the power to appoint the Council's 17 representatives. Each councilmember coordinates services for their district, save for one member at large.
 
Given the fact that we now have regional authorities for transportation and water/wastewater in metro Detroit, it's not so hard to imagine that they could be grouped together in a regional planning authority, such as SEMCOG. A little harder to imagine, perhaps, is community leaders agreeing to a state-appointed executive body.
 
Cross-border collaboration doesn't have to come about under the direction of a regional government. David Miller, associate dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, convened the City of Pittsburgh and its adjacent municipalities for the first time in 2009. The group recognized the need for ongoing dialogue and cross-border collaboration, particularly on transportation and sewer maintenance. Thus, CONNECT (Congress of Neighboring Communities) was born.
 
"CONNECT was such an experiment," says executive director Kristen Michaels, "There's no other organization that has cities at the table like we do."
 
Every year the CONNECT executive committee establishes a policy agenda for the group. Working groups then develop resolutions for each issue area and bring them before the Congress.
 
This year, CONNECT has formed a working group to investigate the opioid epidemic.
 
"We're working with the health department, the Department of Human Services, we're working with D.E.A. [Drug Enforcement Agency], we're working with emergency medical services," says Michaels. "We're starting to see what local governments can do to fill in the gaps."
 
Pittsburgh is considerably more fragmented than Detroit (they rank as the 2nd most fragmented out of 51 in the study mentioned above) and the city itself shares a contiguous border with 35 inner ring suburbs. These 36 municipalities made up the original CONNECT membership, but soon communities farther out asked to join, too.
 
"Our attendance is up, our membership is stronger than it's ever been," says Michaels. "I hear people use the term 'urban core' now. It's good to hear people say that and not look at these communities as though they're so different from the city because they're not. It's not like you cross the border and suddenly have a white picket fence. I think we've been able to show that."

This piece is part of a solutions journalism series on Metro Detroit's regional issues, conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and guided by our Emerging Leaders Board.

This work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. You can view other pieces in this series here.

Photos by David Lewinski
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