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Public sector

Onekama provides test case on government consolidation

Most Michigan voters who find their ways to the polls today will be making decisions on who will run their governments and how they’ll fund such operations.

The residents of the village of Onekama have a bigger question to answer: Keep the local government we have, or live under the neighbor’s?

The 400 or so residents of the village along the shore of Lake Michigan will decide whether to disincorporate — dissolve — their village government. The proposal goes that if villagers and residents of neighboring Onekama Township agree, what was once the village just becomes an extension of the township.

Michigan’s ranks of local governments, numbering above 1,000, would drop by one.

Eric Lupher, a local government expert at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan has been advising local officials on this idea. While the immediate issue only affects fewer than 2,000 Michigan residents (Onekama Township has about 900 residents), Lupher says the vote could have an impact in many places across the state.

“This effort has been going for about two years; it’s been out and in a limited spotlight, mostly among the northern communities,” he explained. “There’s wide knowledge of what’s going on up there. Mostly in last half year or so, we’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from villages and small communities asking what’s going on and thinking about whether they she go down that same path.”

Government consolidation, by this method, is not an easy task. For starters, there must be wide agreement by voters.

Lupher says two-thirds of the combined voters of the village and township must agree Tuesday for the disincorporation to proceed.

And even getting to the point of an actual vote is no small affair:

“In Onekama, you have two communities with two governments that don’t do a whole lot, in the big picture,” Lupher explained. “If they can’t do (consolidation) there, you can’t do it anywhere. The village has one full-time employee and no general fund debt. All the things that might be a hindrance don’t exist there. It’s simply a matter of whether village residents want their own government, a greater sense of place.”

Tom Ivacko, who studies local governments at the University of Michigan, notes that consolidation is at one end of a spectrum of options for locals looking to provide services and hold down costs:

“Intergovernmental collaboration between local governments is extremely common, all across Michigan, but it usually happens in the limited form of jointly providing specific services …” he wrote in response to an inquiry from Bridge.

Lupher said smaller communities, in particular, are focused on Onekama.

“There are other villages like Onekama — had a purpose 100 or 75 years ago; important to provide a greater sense of place. But those things don’t exist anymore,” he said, “So… It’s gonna slowly come to a boil.

“Onekama is the first bubble coming up as the boil begins. It is significant; something the whole state should be watching.”

Senior Editor Derek Melot joined Bridge Magazine in 2011 after serving as an assistant editorial page editor, columnist and reporter at the Lansing State Journal, where he covered state and local issues extensively, earning awards from the Associated Press and Michigan Press Association. The Oklahoma native moved to Michigan in 1999.

Previous coverage (May 11, 2011)

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