Street Talk

Street Talk: Local governments: stuck at the bottom of the food chain

Let’s be civil.

November 22, 2013
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The University of Michigan is one of the highest-level educational institutions in the U.S., known for being all about the big stuff. But one department is focused on the little people who play key roles: the hundreds of local governments in Michigan’s counties and communities.

“They are at the bottom of the food chain. And they are very much at the mercy of those who are higher up on the food chain,” said Tom Ivacko of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at U-M. His group has been conducting surveys throughout Michigan since 2009.

The most recent survey last spring went to 1,856 county, municipal and township offices. More than 1,300 came back.

“The biggest issue we have identified in our surveys is that a majority of local leaders think the system of funding local government is broken in the state of Michigan,” said Ivacko.

Local leaders believe that even if the economy continues to improve, it won’t be enough to keep local government running at its current level.

Ivacko said if something doesn’t change in the way Michigan helps fund local government, those elected officials “are going to have to launch another new round of service cuts, layoffs — kind of an overall retrenchment of government at the local level again.”

Most local governments believe the economy is going to improve next year, but when asked what their fiscal situation will probably be, 28 percent said better and 30 percent said worse.

Two major factors have been driving down revenue at the local level: cuts in state revenue sharing and the drop in taxable property values. The combination of those two things took huge chunks out of their budgets, said Ivacko.

Gov. Rick Snyder replaced what used to be called Michigan’s statutory revenue sharing with his Economic Vitality Incentive Program, actually less funding than under the old plan. “And they reduced the number of local governments that were even eligible for it at all,” Ivacko added.

Local governments also have to meet three goals to get their full amount: One is to increase intergovernmental cooperation to share services with their neighbors. The second is that, if they provide health care benefits, the employees have to pay 20 percent. The third is setting up a local measurement of how they’re doing.

The most common reaction at local levels has not been raising taxes; it’s “right sizing and cutting operations,” Ivacko said. They increasingly rely on their general fund balances to cover gaps, but shy away from borrowing money.

And, presumably, they pray for some new way to help fund local government.

Can’t we all just get along?

Have Americans truly lost the ability to have civil discourse?

It’s a question that led Grand Valley State University to establish the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professorship of Civil Discourse this fall.

Emmy-winning journalist Jack Lessenberry, who gained recognition for his Frontline documentaries on subjects including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, delivered the inaugural lecture on the subject Wednesday evening at DeVos Center. 

In his presentation, “Now More Than Ever: Civil Discourse in an Age of Ranting,” Lessenberry offered his view that America has lost its sense of identity, which has led to the inability to have bipartisan, unified and open-minded dialogue.  

It stems, he believes, from the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Americans had been unified in a national purpose to define themselves in contrast to the “Red” enemy, he said.

During the Cold War and Second World War, there was a saying: Politics stops at the water’s edge,” he said. “To an extent, both parties thought we had to be somewhat restrained about our domestic problems, as well, lest the Soviets make propaganda about our disagreements at home.”

American’s experience in a “Zoroastrian bipolar world,” however, ended with the Cold War. Suddenly, “we were at a full-mode existential crisis,” he said. “We found that in many ways, the United States of America weren’t united. We had different ideas about religion … different ideas about morality … about the role of government in people’s lives. Once our adversary was gone … we had to decide who we were, and without the unifying theme of a great national threat, we were somewhat lost.”

Although the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, offered America a new enemy to unite against, the country soon found this enemy to be alien. Unlike the Russians, terrorists wore no uniforms and respected no geographical borders. Without the ability to unify against a comprehensible enemy, Americans hardened into two camps: conservative and liberal, Lessenberry said.

What was once an intense but open-dialogued rivalry between parties has now turned into the silent treatment. These days, opposing members of legislature even demonize each other as “the enemy.” That attitude polarizes Americans into “red and blue silos,” destroying the ability to have civil discourse, he said.  

The resolution is to look for leaders who promote common sense and civil discourse, Lessenberry said. He cited Bobby Kennedy and former Michigan governor William Milliken as examples of leaders who crossed dividing lines and offered fairness to both parties. He also said The Center For Michigan has an excellent mission to get people and politicians engaged across party lines.

“In the last three presidential elections, neither party’s candidates have campaigned at all, outside of primaries, in general elections in the three most populated states in this country: California, Texas and New York. Why? Because they are now completely one-party states in presidential elections,” Lessenberry said. “If the parties aren’t even competing in most states, it indicates that large portions of American society aren’t even talking to each other. And I think that’s scary.”

West Michigan night

That’s how Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering described the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition 2013 in mid-November, a collaboration of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Quicken Loans/Opportunity Detroit, the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan and the New Economy Initiative.

The company that won the grand prize for its innovative business idea — a $500,000 grant — was Varsity News Network, a Grand Rapids-based platform for high school sports websites, headed by Ryan Vaughn. Keller noted a student group of entrepreneurs from GVSU was also at Orchestra Hall in Detroit to pick up an award.

Keller said he was there to tell stories. Actually, he was there to be was presented with the 2013 Spirit of Michigan Award, given to a business leader who displays entrepreneurial spirit, contributes significantly to the state’s economic recovery efforts, is actively involved in Michigan’s entrepreneurial community, and has built a business that employs a primarily Michigan-based work force.

Keller spoke proudly of his “non-traditional” employees — individuals his firm took a chance on who proved able to rise above backgrounds of crime and welfare. He also talked about Mark Peters, CEO of Butterball Farms, who has gone out of his way to give people a chance to turn their lives around.

“My message was, business has this wonderful opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, but it takes intentionality of the leaders and it takes getting in touch with their heart, all the while working with their head to get the job done.”

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