Municipal Fiefdoms

Something odd about driving around metro Detroit is that you find yourself first in one city, two minutes later, another, and in another two minutes, yet another city.  Southeast Michigan, with its dense population, is a patchwork of lots of different municipal entities.  And while at one point, having lots of different municipalities probably made a fair amount of sense, there’s much more pressure now on municipalities to streamline their operations and merge as many functions as possible with neighboring entities.

Wayne County alone, at least according to my calculations, has at least 39 different police forces*.  That’s 39 different chiefs, 39 different payroll departments, 39 different HR departments, and 39 different of everything that a police department has.  If we considered all of the duplicative work that’s being done across agencies, the sum would be staggering.  Finding data on matters like this is somewhat challenging, so the precise scope of the financial savings that could be realized is hard to calculate, though, suffice it to say, instead of making further cuts in personnel, we could realize significant economies of scale by merging many of these departments into countywide organizations.

Municipalities have been having to do more with less for years.  The boom of the 1990s, with all of the accompanying tax revenues is  but a distant memory for a generation that has come of age amongst nothing but layoffs, closures and budget cuts.  Local governments, particularly in Detroit, have gotten to the point where further cuts isn’t cutting into the muscle, but the bone.  Consolidation of municipal services, be it school districts, libraries, police and fire departments, and a number of other services offered by local governments is the best possible method of putting local government on a sustainable fiscal basis.

Another upside of consolidation would be that in addition to saving money in the future, the opportunity could be used to make significant changes to the benefits and pension systems for retirees, which would also make them more fiscally sustainable, and they  needn’t consist solely of cuts or having to claw back benefits from workers and retirees.

But there’s going to be lots of problems with achieving this.  Opposition from the ranks of some public sector unions would inevitably arise.  There’s the racial dynamic at play, with municipalities such as Livonia or any of the Grosse Pointes probably being very, very hesitant to join forces with Detroit in anything.  And there’s the problem that the system we have in place right now, while not as efficient as it could be, isn’t in a crisis (yet) and is working relatively well (for the time being).  This is an issue that could be addressed with relative ease now, as compared to years in the future, waiting until the situation has reached the point of crisis, making the politics of all of it much more difficult.

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*Include also Wayne State University PD, Detroit Medical Center Police.

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