It was a bold statement: Merge Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township and I’ll be gone.

Speaking on the “City Pulse on the Air” radio show Nov. 7, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s attention turned to Michigan cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. He pledged, albeit “half-jokingly” he later said, to not seek re-election if the three jurisdictions consolidated into one city — a sort of coup d’état marking the end of his administration. Bernero, in an interview Tuesday, said the point of his comment was not about him or his legacy: “The issue is: How will we thrive? This is way bigger than any one of us.”

Michigan voters had repealed Gov. Rick Snyder’s Emergency Financial Manager law less than 24 hours before the radio show. Bernero was glad to see it go, but he was blunt in his assessment that revenue streams for Michigan cities are fundamentally flawed: tax bases are shrinking as people move to the suburbs — or worse, other states. Cities across Michigan have aging infrastructure, housing stock and schools.

However serious he was in his pledge to leave office if a Hail Mary consolidation among the three jurisdictions happened, Bernero’s position that the state’s local township structure is outdated is spot on. Why do we have these different playing fields within a couple-mile radius? 

And some would argue that the insular nature of it all does little to encourage governmental cooperation and efficiencies. Piecemeal efforts to share services are a step in the right direction, but perhaps insufficient for solving nose-diving budget trends. The problems of cities like Flint and Detroit — and who knows how many more budget deficits Lansing can weather — require bold solutions and progressive political thinkers.

“The issue is creating a quality of life in metropolitan regions that young people want to be in,” Bernero said on the program. “Our cities are dying. Too many of our cities are once-great cities, and we’re losing population because of it. Where do young people go? Guess what: They go to cities. They go to states that have thriving metropolitan regions, and that’s what we need in Michigan.”

Bernero said he still is waiting to see “any real urban agenda of any kind” from Snyder, who defeated Bernero for governor two years ago. He pointed to cities like Madison, Wis., Denver, Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky. as examples where regional units of government can thrive. “These cities are beating the pants off us with economic development.” Between 2000 and 2010, Michigan was the only state in the union to lose population, according to the U.S. Census.

“The odds are against our cities,” Bernero said. “This byzantine, parochial system we have is costing us.”

Imagine, Bernero then said, if Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township were consolidated to form a “behemoth of a city.”

Indeed — what if? Why not? And how would that happen? 

Now we’re drifting into uncharted waters. While the concept has been kicked around here, those interviewed for this story said, actually doing so would be unprecedented in Michigan given the size of the three communities with a combined population of 171,000, according to the latest census figures. But in order for consolidation to happen, there has to be buy-in from a majority of voters in each jurisdiction — an uphill climb when you consider the arguments made against consolidation: Our services will suffer; residents will pay higher taxes; bigger is not necessarily better. 

But perhaps that can be negotiated, Bernero argued Tuesday, such as grandfathering in certain services or tax rates: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

How it works

Consolidation was pulled off only one other time in Michigan since the State Boundary Commission was formed in 1968. Three small towns — Iron River, Stambaugh and Mineral Hills — in the western Upper Peninsula, with a combined population of about 3,500 when it happened, merged on July 1, 2000. (The slogan on the city of Iron River’s website is “Michigan’s First Consolidated City.”) 

It’s been attempted — and failed — in other jurisdictions over the past 20 years. The latest is an effort underway on the west side of the state to merge Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township.

The State Boundary Commission, within the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, oversees the petition process by which communities seek to consolidate or annex. Commissioner staffer Kevin O’Brien said 5 percent of the population in jurisdictions proposed for consolidation need to sign petition forms and submit them to the boundary commission “stating what their goal is.” In Saugatuck, a group of business owners are leading the effort to consolidate the three units of government, which represent about 5,500 people, according to 2000 census figures.

The commission sets forth an 18-point “criteria for annexation, incorporation and consolidation” that asks basic geographic and demographic questions about the areas involved, as well as “probable needs” for future services and general effects of any potential change.

If the petition contains enough valid signatures, a round of public hearings and a public comment period is held. After that, O’Brien summarizes the proposal for the five boundary commissioners, which makes a recommendation to the director of LARA. “He can do what he sees fit,” O’Brien said.

If the director approves the consolidation, local units of government are given 45 days to file a referendum if voters disagree with the director’s decision. Five percent of registered voters’ signatures in that jurisdiction are needed for a referendum to take place. The proposed consolidation can move forward from this point only if a majority of voters in each affected jurisdiction approve it. According to the Michigan Municipal League, the process failed at this point in 1993 in West Michigan and again in 2006 in Grand Blanc because one jurisdiction approved a consolidation plan, while the other did not.

However, if the plan is approved in all affected jurisdictions, voters can choose to have members appointed or elected to serve on the new jurisdiction’s charter commission. A new charter goes up for another vote, which would include the setting of the new city’s tax rate. 

“If they pass the charter, at long last it becomes a city,” O’Brien said. “It’s a long, drawn out process to basically keep it from being done on a whim.”

Bill Mathewson, general counsel for the Michigan Municipal League, agrees.

“It’s a difficult process,” he said. Before the petition process begins, he said, political and assessing expertise are needed to prove that a consolidation would achieve some “economies of scale in service provision” — in other words, make sense economically.

“With the number of steps and amount of time it takes, there are many opportunities for a relatively small group of people to frustrate or stop the process,” Mathewson said.

Forward thinking

One of the first things former Lansing Mayor David Hollister did after his election in 1993 was take a team of city officials to Columbus, Ohio. What did Hollister see in Ohio’s capital city that could be brought back here? A thriving metropolitan region.

Nearly 20 years after taking office, Hollister is in a position to make sweeping recommendations for reorganizing the city of Lansing’s finances as the head of Mayor Bernero’s Financial Health Team. Whether a full-scale consolidation of local governments is part of that recommendation remains to be seen. Hollister said it might appear as a longer-term goal the team recommends to city officials.

But the two mayors agree that a new way of thinking about local government is a necessary first step in a likely drawn out, complicated process.

“The proof is in the pudding, and you can’t do it overnight,” Hollister said, adding that the team will look elsewhere around the country for regional forms of government that have proven successful, such as in Columbus.

“The mayor is right — there are efficiencies of scale. The issue is culture,” Hollister said, referring to a failed attempt to get East Lansing to join a regional district court system. “We’ve really got to overcome that attitude and keep an eye on the big picture — create an environment under which this could happen.”

Part of the Financial Health Team’s recommendation could outline strategies that have worked in other states, Hollister said. He also hopes to work with the Snyder administration about changing the process for merging units of government — perhaps to include incentives for doing so — that would take less time.

“We need to be creative,” Hollister said. As for the state, it’s a question of: “Do they really want to move this agenda?”

There’s been some recent movement in the Legislature. State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, introduced the “Michigan metropolitan areas metropolitan authority act” earlier this month. The bill would give powers to metropolitan authorities and councils to set up a new layer of government beyond counties, cities and townships. The bill is in committee.

Lynn Harvey, a retired Michigan State University professor who has consulted on the merger in the U.P. and also in Saugatuck, called the consolidation process “very difficult” and noted that the U.P. consolidation took six years from start to finish. Three communities ended up merging out of five that were originally planned, he said. The effort was driven by economics after once-thriving mining communities simply had too much infrastructure to maintain given a sharp decline in population over the years. Bernero applied a similar lesson to cities: “We can keep cutting (services) and suck. Or we can get together and grow.”

One of the primary lessons Harvey took home from the U.P. was that in consolidation, “the rule of unanimity applies,” meaning that if a majority of voters in either Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township disagree, “It stops the whole process.”

What seems more “palatable” to both voters and public officials, Harvey said, are “service consolidations,” such as studying the possibility of a regional fire department, which is being discussed for greater Lansing.

“You’ve got this impetus of looking at it service-by-service,” Harvey said. “The question still becomes: If the political bodies themselves aren’t willing to do it, you’re going to face an uphill battle. It’s easy to talk about consolidation — it’s a difficult thing to do.”

As he’s seeing in Saugatuck — where a consolidation is being pushed by the business community and is opposed by the public officials involved — the effort did not get started under the spirit of cooperation. “With consolidation, you can’t afford to make a lot of enemies,” he said.

Harvey said the idea put forth by Bernero has been talked about for 25 years but never gained traction. Part of that has to do with the growing influence of township governments that in other states don’t have as much “constitutional authority” as they do in Michigan. Townships are “here to stay — believe me,” Harvey said.

‘Unrealistic expectation’

For now, the possibility of consolidating East Lansing, Lansing Township and Lansing is little more than progressive thinking. 

East Lansing — as shown in its unwillingness to join a combined district court system with Mason and Lansing and its taxpayers’ willingness to fund a library separate from the Capital Area District Library system — fears that its level of services would be diminished under a merger. Lansing Township, meanwhile, touts an operating millage rate that’s less than half of Lansing’s and East Lansing’s. Harvey called the tax issue the “sticky wicket” when working on city/township consolidations elsewhere. And officials in these places are upfront about these being barriers.

Nathan Triplett, mayor pro tem of East Lansing, said it’s “undeniable that regional cooperation is necessary in today’s world,” but he said a wholesale consolidation is less desirable than sharing services. 

“It’s a truism that bigger is not always better. A key question should be: Does any of the proposed consolidation increase cost savings or improve quality of service for residents?

“Are there other solutions that are more practical? It is an impediment to be able to pursue some of those ideas when we immediately jump to the idea of a complete merger between communities,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence that simply combining us into one government is going to increase savings and improve services.”

He added that other states, such as Indiana, have been more proactive at adopting “enabling legislation” that allows for mergers to happen more smoothly. A full-scale merger, Triplett says, is neither practical nor a good use of resources. “As a Council member, I would be willing to entertain any proposal brought forward based on its merits. But our resources are limited and better spent on projects underway that residents will see immediately and have wide buy-in already,” such as regional fire services.

Lansing Township Treasurer Kathy Rodgers, who will soon succeed outgoing Supervisor John Daher, said: “I don’t see any advantage” to consolidation. “I can’t imagine people in Lansing Township … voting to double their taxes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the issue. It’s an unrealistic expectation.”

She has three questions for proponents of consolidation: Will it not cost township taxpayers more money? Will it increase services? Is a larger government better? Rodgers believes the smaller feel of townships makes them more responsive to residents’ needs. “To take away townships in Michigan is to destroy the history that’s made this interesting state. Yes, you have problems when you have layers of government — but those problems are not nearly as bad as having huge government entities that don’t answer to the needs of anybody.”

Bernero says piecemeal efforts to share services are “not futile, but they’re not necessarily getting us to the big picture.”

Harvey, like Hollister, looked toward the state. “If the state was really serious and wanted to start funding and equalize tax rates without having townships give more to cities, yeah. But that’s not politically realistic to happen.”

The Michigan Manual, a comprehensive book published every other year about Michigan government, calls consolidation a process “intended to accommodate governmental merger of units that have merged socially and economically, but not politically.” 

Could the argument be made that Lansing, East Lansing and Lansing Township have already merged socially and economically? If so, then is politics truly the last obstacle between greater Lansing participating in an antiquated form of government and getting on board with successful metropolitan areas elsewhere in the country? It’s a shame if it is.

Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, Lansing Township Supervisor-elect Kathleen Rodgers and East Lansing City Councilman Nathan Triplett will discuss consolidation on “City Pulse on the Air” at 7 p.m. today on the Impact 89 FM and on “City Pulse Newsmakers” at 11 a.m. Sunday on Comcast Ch. 16 in Lansing and at 11:30 a.m. Sunday on Comcast Ch. 30 in Meridian Township.