Regionalism: We like it, but we don´t

By Mickey Hirten

One of the good things that may surface from Lansing Board of Water and Light´s disastrous ice storm performance is a better understanding of the value of regionalism

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero signaled last week that he is willing to expand BWL´s board of commissioners, adding non-voting members from East Lansing, Delta Township and a rotating annual seat shared by Delhi, Lansing, Meridian and DeWitt townships.

It´s an acknowledgment that the utility serves the region, that its importance extends beyond Lansing´s city limits. Bernero initially rejected calls for broadening oversight of BWL and rightly noted that city ownership reflected its longstanding investment in the electricity, steam and water provider. But BWL´s inept performance, detailed by the post-ice storm investigations, may have softened his view. Non-voting status for non-city board members is a reasonable compromise that also addresses the mayor´s belief that Lansing and the communities that surround it need to work together much more cooperatively than they do now.

Just as much of Michigan´s future hinges on a viable Detroit, the communities circling Lansing need the capital city to be strong and successful. There is much lip service in political circles about finding regional approaches to regional issues. But the only real apostle is Bernero. And not necessarily by choice. Cities through Michigan in fact, throughout the nation are troubled. Cuts in revenue sharing have strained budgets. School systems are losing students to districts on their borders. As wages have stagnated and poverty level increase, the effects fall disproportionately on cities.

In theory, people want more regional, more efficient government. The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce sponsored a survey last August asking 600 residents of Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties about services, tax dollars and sharing. Road and transportation surfaced as the greatest concern and for 55 percent of those surveyed ranks as the most important use of taxpayer dollars. Economic development was second (14 percent); libraries were third (8 percent).

The survey found acceptance for the concept of regionalism: 82 percent support with just 10 percent opposing. A slim majority of those surveyed favored sharing services and consolidation of local government.

But the concept doesn´t translate well into practice. When people were asked about specific services, they tended to favor sharing and consolidation of items like roads but wanted to keep schools, police and fire services, even garbage pick up, as they are now.

The survey results suggested that people understand the challenges: “Nearly 60 percent believe that regional cooperation will not work in the Lansing region because of diminished local control and the use of tax dollars regionally.” Skepticism was greatest in Eaton County (70 percent) and Clinton (66 percent) Older respondents were less likely to believe regionalism will work.

There is a local-local culture in Michigan that´s hard to rattle. The survey wisely offers recommendations that emphasize starting “slow with issues that build consensus.” These include roads and infrastructure, planning and development, housing codes and inspections, public transportation and general administrative functions.

The call is for communities to invest in long-term goals, which should build support for sharing and consolidation. Eventually. And for many, there is an acknowledgment they come from Lansing, even when they don´t. The survey refers to this as regional identity and posed this question: “When traveling, they tell others them come from:”

The answer was Lansing 40 percent; another 13 percent said the Lansing area or the Lansing metro area. Just 32 percent identified a specific city or township. “(A) plurality of suburban respondents view themselves as living in ´Lansing´ especially those close to the city,” the report stated.

Or, maybe it´s simply to avoid a longwinded explanation of Vevay Township or the city of Leslie. But it´s also an acknowledgment of the city´s role in the region, and this is something to build on. This is really central to Bernero´s larger point that mid-Michigan, like it or not, is all about Lansing.

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