Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?
Regionalism has become the guiding force behind many initiatives – but is it good for Ann Arbor?
A group of happy people gathered last Monday (November 21, 2011) to hear an important announcement. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional administrator Antonio Riley was there to announce a Sustainable Community grant award to Washtenaw County and there were a number of elected officials basking in the glow. But the real star of the show was an idea, not a person. It was Regionalism.
Many recent initiatives in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan have been organized around regionalism, in which the role of traditional jurisdictions like cities, villages and townships is diminished in order to operate within much wider boundaries.
The idea has a lot of appeal on the face of it. The reasoning behind it has several arguments.
- One is that certain functions, like transportation, naturally occur over larger geographical areas than the traditional political boundaries describe.
- A major impetus is that it is “good for business” because of efficiency in organizing and delivering services and administering policies (and business does not have to deal with “a patchwork” of regulations and politics).
- Perhaps the most persuasive to many is the opportunity to distribute benefits and services more evenly across boundaries, with less regard to the affluence of each locality. It is the basis of many of our Federal and state programs, where citizens are guaranteed certain benefits and protections whether in the poorest or most wealthy states or counties.
This last is a strong moral argument that speaks to “our better angels” and our sense of community when it is being broadly expressed. It is an argument that lies behind some of the acceptance of the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue project, which this grant is intended (even designed) to support. The siren song of intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration speaks in part to our response in Ann Arbor to the knowledge that Ypsilanti (city and township) is our sister urban area that is not as wealthy as fortunate Ann Arbor.
One of the enthusiastic speakers at the announcement was Ann Arbor Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who has been the promoter of Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue since its inception. CM Derezinski is also a committed supporter of the concept of regionalism. As he said at the event, “We are a region, we are not just Ann Arbor”. And then he misquoted (with apologies) poet John Donne in saying, “No municipality is an island unto itself”. Here is the full quotation of the actual poem (really from a long essay).
In other words, are we not responsible for each other? This is an easy emotional and empathetic argument which, unfortunately, runs into some practical and political brick walls on close examination.
If you examine the history of humankind even at a superficial level, you will note that it consists of waves of geographical consolidation, followed by periods of revolt in the name of self-determination. The thing is that natural human communities are self-limiting. Right now, Europe is trying to work out how much member states will take on in respect of each other. In the United States, we are still arguing the dynamic of federalism vs. states’ rights.
Michigan resolved this question constitutionally as Home Rule. The review of this principle by the Michigan Municipal League quotes the 1908 constitution as saying, “each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” As the review indicates, the principle of home rule for Michigan municipalities has been eroded in recent years by state law overriding the ability of local units (note that “municipalities” is a basket term for cities, villages, townships, and counties) to regulate a wide variety of issues. Only this week, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Ann Arbor City Council was grappling with a proposed state law that would prevent Ann Arbor from extending anti-discrimination protection to people on the basis of sexual preference. The ingrained belief in the home rule principle persists in the Michigan psyche, especially as it comes to taxes. Some Washtenaw County townships still have a local tax limitation for local services of 1 mill, and they are proud of it. (Charter townships may tax up to 5 mills. Special ballot issues don’t count.)
So if we are to extend authority across established jurisdictional lines, two things happen. One is that local control of just what services and options are offered is limited. Another is that one jurisdiction may find itself paying, at least potentially, for services received by another.
With Reimagine Washtenaw, if it is fully fleshed out and enacted, four municipalities (Ann Arbor city, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township) will surrender much of their sovereignty within the Washtenaw corridor to a new entity, a Corridor Improvement Authority. (For good reviews, see the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of a public meeting and coverage of a BOC working session.)
There are some other examples of regionalism that specifically affect the City of Ann Arbor:
The move to a countywide transit system. We have a number of posts about this, including the most recent on “Where the Money Is” . The decision was made a couple of years ago to emphasize commuter access to Ann Arbor rather than to optimize within-city service. Now Ann Arbor taxes are being used to pay for express buses to Chelsea and Canton, as well as enhanced service to Ypsilanti.
The Governor’s transit plan. As we reported earlier, Governor Snyder has proposed a Regional Transit Authority that includes Washtenaw County. If enacted fully, it would draw all Federal and state transportation funds to itself, contract local bus service to AATA and other local entities, but emphasize major routes for the movement of workforce toward the Detroit Metro area, probably by use of Bus Rapid Transit technology. This would handicap the ability of local transit authorities like AATA to innovate and serve new needs locally.
The Urban County. Ann Arbor was one of the first Block Grant communities in the state, and for many years was the only community in the county with Federal CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds to spend on human services and housiing. Washtenaw County formed the Urban County to make CDBG-funded services available to other communities. As described on the county website, the city’s Community Development department was merged with the county’s department and finally the City of Ann Arbor joined the Urban County. One consequence was that Ann Arbor lost nearly $400,000 a year in human services money that had been grandfathered in. As the memorandum provided to Council explains, this was to result in an increase across the Urban County of $100,000 in HUD-supplied funds. But those funds would be directed toward other uses (not human services). An increase to the county of $100,000 in Emergency Shelter Grant funds was expected to offset this somewhat.
So while Ann Arbor formerly had human services money from a Federal grant and an independent Housing and Human Services Advisory Board to administer them, the City Council has been obliged to supplement human services from the Ann Arbor general fund in the last several budget years. This has led to heart-rending presentations from non-profit organizations that serve the needy and their clients. A search in the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives has many reports of such moments, including the one with paper cranes. At the same time, general fund support for human services from Washtenaw County has also been cut severely in the wake of County budget problems. In a triumph of bureaucracy, the County approved a Coordinated Funding model for distribution of services in 2010. This funnels all funds, including those donated to the United Way, through a goals-and-objectives process that is supposed to be more efficient. (An astonishing document prepared by Community Development touts the economic “return on investment” for nonprofit funding, quite a change in emphasis from human needs.) One result was slashing the funds allocated to the Delonis homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000 (see the account by the Chronicle). On an announcement that this would result in closing the “warming center” in which homeless individuals not in residence at the shelter can find protection on coldest nights, both the County and the City of Ann Arbor found some stopgap funds, just for this year.
The A2 Success project and SPARK This is regionalism on steroids. The A2 Success project was begun approximately in early 2009 and has a number of economic development projects for the “Ann Arbor region” (which is essentially Washtenaw County with some incursions into Wayne County). SPARK, which began as a merger of the former Washtenaw Development Corporation and the Smart Zone, now styles itself “Ann Arbor, USA” and has been consuming ever more and more general fund support from both the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. Now a revived millage tax levied by the county will give SPARK over a quarter of a million dollars next year.
Regionalism Rules – but what about Localization?
Clearly the concept of regionalism has the support of most of our political leaders, and it has a powerful and persuasive voice. But does it really benefit the community that we have within our City of Ann Arbor? Or is it actually an effort to exploit the resources that we have, including our educated population, our positive image countrywide, our strong cultural environment, and most of all our tax base? In other words, is regionalism at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers supportable only for altruistic reasons? Or does it bring our actual community actual benefits?
You wouldn’t expect a blog called Local in Ann Arbor to espouse regionalism, and you are right. As we said in our first post, we support something of an opposite concept: localization. In “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie“, we tried to put forth the case that we have an unusually desirable place to live because of our special local character. But it goes beyond that to a belief that a successful, resilient community is built on interdependence at a local level. To some extent, we must be an island – and island economies are notably self-sufficient.
Localization is a world-view, a prescription for living, and a field of academic study. I’m looking forward to the coming book on the subject, The Localization Reader, by UM professors Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen. You’ll hear more on this from us another day.
UPDATE: This post is not the place for a full discussion of allocation of costs in AATA’s regional outreach. However, the attached Report to the Treasurer from last year (it does not include the special service to Ypsilanti) shows the contribution of Ann Arbor taxpayers to the Commuter Express projects. The University of Michigan does not contribute directly to this service (as stated in a comment below), but rather compensates employees for the cost of their fares. The report indicates that 31% of this service (to Chelsea and Canton) is paid for by Ann Arbor taxes, and 26.4% by fares. The remainder is picked up by State and Federal operating assistance.
NOTE: We have now begun a new series on this subject, beginning with Regionalism Reconsidered.
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