Local governments work collaboratively – and for good reason

Many local governments in Michigan work together. There are solid reasons why this trend will continue.

We’ve been hearing more lately from government officials and the press about intergovernmental cooperation. Cooperation between local units of government can take many forms, ranging from simply reviewing and understanding neighbors’ zoning ordinances to formal arrangements creating new authorities to provide specific services. While many local governments would benefit from a more cooperative spirit, actual cooperative ventures require each unit to carefully weigh the needs of their citizens, the responsibilities they have for operating their municipality, and the benefits of the cooperative effort.

First, we should define local government. General purpose units such as counties, townships, cities, and villages are the most likely to consider such ventures. School districts, county road commissions, and many other special purpose governments also have the ability to work cooperatively together. Article 7, section 28 of the Michigan Constitution grants local governments the power to contract with each other to perform the functions and powers that they have the power to perform separately.

There are several reasons a local government might consider cooperative agreements. One has to do with the interconnectedness or interdependence they have. While many of us prefer to be self-sufficient in many ways, the reality is that nearby units of government are not islands. Economic activity, social connections, and governmental decisions occurring in nearby municipalities have an impact on our own municipality.

Another reason for local units to cooperate is to realize economies of scale. Just as large retailers such as Walmart can buy products in large quantities at lower prices, many government services can be provided more efficiently, or “big ticket” items can be shared to reduce costs. It must be recognized that lowest cost is not always desirable. I once worked for an institution that purchased the lowest cost audio cassettes. The quality of the tapes, and therefore the quality of the recordings was so poor that they were nearly unusable. In many cases, it is necessary to balance cost and quality considerations.

That brings us to a third reason local governments cooperate. Often, cooperative efforts allow local units to pool their resources to provide better quality, more effective services than they could by themselves. Specialized services which neither could afford alone can often be accomplished by working together. Two adjacent cities may each have a few tall buildings and occasionally need a fire truck with tall ladders. Neither can afford such a truck alone, but working together they can provide this service by sharing the piece of equipment.

A fourth reason for cooperation is to avoid win-lose situations. Many communities have used cooperative arrangements to avoid the winner take all situation that often occurs in annexation battles.

“The most practical solution to the multiplicity of future problems facing municipalities lies in cooperative action among local governments.” This wise piece of advice from “Public Management News” sounds like it might be a recent quote. Turns out this isn’t such a new idea; it was published in April 1942.

Many local governments in Michigan already cooperate on a wide variety of services. Next week, we’ll talk about some of the obstacles and strategies to succeed in cooperative ventures.

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