In Wayne County, government costs more than it’s worth

Dennis Lennox

By petitioning the state for a declaration of a financial emergency — essentially saying it’s bankrupt and needs to be rescued — Wayne County did what so many have predicted for years.

Honest observers will tell you it has never really been a question of whether Wayne County would follow this path, which could ultimately result in an emergency financial manager or even bankruptcy, but when.

While Wayne County Executive Warren Evans should be commended for finally acknowledging the financial mess requires outside intervention, the reply from those in the halls of state government thus far has been disappointing.

There is no question that Gov. Rick Snyder and state treasurer Nick Khouri must step in to right the affairs of what has been Michigan’s premier county.

However, the time is now for a serious discussion on what sort of local government structure not only best serves the overtaxed taxpayers of Wayne County, but also those in the state’s other counties.

For too long, Wayne County and Detroit have survived on a whole litany of special privileges by virtue of their historical importance and political clout.

Yet it is increasingly impossible to justify the continuation of this special treatment at a time when both continue to lose population and economic might.

By comparison, counties like Washtenaw, Kent and Grand Traverse receive little special treatment, but are considerably better off economically.

Against this reality, it is difficult to make the case that Wayne County should even continue to exist as a legal and political entity.

Just what value Wayne County provides taxpayers is questionable when its 34 cities and nine townships provide the vast majority of frontline public services.

Of the services county government does provide, the jail, courts (technically, an arm of the judicial branch of state government), roads and public works could easily be devolved unto the local governments, reassigned to agencies of state government or handled by new special purpose authorities.

The county has demonstrated little value for money to justify its continued burden upon the wallets of taxpayers.

But this discussion shouldn’t just be limited to Wayne County.

The very role of counties in the structure of local government across the state needs to be reimagined, especially as the lines separating the 83 counties have not changed since 1893.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to have this discussion.

That is because local governments spend significant sums of taxpayer money on paying Lansing lobbyists to preserve the status quo and stop any discussion on reforming the dysfunctional structure that is Michigan’s patchwork system of local governance.

As a result, the voices of government have tremendous sway with lawmakers, who occasionally forget their constituents are people, not local governments.

It also does not help that this is hardly a sexy issue likely to win majorities at the ballot box.

Still, it is a discussion that must be had.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance writer.