Michigan has 83 counties. Is that too many or too few?
August 3, 2015
By: Brian Dickerson, Detroit Free Press
Good morning, citizens!
Today, we will discuss counties.
Michigan has 83 of them, ranging in size from Benzie County (321 square miles) to Marquette County (1,821), and in population from Keweenaw County (2,156 people) to Wayne County (2.2 million).
California, which is more than twice as large as Michigan and boasts more than three times as many residents, has just 47 counties. Kentucky, with two-thirds of Michigan’s land area and less than half its population, has 120.
So what gives? Does Kentucky have too many counties? Or does California have too few?
And how about Michigan? Have we divided our two peninsulas into the right number of counties? Or has our state become too balkanized to provide government services efficiently in the 21st Century?
These are important questions — questions weighing on the minds of practically no one who wields political power of any consequence in the Great Lakes State.
And why should they be? Because even if it turns out that Michigan taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars by redrawing the state’s oldest political boundaries and reapportioning responsibility for government services on a different basis, the practical obstacles to doing it are enormous.
“If you really wanted to get serious about being cost-efficient, the only conclusion you could reach is that we should start all over,” says Mark Wyckoff, senior associate director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University. “We’d forget about counties, cities and villages and townships, and focus on services: What do we want local government to do, and on what scale can those things be done most effectively?
“But then you run into history, tradition, investment and a thousand other cultural reasons why we can’t start over,” Wyckoff adds. “So you have to start from where we are now.”
Older than statehood
At the county level, Michigan has been where it is now for about 200 years. Its basic political geography began taking shape in 1815 — more than two decades before it was admitted to the union as a state — after the fledgling U.S. government took possession of the Northwest Territory and began carving it into grids defined by north-south lines (called principal meridians) and east-west lines (called baselines).
Michigan’s principal meridian was established along what is now Meridian Road in Jackson County; its baseline extended east and west of that line, establishing the northern boundaries of Wayne, Washtenaw, Jackson, Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
Two centuries later, legal descriptions of all Michigan real estate are still based on those reference points. In southeast Michigan, we know Michigan’s baseline as 8 Mile Road, which divides the state’s most populous county, Wayne, from No. 2 Oakland and No. 3 Macomb.
The relatively uniform size and shape of Michigan counties (and the 6-mile-by-6-mile townships into which they were subdivided) emerged from this real estate cataloging scheme. The resulting discrepancies in population persist today, allowing some of the most densely populated counties to exploit huge economies of scale, while others struggle to serve far-flung residents.)
A day’s ride by horse
Michigan’s first state constitution, adopted in 1835, two years before statehood, called for voters in each county to elect a sheriff, treasurer, register of deeds, surveyor and “one or more coroner,” as well as a county, circuit and probate judge.
By 1850, the state had authorized the addition of a county prosecuting attorney, a county clerk and a board of supervisors, including representatives of every township within a county’s boundaries. Most counties also maintained their own jails.
The Constitution of 1850 also added a mechanism for organizing new counties when the population of a city exceeded 20,000. The rule of thumb, observed in Michigan and most other Midwestern states, was that every resident wishing to obtain a marriage license, record a property sale or pay taxes ought to be able to reach his or her county seat in a day’s journey on foot or horseback.
In theory, the proliferation of automobiles (and the more recent innovation of the Internet) made it practical for more residents to be served by fewer, larger counties. But the current boundaries of Michigan’s 83 counties have been in place since 1891, nearly two decades before Henry Ford began manufacturing his Model T.
We all appreciate the virtues of Jacksonian democracy. But now that every county sheriff’s department has had squad cars for half a century, do we really need 83 county jails?
More muscular counties
The real problem may not be the number of counties in Michigan, but their limited authority.
Even the smallest counties now offer a wide variety of services; the most affluent, densely populated ones (like Oakland County, where I happen to live) provide everything from mortgage counseling to specialized training for physicians concerned that they might be over-prescribing painkillers.
But almost since Michigan’s first counties were established, they have ceded political authority over important local matters such as property assessment, tax collection and zoning to smaller units of government. None of Michigan’s counties has exclusive zoning authority over the land within their boundaries, and many cities, townships and villages have established their own police forces and health departments.
The result is a duplication of services that could be offered more efficiently, more economically and often more professionally at the county level.
“Counties are regional governments, and whether we have a lot of them or just a few, they should be doing more,” says Eric Scorsone, an MSU economist who specializes in state and local government finance.
“Why do we have every city and township doing property assessment?” Scorsone asks. “Why do they all need their own IT departments?”
Lying in a bed we made
Scorsone and Wyckoff are surely right when they argue that no state seeking to exploit advances in transportation and digital communications or maximize economies of scale would design a scheme of local governance anything like the one Michigan put in place in Andrew Jackson’s heyday.
But cultural identities, development patterns and political fiefdoms that took root two centuries ago have strengthened even as the rationale for Michigan’s political geography has withered. Even the judiciary, which has been more aggressive about consolidation than the other two branches, has been able to persuade legislators to eliminate unnecessary court seats only when incumbent judges reach retirement age.
Michigan isn’t alone in clinging to its political past. Two decades into the digital age, the number of counties nationwide is expanding, not contracting. There are now more than 3,000, although — as Business Insider pointed out after sifting through the 2013 census data — more than half the nation’s population lives in just 146 of them. Our own analysis of 2014 data shows that the number has shrunk to 144 counties.
“There hasn’t been much consolidation in any state,” observes Brian Namey, a spokesman for the National Association of Counties. In most states, he notes, combining counties requires the consent of both the Legislature and a majority of voters in each county. “It’s not an easy process anywhere,” he says.
The state constitution that voters adopted in 1963 authorizes Michigan counties to merge without the Legislature’s permission, as long as the locals are on board. But even voters impatient with the high cost and inefficiency of local government seem wary of ceding authority to a larger entity.
The more regional approach virtually everyone insists is needed to address challenges as diverse as health care, mass transit, and repair of Michigan’s decaying roads and infrastructure will depend on partnerships that yolk multiple counties in regional authorities, not reforms that eliminate them.
The lines some long-ago surveyors drew in 1815 may not make much sense 200 years later, but they seem destined to outlive us all.