A brief history of disincorporation and consolidation in Michigan

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”. Residents of some Michigan municipalities have contemplated and others chosen to cease to exist—discorporate, and unify –consolidate into a new governmental entity. How to know when to vote this question?

People voting.
Maryland GovPics, photographer

On February 24th, the Center published A Greater Detroit, an essay in which I proposed that Hamtramck, Highland Park and Ecorse dissolve their respective municipal corporations and become a part of Detroit. As a part of the research for that essay I came across instances in the state’s history in which citizens contemplated the question of disincorporation (also known as dissolution) and consolidation—whether their hometown should cease to exist, whether to rip up the local charter, whether to erase or mend boundaries.

Here is a brief history of disincorporation and consolidation in the state, drawn from research that went unused in the essay. 

In the 1960’s, the city of Jackson attempted to consolidate with Leoni Summit Township and Blackman Township. Referenda were held in all three jurisdictions in 1968. The referendum passed in the city but failed in the townships.[1] Fourteen years later, the city of Battle Creek successfully consolidated with Battle Creek Township in 1983.[2] Kellogg Company, the food manufacturer, most well-known for its cereal brands, pressured local elected officials to pursue consolidation to reverse economic decline. The company, which planned to build a new headquarters as a part of its expansion, promised to keep its headquarters in the new city and to contribute $1.6 million toward the city’s economic development. In 1982, the referendum passed in the city and township.[3]

The creation of the city of Iron River as it exists today was the result of consolidation by three municipalities: city of Iron River, city of Stambaugh, and village of Mineral Hills.[4] The idea started with a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1971. The study analyzed the consolidation of the city of Iron River, city of Stambaugh, city of Gaastra, city of Caspian and the village of Mineral Hills in the state’s upper peninsula. Unlike the lower peninsula where auto plants scattered the realm, economies in the upper peninsula were supported by mineral extraction. The decline of that industry lead to a decline in population. Twenty-three years after the study, and after sustained population loss, the municipalities subject to the study restarted the process.

In 1997, four of the municipalities included in the study filed a petition with the State Boundary Commission (Gaastra did not participate). The next year, the referenda received the necessary support in Iron River, Stambaugh and Mineral Hills. However, the consolidation ultimately failed when voters in Caspian, the fourth jurisdiction, rejected the referendum. Emboldened by the near success, local elected officials in Iron River, Stambaugh and Mineral Hills presented the referenda to voters in 1999 where it passed in all three jurisdictions.[5]

The political successes of Iron River and Battle Creek were not indicative of a trend, however. The city of Grand Blanc attempted to consolidate with Grand Blanc Township but declined to do so in the early 2000’s.[6] The local school districts had already consolidated: one district served both the city and township. Both communities collaborated on police and fire protection, care for the elderly and parks and recreation. Because such cooperation existed prior to consolidation initiatives, commissioned studies found few economies of scale to be had.[7] In the absence of projected reductions in public expenditure or the tax levy, the referenda failed in both communities in 2006.[8]

More recent attempts at dissolution and consolidation have been failures. In 2010, voters in the village of Sand Lake rejected a referendum to dissolve and consolidate into Nelson Township.[9] Local elected officials in the village of Onekama and Onekama Township studied the effects of dissolution by the village and projected cost savings.[10] However, villagers rejected the referendum in 2012.[11] In Allegan County, two small cities, the city of Saugatuck and the city of Douglas Village, studied consolidation but have yet to present the question to voters.[12] After two previous attempts in 1984 and 2001, a referendum was put to voters in the village of Richland to dissolve and consolidate with Richland Township in 2016. The referendum failed in the village.[13] Lastly, the village of Spring Lake–oddly, in an effort championed by the village’s Mayor–asked voters to dissolve and consolidate into Spring Lake Township. Voters said no.[14]

Note: The focus of this history is on cities and the like rather than school districts and other special districts. Still, it is noteworthy that under Public Act 96 of 2013[15] the state dissolved Inkster school district and Buena Vista school district in 2013.[16]

[1] Citizens Research Council of Michigan, 2011. "The Cost, Benefits, and Alternatives for Consolidating the Onekama Governments." 

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Martin, Joseph and Scorsone, Eric A. 2011. "Cost Ramifications of Municipal Consolidation: A Comparative Analysis." Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management Vol. 23 311, 312-317.

[5] Id.

[6] Citizens Research Council of Michigan, 2011. "The Cost, Benefits, and Alternatives for Consolidating the Onekama Governments."

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] County of Kent, Michigan. 2010. "2010 Primary Election Results."

[10] Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 2013. "Lessons from the Proposed Merger of Onekama Village with Onekama Township."

[11] County of Manistee, Michigan. 2012. "2012 Primary Election Results."

[12] Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 2013. "Consolidation Issues Associated with the Proposed Merger of the City of the Village of Douglas and the City of Saugatuck."

[13] County of Kalamazoo, Michigan. 2016. "2016 Primary Election Results."

[14] County of Ottawa, Michigan. 2017. "2017 Primary Election Results."

[15] State of Michigan. 2013. Public Act 96 of 2013.

[16] Citizens Research Council. 2013. "Just like starting over: The state dissolved two failing school districts in 2013. Did it work? Hard to say."


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