Part II: Michigan county government mandated services and offices
This is a brief overview of mandated offices and services in Michigan County Government and links to the definitive paper on the topic.
Michigan State University Extension has long provided an excellent paper on the topic of mandated services, titled “Mandated Services and Offices in Michigan County Government”. The full paper is available on the website of the MSUE Center for Local Government Finance and Policy. Article one of this series introduced the topic and discussed mandated services in general.
There have been numerous court battles through the years about the level of funding for mandated offices and services. Two of those cases in particular, Cahalan, et al. v. Wayne County Board of Commissioners, 93 Mich. App 114 (1979) and 46th Circuit Trial Court v. Crawford County, 682 N.W.2d 519 Mich. Ct. App. (2004) upheld the county commissioners’ authority to allocate funds. The Cahalan case further defined the necessary level of service that must be funded in this way stating, “Serviceability must be defined in the context of … ‘urgent’, ‘extreme’, ‘critical’, and ‘vital’ needs. A serviceable level of funding is the minimum budgetary appropriation at which statutorily mandated functions can be fulfilled. A serviceable level is not met when the failure to fund eliminates the function or creates an emergency immediately threatening the existence of the function. A serviceable level is not the optimal level. A function funded at a serviceable level will be carried out in a barely adequate manner, but it will be carried out. A function funded below a serviceable level, however, will not be fulfilled as required by statute.”
Dr. Scorsone, author of the latest update of the mandate paper, describes the outcome of the 46th Circuit Court case this way, “In essence, the court reaffirmed the legislative bodies’ right to set the budget and that the trial courts had to work with the local funding units to ensure that the judicial budget is set adequately but not unreasonably.”
Taken together then, the courts are clear that budgeting authority rests with the county board of commissioners, and that they must fund mandated services adequately, though not necessarily optimally.
So, why would a county not want to fund mandated services at the absolute highest level possible? Another interesting form of mandated service is those mandated by citizens. Many of the discretionary services that counties provide are highly valued by citizens. Reductions and the occasional proposal of elimination of services stir vigorous protest from county residents. Board members are faced with a balancing act, especially in times of revenue reductions or when costs rise faster than revenues.
Part one and part two of this article discussed both legally mandated and citizen mandated services. There are also services which are mandated by agreement. Any type of contractual agreement to provide services, such as police services to a township or small city, must be fulfilled by the county for the duration of the agreement according to the terms of the agreement.
There is also a category of services that counties refer to as necessary, but not mandated. I once heard a county controller challenge participants in a county finance workshop to try to provide county services without paying for heat, lights and computers. Certainly these items are not mandated by law, but are necessary to the process of providing county services in an efficient and effective manner.
Michigan State University Extension’s Government and Public Policy Team and the Center for Local Government Finance and Policy provide educational programs for government officials and citizens regarding many aspects of local and tribal governments in Michigan. Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. To contact an expert in your area on this or any topic, visit http://expert.msue.msu.edu, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).