2010-02-04 / Front Page

Could two become one?

Martin, Soper lead discussion on merger
BY SARAH FISH STAFF WRITER

Davison Township Supervisor Kurt Soper and Davison City Manager Dale Green, both at the right, met recently with planners and officials regarding the prospect of merging the city and township. Photo by Sarah Fish Davison Township Supervisor Kurt Soper and Davison City Manager Dale Green, both at the right, met recently with planners and officials regarding the prospect of merging the city and township. Photo by Sarah Fish DAVISON -- The fifth meeting was Monday and their looks were all the same.

Arms crossed with their chairs leaned back, those sitting in the large conference room in the Mott Foundation Building stared back at City Manager Dale Martin and Township Supervisor Kurt Soper with skeptical eyes juxtaposed by excited — possibly hopeful — smirks.

The two had just announced their vision to three more agencies, bringing the number of outside entities involved in the discussion of possibly consolidating Davison and Davison Township to five.

Sitting around the table were the regulars — Martin, Soper, David Hollister and Jim Smiertka, of Lansing-based Prima Civitas and Mike Brown and Jason Caya, of the Flint Area Reinvestment Office.

In addition, more were invited to the Feb. 1 meeting — the fifth, and most recent, of the consolidation discussions. Included were representatives from the Engineering Society of Detroit, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and Michigan State University.

“We’re looking at the whole kit and caboodle,” Martin said of consolidating Davison and Davison Township. “Why take yet another baby step. … Let’s go all in.”

At the realization of the magnitude of the idea, ESD Institute Director David Skiven smiled.

“That’s kind of cool,” he said.

Consolidation out of cooperation

At its core, the idea of consolidating the city and township seems simple. The two governments — who already share a fire department, a school district, a senior center and a parks program, among other things — would merge into one 36-squaremile city.

For city residents, taxes would go down. It’s not as promising for township residents, where creative thinking will be required to make it cost neutral.

The hope would be to streamline government, and provide better services — adding a DPW to the township.

Martin and Soper find it critical the concept go to a vote of the people, however they are looking at nontraditional ways of going about the merger which would make Davison the largest city, land-wise, in Genesee County.

It would be a city of about 23,500 residents, according to 2008 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The ideas being tossed around, however, are not free. A symposium the ESD said they could host would cost upwards of $60,000.

No money has been committed to a consolidation study by either municipality.

And in order to keep the discussion moving, the city and township are going to have to find a way to commit themselves in the form of dollars.

Hollister said he would like Martin and Soper to get the two governing bodies involved. Then, he would like a formal resolution for each body to either offer up money — the sum of $5,000 was thrown around — or authorize Martin and Soper to seek private funding.

Then, Hollister and Smiertka, along with Brown, can take that commitment to other parties who may be interested to help with funding.

“At some point, we’ve got to get real,” said Hollister. “I don’t want to get past the (week of the) 22nd and still not know how committed they are.”

The city and township will host a public forum with both the council and the board at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Davison-Richfield Senior Citizen Center.

The Snowball Effect

It began as an idea shared between two government leaders. The idea led to a “discreet” meeting of several members from both communities, as well as Martin and Soper, at Martin’s house.

At the time, talk was quiet and casual.

It remained quiet for a while, until a meeting with Plante Moran in November. The representatives from Plante Moran offered to do an in-depth study at the cost of about $30,000.

So the two went a different route, a path that would lead them to the Mott Foundation Building at least three more times.

Martin contacted Mike Brown, former interim mayor of Flint and director of the Flint Area Reinvestment Office. Brown contacted Hollister.

“I see it as a great pilot project for other communities not just in Genesee County but around the state,” said Brown. “With loss of state revenue sharing … and with continued challenges to deliver services, I think more and more communities are going to have to be looking at creative solutions.”

At a minimum, Brown said his office would tap into expertise around the state surrounding the topics of consolidation and regionalization — and help with the research needed.

“It’s (in the) very early stages,” he said. “But I think that certainly they’ve addressed the various ways that communities could go about looking at a process like this and so I think that has been the focus thus far, is what kind of process could we use to evaluate whether or not this would be feasible and desirable for both communities?”

Prima Civitas is a non-profit started in 2006 to get universities more engaged in the mid- Michigan region. Hollister, its director, was called to bring creative suggestions to the table.

“I was intrigued,” Hollister said. “You’ve got a community that has a history of working together, which is positive. You’ve got a consolidated fire operation that has been working effectively for years, which is positive. They have some senior programming that is joint, some park projects joint — they had a history of working together. They were more or less contiguous, it didn’t involve a lot of other governmental units. They have a single school district.

“You had two willing partners that weren’t coming at this because of desperation. They were really being thoughtful and pragmatic and strategic and they were willing to think outside the box.”

With Hollister’s intrigue comes a sense of reality. He previously ran the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, which houses the Boundary Commission — the commission governments have to start with when hoping to consolidate. It’s the traditional route, and could take three years at a minimum, Hollister said.

Most likely, it would take five to seven years to consolidate.

“You saw people that genuinely seem to respect each other, have a working relationship, were willing to come about this in a creative way, so I found that very intriguing,” Hollister said. “But it’s a longshot even then, because we’re speaking for themselves and not for their governmental organizations, and (they) made it clear that they couldn’t speak for these groups.”

At this point, Hollister said there’s a 30 percent chance the consolidation will actually happen.

“Because it’s never been done, because we’re early in the process, because these are extraordinarily difficult under the best circumstances,” said Hollister. “There’s a lot of moving parts and having them all come together in sequence without any major disruption really would be a miracle, and these things are easier to stop then they are to implement.”

Reaction to a vision

At the meeting on Jan. 14, Hollister expressed his concern at the fact neither the council nor the board were fully aware of the discussions.

While neither body discussed it as a whole, Soper and Martin had let word trickle out slowly to individual people.

Instead of calling the meetings secret, Soper and Martin prefer to say they were discreet.

“A certain amount of discretion is necessary whenever exploring new ideas, and this is only to look at the feasibility of this,” said Soper.

Prior to Jan. 25, Soper had talked to Clerk Karen Miller, Police Chief Larry Hrinik and Planning Administrator Randy Stewart. Since then, he has informed his board, who he said have reacted positively.

Martin had told Mayor Fred “Mac” Fortner, Mayor Pro Tem Tim Bishop and Councilmen Matt Judd, David Martin and Don Csutoras. When asked why he hadn’t told the other councilmen — Jim Hershberger and Roger Lutze — Martin said the opportunity never presented itself.

“I had met with all the other people privately in one-on-one situations,” said Martin, adding his council had concerns about the consolidation.

Bishop said when Martin told him about the discussions, he thought it was a big step — however, he wants to keep an open mind.

“I think if they can prove that it will give the residents of township and city some kind of savings or incentive, why wouldn’t you?” said Bishop.

Township Trustee Tim Elkins, who wasn’t aware of the discussions ahead of time, said he was not concerned talks had occurred.

“I would have to see really, financially, if it’s realistic,” said Elkins. “At this point it’s too early to say, if it’s realistically going to be worthwhile or not.”

For consolidation, it’s the impact on the township that has Soper concerned — and is a large stumbling block on the road.

“Unless it is at least cost neutral — at the very least — then I can’t support it,” said Soper.

Township Treasurer Patrick Miller also said he was not previously aware of the discussions — but from what he could tell, all it amounted to was “water cooler” talk.

“I wasn’t alarmed by it,” said Miller. “To be honest, I thought the press kind of sniped them. It made it look like there was some clandestine meetings going on. Basically, it looks like they were trying to hide something and that’s not the case.”

Some councilmembers are concerned about the secretive nature of the discussions.

Fortner stated previously it concerned him because Martin had not been directed by the council to initiate such discussions.

Fortner was unavailable for comment for this story.

Councilman David Martin said he was not offended Dale Martin had talks with Soper before bringing it to the council.

“I don’t see how a city manger can come up and give council … some kind of thought out plan if he doesn’t have some background on it,” said David Martin. “We hired a city manager for a reason, and if the city manager is going to run our operations, he needs to find out the best way to do that operation then bring that to the council.”

The next step

The public forum scheduled for the last week of February will include not only the township board and city council, but also representatives from the Flint Area Reinvestment Office, Prima Civitas, MSU, the ESD and MSHDA. No action will be taken at the meeting.

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