Are state-local tensions worse in counties?

Multiple tensions afflict state-local relationships. States often balance budgets on the backs of locals. They mandate services without funding and increasingly pre-empt local action. So, it wasn’t a surprise to us to see the 2017 Michigan Public Policy Survey reveal that nearly half of local officials surveyed rated their relationship with the state as either poor (13 percent) or fair (36 percent).


From the 2017 Michigan Public Policy Survey

But we did wonder why the dreariest assessment of state-local relations came from counties. When researchers at the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, disaggregated the survey results, it found 19 percent of county officials rated their relations with the state as poor and 41 percent said fair.


We asked Steve Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties, why he thought counties appeared to have the worst relationship with state officials.


His answer focused on money.


Counties have more mandated services than other forms of local government. That means that when property taxes are capped (as they have been in Michigan) or when tax exemptions reduce local revenue (as they do in Michigan), the pain is greater.


Currie believes some of the problem boils down to structural issues. Cities and townships get constitutional revenue sharing from the state, whereas counties don’t have that protection. At the same time, he says counties have more limited revenue raising capability for themselves.


From the 2017 Michigan Public Policy Survey

Was he surprised by the results of the survey? “I talk to county commissioners every day. The angst wasn’t surprising to me, but I was a little surprised to see that other levels of government weren’t quite as frustrated as our county folks,” he told us.


County frustration, which we hear about all the time, comes partly from being poorly understood.  The Michigan Association of Counties has produced a web page to fix that problem, but it still grates.


We hear about the plight of misunderstood counties all the time. “Everyone knows what a downtown area of a city is and what services are provided,” says Currie. “Counties deal with the services that people don’t want to think about until they have to – local public health, community mental health, court systems and jails.


“These are all very expensive to provide. You don’t think about them until you need them.”

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