Letter to the Editor: Should Pentwater residents trust the MML?

December 4, 2023

Letter to the Editor: Should Pentwater residents trust the MML?

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Dear Editor:

People who served on the Village of Pentwater committee that studied the village-to-city transition issue received an article published by the Michigan Municipal League (MML) titled “Impact of changing from a village to a city” (emphasis provided by publisher). And they used information in the article to prepare their city feasibility study. The article purports to be “an attempt to present an objective analysis of the factors which may influence a decision to remain a village or to seek city status.”

We believe that, to the contrary, it is an exercise in political advocacy, and is intended to serve the interests of a constituency — MML members, people like Village President Jeff Hodges and Village Manager Chris Brown. The article contains truthful and “truthy” information, and that makes it effective, but the overall thrust is the promotion of village-to-city transition by distorting the landscape of considerations. It was written by the associate general counsel for the MML, not a journalist or academic expert for whom stronger standards of integrity might apply.

The article creates an impression that city government is always better than village government by failing to mention any circumstances favoring village government. Why doesn’t the article make an explicit claim about the universal superiority of city government? Probably because such a statement would be untrue, and the author does not want her bias to be obvious. But we see it, and we think we know why she and the MML harbor it.

Detecting MML Bias

1. Deliberate Omission: The article mentions the possible existence of city incorporation disadvantages without saying what they may be, or revealing conditions that may make transition undesirable for some communities. It could have mentioned small village size, for example (not just the statutory minimum size), or the possibility that residents might have negative attitudes toward transition. Instead, it said this on Page 1: “Disadvantages that may arise because of local conditions will be apparent to officials and citizens of that particular community. The timing of the change from village to city may be all- important, and careful consideration should be given to those local conditions.” One wonders why, if timing may be “all-important,” the article did not provide even one example of “local conditions” that would make it important. We think we know why: the MML sought to bury the issue of disadvantages altogether and focus on purported advantages of city government while creating a false impression of balanced coverage.

2. Selective Consideration: The article compares village and city government but gives no consideration to the possibility that some village residents might care, or should care, about township government performance, even though villages are normally embedded within, and small cities are often surrounded by, individual townships. The article treats village residents like members of small tribes whose political interests end at village boundaries. We think normal-size villages have much to lose when they transition to cities: community spirit, overlapping political constituencies that promote cooperation, and township and village service availability and quality. And we are apprehensive about giving the leaders of a tiny city more power (autonomy) than they may need.

3. Misleading Statements: A primary concern in the article is the cost of village and township government vs. city government. Statements on that subject include the following:

  • “…the continuous study of the subject has shown that, in general, the advantages of city incorporation will result in little or no increase in the cost of government.” — page 1, paragraph 6
  • “The larger the township tax the greater the potential savings to the taxpayer by incorporation as a city.” — page 3, paragraph 8
  • “City incorporation would mean a saving in township taxes. With the incorporation of a city, township taxes, if any are levied, will be discontinued within the municipal boundaries.” — page 4, paragraph 5

All three of these statements are literally true but potentially misleading to anyone unaware of the following fact: Comparisons of total property tax burdens across similar size villages and cities show no significant systematic advantage for village or city residents.1 In other words, their property taxes are, on average, nearly the same. The first quote would be more objective without phrase “the advantages of,” and more informative if it said “…city incorporation will result in little or no change in the cost of government.” The second quote should have been omitted from the article because potential savings are, on average, negligible, and the transition process itself can be costly. The third should have read “City incorporation would mean a saving in township taxes and a commensurate increase in village/city taxes, most likely.”

4. Another Omission: Why doesn’t city incorporation provide net tax savings for village residents? Partly because most township expenses, and responsibility for levying taxes that pay for them, are transferred to cities. But there is another reason, and the MML seems reluctant to share it: Base salaries for city managers are consistently 60 percent higher than base salaries for village managers.2 And that may explain why village managers want the villages they work for to become cities, why the MML is promoting transition to cities, and why Chris Brown initiated this process in Pentwater. It’s about money.

But money isn’t the problem. A lack of candor might be. There is no mention of a transition-induced increase in village manager compensation in the village’s City Feasibility Study. Yet all 45 of the cities in Michigan with populations between 750 and 2000 (for which we have data) provide compensation far above the level provided by any of the 90 villages with similar populations. How will Pentwater village council members explain that omission?

Sincerely,

The Executive Committee of the Pentwater Friends community group:

Kendra Flynn, township resident
Stuart Hartger, village resident
Robert Young, village resident
Dan Hoekstra, village resident
Mark Trierweiler, township resident

Eats

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