At crossroads, consider combining
There are times in a community’s history when an alignment of stars leads to a pivotal decision, even when no decision is required.
Not to be flippant, but Yogi Berra offered some advice for such occasions: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
But which direction?
Northport Village and Leelanau Township are at such a place in time. The five-member Township Board and seven-member Village Council serve a collective constituency of 2,200 full-time residents.
That’s about 183 people per elected representative. Chances are everybody in town knows one or more public official on a first-name basis.
We’ve pointed out the redundancy of village and township government before. Villages are designed as a stepping stone toward cityhood, which eliminates overlaps between the two governments.
Now, village residents are also township residents, paying taxes to both governments. They also have two elected bodies serving them — the Village Council and Township Board — as well as two treasurers, two clerks and two governments requiring property taxes.
Given that Northport Village does not appear headed toward a growth spurt that would be benefited by cityhood, we are suggesting that officials give a serious look at combining the two local governments into one.
The unification has merit — and a short window. Leelanau Township is pointed toward building programs that could cost millions of dollars. Township leaders have set paths that, at their end, will lead to a new township hall and a rebuilt library.
Should those projects come to fruition, the chances of combining two tiny governments into one small government will be gone.
In one respect, the distinction between the governments are already evaporating. They joined together and lent their borrowing power for the purchase of bonds used to construct the village township municipal sewer. Early sewer critics were correct in forecasting that revenue generated from users would not meet bond payments.
So now the village and township are both pulling $60,000 annually from their General Funds to meet the obligation — even though 80 percent of the sewer lies within the village.
The Township Board and Village Council have made decisions to keep sewer fees artificially low — even though they already strain many residents — while taking funds from other projects to meet bond payments. So all property owners in the township are subsidizing the utility — even if they live miles away from the nearest hookup.
Those payments subsidized by non-users are not how the sewer was planned, may be in violation of the township’s own ordinance and run against the guidelines of established utility operations in the state.
But the communities are so deeply intertwined that township residents have not risen up against the diversions.
Which leads us to believe that residents may not mind lifting the overlapping boundaries separating the two governments in favor of one.
How would such a unified government work? Consider Leland Township, which provides a municipal sewer to the unincorporated villages of Leland and Lake Leelanau and also runs a busy harbor.
Elmwood Township residents get sewer service from Grand Traverse County through a township ordinance, and Elmwood also operates a bustling harbor.
What about the two other incorporated villages in Leelanau County? Perhaps a similar discussion should take place in Empire, where the village is investigating the pros and cons of a municipal sewer.
The time for unity has come and passed in Suttons Bay, where the Village just opened an impressive and newly built waterfront Village Hall and the township has purchased its own building in the Hansen Plaza.
Leelanau Township, however, is still looking at options, and may soon ask voters for more in property taxes for construction. If approved, village taxpayers will be asked to fund a large share of a new township hall — even though they already have their own.
We ask local officials to huddle together rather in their own buildings when deciding the future of the community.
Perhaps their public bodies should become one.