Local Politician Advocates Cooperation Among Cities and Towns
Eight years ago, he had three employees, 15 members and a $150,000 budget.
Today, Conan Smith, a Washtenaw County Commissioner, leads a staff of 20, some 30 members and a $4 million operation at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a Ferndale-based group that advocates for small cities, towns and villages across southeast Michigan.
The Alliance’s name might suggest its work encircles the city and spreads exclusively outward, but Smith, the executive director, makes sure projects, initiatives and efforts travel back and forth across city and suburban lines.
“Our focus areas are really around the idea of collaboration and interdependence. We’re stronger together than we are apart, and our future is really tied to each other in ways that are sometimes difficult to grapple with and acknowledge,” Smith says.
Some public figures these days give lip service to a need for a limited regional vision. Smith and the Alliance talk about it but only while they’re busy trying to better enact it. That means getting suburban (and Detroit) leaders to understand that while their locales’ personalities and characteristics might be different, their long-term interests and maybe even survival are inextricably linked.
The main policy focuses right now are mass transit, economic redevelopment, “young talent” (getting 20 somethings to stay in the region and be involved in its future) and energy.
It’s an easy sell to some leaders. Not so much to others. Detroit is not a member of the Alliance, but then neither is Birmingham.
“A declining community is sometimes a hard community to partner with because you already have the resources, why should you share them? So it’s sometimes hard to accept the interdependence,” Smith says.
In fact some of the Alliance’s biggest challenges do come in the suburbs along the Detroit border. In general, they’re older, more dense and becoming more diverse more quickly that places father from Detroit. Because they’re “landlocked,” in a sense, by other municipalities, they don’t have much flexibility for development.
It’s not like out in rural areas of the counties, for example, where farms or fields offer more options for residential or commercial development. Closer to the urban core, suburbs have got to work with what they have and that can be relatively tight spaces and little vacant land.
“There’s an economic development model that I think has somewhat failed the inner-ring suburbs,” Smith says. “Most of them are one-, two-, three-story buildings in the downtowns.
The kind of businesses that drive their local economies are not the kind of biz the state is targeting for economic investment.”
And with much of a typical inner-ring suburb’s tax base coming from small businesses – retail, restaurants and small offices – Smith worries that Lansing’s recent changes to tax structure could be devastating.
With the elimination of the personal property tax – and no real replacement – municipalities that rely on that revenue to fund police, firefighting, public works, parks and recreation and other city operations are in trouble, he says.
“I’m not arguing we need personal property tax,” Smith says. “But its elimination means all these inner-ring suburbs who predominantly have those businesses are losing huge revenue streams immediately.” The Proposal A and Headlee interactions also disproportionately hurt the inner rings, he says. “How do you tackle the state’s approach to funding cities? "