For over six years Dan Gilmartin, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League (MML), has overseen the League’s programming, policy development and member services. His career as a leader in the fields of urban revitalization, local government reform and transportation policy has earned him recognition across the state. Gilmartin sees that communities are at the core of the economic turnaround in Michigan and is passionate in ensuring the creation of vibrant communities for the future. Prior to being appointed executive director, Dan served as the MML’s deputy director for five years when he lead the charge to revitalize its membership programs and design new services for Michigan communities. Also during his tenure with the MML, Gilmartin lobbied in Lansing and in Washington for four years on pivotal issues including transportation, land use and urban redevelopment. In tandem with his executive role, Gilmartin hosts “The Prosperity Agenda” on News/Talk 760 WJR. The show airs at 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month and focuses on the importance that strong and vibrant communities must play if Michigan is to improve its economic outlook in the 21st century economy.
[audio src="http://images.spinalcolumnonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Feb-10.mp3" options="controls" format="mp3"] (Click to listen)
SCN: Tell us a little bit about the Michigan Municipal League and its mission in advocating for communities across the state.
DG: The league is 113 years old now. We were formed in 1898 by 11 community leaders at the time. Now we have over 500 members from across the state. We represent everything from Detroit, our largest city, down to the smallest cities and villages throughout the state. One of the things we’ve done — we certainly advocate on behalf of communities in Washington and Lansing and the courts for years — but a few years ago we decided to really change up what we do and get out there and really push changing Michigan and changing economic direction, if you will, through the importance of having communities that are competitive with others around the country. That’s an important part to look at it and something we’re pushing from an educational standpoint with local leaders, from an advocacy standpoint and certainly in our policy development as well.
SCN: Gov. Snyder has come out with a proposal to tie statutory revenue sharing payments to communities to so-called “best practices.” Although a specific proposal has yet to be unveiled, what is the MML’s initial reaction to the idea, as well as another proposal in Lansing from a Republican lawmaker to base revenue sharing payments on a community’s population?
DG: First off, we’ve been working with Gov. Snyder right along and I think throughout his campaign. Then in his first month as governor he has shown a real interest in having conversations about how we make our communities stronger, how do we have strong core cities where people want to live and businesses want to come to and entrepreneurs, young people and all the people that we’re after want to come here to our community. We are having discussions on what a revenue sharing formula would look like and we think it makes some sense that we look at best practices and try to figure out ways to distribute the money, and we’ll be working along with him as we flush out that plan.
With respect to the per-capita revenue sharing, we don’t think that makes sense, not at all. At a time where the real problem with funding isn’t necessarily formulas, it’s the size of the pie, if you will, to take money from areas providing services from governments that provide things like police, fire and roads and simply take the focus out of that and spread that money around and take it from areas that really need it — we don’t think that makes sense in driving a new economy as we move forward.
SCN: The MML recently discussed its legislative priorities for the current state Legislature. What are some of the top issues that you, as an organization, want to see addressed and why?
DG: Certainly from a funding standpoint we’ve got to have a system in Michigan that works. Currently when you look at our taxation system in Michigan we’ve got one that doesn’t work for the one who pays it and it doesn’t work for those that rely upon it. So we’ve got to get rid of our mid-20th century version of our taxation and expenditures in the state and update that to things that we need to be competitive with moving forward. At the top of the list, we believe we need to have strong communities. We need to have places again that people want to come to; otherwise, we don’t have shot in this new economy. We’ve been disinvesting in these places for a long time. We really need to focus resources at the state level, local level, even federal dollars coming through on making these places that people really care about. We also are working with the governor and the Legislature on a number of reforms that would make it easier for local leaders to be better stewards of public tax dollars. There are a lot of issues with respect to union issues within communities in terms of how you’re able to combine services with other communities around you where it makes sense. So we’re looking to make changes to (Public) Act 312, which is basically a compulsory arbitration law, as well as other acts that would allow us to again make changes where we need to make them and make sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck. So a combination of reforms and long-term revenue are things we’re going to be spending a lot of time on this year.
SCN: Communities across Michigan are annually seeing their revenues shrink due to declining property values. What, if anything, can the MML do to in some way help communities navigate the treacherous fiscal waters in which communities now find themselves?
DG: Again I think it’s an issue of reinventing what we do in government. We have a program, our Center for 21st Century Communities, and your readers and listeners can check it out on our website at www.mml.org. They can see some of the things we’re pushing as far as what the research tells us on what communities are doing around the country and around the world that are having an impact on local economies, on their quality of life of their citizens. So we’re bringing those best practices, if you will, home and pushing them in the community. Again, the financial system the local governments are acting under right now in Michigan… most people think it’s a problem because of the economy and really it’s a structural problem. The economy is making it worse and exacerbating the problem when you look at things, but really it’s a structural problem. We’re over-relying on property taxes. Property tax rates are falling, with the value of properties falling, state shared revenue has been cut by over $4 billion by the state Legislature. So when you look at the revenues and expenditures outlook for local units of government, it doesn’t make sense even in a good economy. So we need to, No. 1, reinvent the types of communities that we think will be competitive at the local level, but we also need to reform a partnership with the state and get a taxation system, a regulatory system and some reforms in place to allow us to move forward and make Michigan a great economic place again.
SCN: What has the MML done in the past to help communities with this issue?
DG: Again, sharing best practices, figuring out how to look — a lot of our policy work is on trying to change the entire system in terms of moving the platform for governance, if you will. I think sometimes we in government are doing things maybe we’ve always done in terms of services we provide and how we provide them, and so one of the things we’re doing through our Center for 21st Century is to educate local officials, elected or appointed, on how to do things in a better way. Part of that is getting the state to reform some of the laws to help them make better decisions at local level. That helps in the short run and in the long run as well when it comes to declining property values, but again our over-reliance on property taxes is about 50 percent in the average city, and is something that makes it too much of an up-and-down situation in the local governmental arena. We need long-term fixes to that particular system otherwise we’ll continue to experience that type of revenue you can’t have long term plans for.
SCN: There have been calls in recent years to tweak Proposal A. What, if any, changes would or does the MML advocate regarding Proposal A?
DG: One of the problems with Proposal A is not necessarily with the proposal itself. We have two constitutional amendments enacted at different times: the Headlee Amendment in the 1970s and the Proposal A in the early 1990s. One is basically a total cap on the side of the government; the other is a cap on individual parcels. When the two play off of each other there are some unintended consequences that come out and basically you have roll up or roll down issues. A lot of people say that when we come out of this economic funk we’re in and we start to see property values go back up, cities will be in a good place. Well they won’t be because of the proposals. As they roll together don’t allow for funding to increase at that point in time so the issues with Proposal A I think are not as bad quite frankly today, because the economy is so bad that it’s not the real issue. But when we see growth happening you’re going to see cities growing well under the national average and that’s something we can’t keep up on over time. So trying to figure how to better fit those amendments together and then again relieving some of the over reliance on property tax in the long term is something I think would be welcomed by local governments throughout the state.
SCN: Would modifications to the so-called “pop-up” tax be something the MML could or does support, for example? Are there others?
DG: That’s another issue as well. The “pop-up” provision is something that’s difficult to handle. It’s basically where you go down the street and see seven houses that look the same depending at what point people bought their homes, and they’re all paying a different taxation rate. Again that’s the Proposal A aspect of it to a “pop-up” standpoint, but then when you go back to the Headlee provision of it and how local government gets its money, if you’re not paying it that means somebody else is paying it, and it all ends up evening out. You have two laws — one from a micro perspective, one from a macro perspective — that don’t fit very well together. So we’d like to see that provision tackled long term and see some remedies there to make sure the people have a better understanding of what they’re paying, when they’re paying it, and the governments have a better way to plan for it in the future.