To many people the main difference between Farmington and Farmington Hills is that one has an extra word in its name while the other has a downtown.
There are other subtle, nuanced differences that local residents recognize but for the most part the two cities are eerily similar. They are also one of the brightest hopes and yet one of the most frustrating points for regionalism in Metro Detroit.
Hopeful because the two municipalities share a number of services already and are seriously looking into the possibility of merging into one municipality. Frustrating because they are still two bureaucracies in a place where one logically seems more appropriate.
“If you look at the two communities, they have evolved in different ways,” says Phil Power, founder of The Center for Michigan (an Ann Arbor-based think tank) whose ancestors helped settle Farmington. “But if you step over the boundary lines between Farmington and Farmington Hills there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference.”
A move toward erasing what little difference there is will be made next month when a Plante Moran study detailing the positives and negatives of a merger, most recently initiated by Farmington Hills, is released. That should give local leaders a chance to exorcise the devil in the details and allow them to create one Farmington.
Though residents of the two Farmingtons probably don’t realize it, their situation is a metaphor for Metro Detroit’s long struggle with regionalism. Heralded by public officials and urban planners as the smart thing to do, it, like so many other intelligent solutions, is easier said than done.
This explains why there are 130 communities in the tri-county area alone when far fewer would work more efficiently, not to mention save tax-payers countless dollars.
“It seems obvious that we don’t lack for local government units,” Power says. “I think it’s a legitimate question, how much can be saved by eliminating duplicated services?”
Such questions are hard to answer when financial incentives such as revenue sharing and intangibles like civic pride stand in the way. But that doesn’t make increasing regionalism an insurmountable goal.
“Farmington and Farmington Hills would be the two communities most likely to do it because they work so closely together,” says Maxine Berman, director of special projects for Gov. Granholm and a leading advocate for regional cooperation. “If they choose to do this, they could set an example for other communities across the state.”
This latest effort to create one Farmington began with a sustainability study recently commissioned by Farmington Hills. That study made a “strong recommendation” for Farmington Hills to pursue a merger with Farmington.
“If any two communities can do it, it would be those two,” Berman says. “That doesn’t mean others can’t. It’s just that they share so much and have been so intimately close for a long time.”
Case in point, the Farmingtons already share a library district, a district court, senior services, recreation programs, after-school programs, a cable consortium, a chamber of commerce, a school district and the Founders Festival. However, key basic services such as police and fire protection remain separate.
Each side would enjoy a number of advantages by merging. It would increase the overall tax base, adding $4.5 million in taxes and 10,000 people to Farmington Hills $80 million budget and population of 82,000. Jurisdictional lines would be simplified, government streamlined and redundancy eliminated.
Farmington Hills would add a badly needed downtown, instead of trying to build a new one in a cornfield. Not mention it would improve the city’s image by becoming one with what Money Magazine called the 55th-best community to live in America last year.
Farmington residents would enjoy a tax cut from 14.4 mills to 10.22 mills. Harnessing the resources of the much larger Farmington Hills would also allow for more development in the mostly developed older suburb.
“There is certainly an interest at looking into it and we’re keeping an open mind,” says Farmington City Manager Vincent Pastue, whose comments are echoed by Farmington Hills Mayor Jerry Ellis. “But you do hear comments from individuals about preserving the character of the community.”
And there’s the rub. That civic pride that drives citizens to make their communities a better place also has a track record for dividing them. It’s often what drives local leaders to worry what name is on the high school band’s uniforms before thinking what is the best way to fund education.
To most Metro Detroiters the difference between the Farmingtons is practically non-existent, unless they happen to live in either community. Then the difference can be as subtle as country (Farmington Hills was Farmington Township until 1973) vs. city (Farmington has been the “urban” center for the community for 100-plus years).
“The identity issue is very important,” Berman says. “People tend to pooh, pooh it but it’s what can kill it.”
And then there is the typical human instinct to resist change. As Mayor Ellis says, “that’s just the way people are.” He points out something as small as leaf pickup (Farmington Hills residents bag theirs while Farmington has a leaf sucking machine) can trip up the process because people don’t want to give up services they have enjoyed for years.
But there are more reasons to be optimistic than not. For one thing the communities share a wide variety of things that range from as obvious as a name to as obscure as where they do business. It’s these strong ties, which aren’t always prevalent when a larger city surrounds a smaller one, that make the Farmingtons fertile ground for regional cooperation.
“We belong to the same service clubs, go to the same churches, go to the same schools,” Pastue says. “A lot of these barriers are not in Farmington.”
A long road less traveled
Farmington Hills officials like to joke that out of a 34-page sustainability study that touched on subjects as varied as race relations and environmental stewardship, the couple sentences about merging with Farmington are all people talk about.
But the reason so many take such notice is that the subject is largely taboo, at least in Michigan where provincial attitudes and divisive mudslinging is par for the course. So much so it normally takes an economic crisis for people to take regional cooperation, let alone municipal consolidation, seriously.
“Economics drive it,” says Lynn Harvey, a retired Michigan State University economics professor who served as a special liaison between municipalities during the state’s only consolidation of cities. “It brings people to the table and creates an interest.”
That is what led to the Iron River consolidation in the late 1990s. Three small cities in the western Upper Peninsula bit the merger bullet after their business community, populations and tax rolls shrunk to the point of bureaucratic paralysis.
Local leaders managed to shepherd the merger by promising not to layoff any local employees and delay home delivery of mail to accommodate the transition. The immediate effect was an increase in spending the first year before dropping precipitously. Today much of duplication has been eliminated and municipal spending is practically at the same level as nearly a decade earlier.
But putting such significant change into motion is not by any means a quick or easy task.
“These processes take time,” Harvey says. “In a best-case scenario where everything just clicks, it takes at least a year. It’s difficult because you need to keep the enthusiasm and interest for a long period of time.”
The Iron River consolidation took six years and it still didn’t work out as planned. Two small adjacent communities dropped out and are still trying to go it alone. In the case of the Farmingtons, the decision will probably wrest more with Farmington because it will essentially be absorbed.
However, the underlining point is that all of the parties involved need to be on the same page for such things to have a prayer of happening.
“Each community has veto power,” Harvey says. “Size really doesn’t matter. You need to have uniformity.”
Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode’s Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer.
“Welcome” sign at 8 mile and Farmington Rd
Map of Farmington and the surrounding “Hills”
Courtesy photo Mayor Jerry Ellis
Map of Iron River Consolidation
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni