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Two lakeshore cities have rare opportunity to vote on whether to merge into one

Signs for and against the proposed merger are seen all over Saugatuck and Douglas.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Signs for and against the proposed merger are seen all over Saugatuck and Douglas.

Voters in the neighboring Michigan cities of Saugatuck and Douglas have a big decision to make in tomorrow’s election. The tourist towns on the shores of Lake Michigan could become a single city.

If you live in Saugatuck or Douglas, there’s no way you can avoid the touchy conversation about consolidation. Campaign signs tell voters to “Save our towns” or “We’re better together.”

Even the kids on the playground have opinions.

“See over there? That giant heart sign? It says 'yes,'" Douglas resident Abby DeWitt said,  pointing to a large campaign sign across the street. “That’s about the consolidation of our town. That’s not right people. That is not right!” DeWitt said.

The debate is so heated, a lot of people don’t even want to talk about it. DeWitt’s mom, Mineka Frye, sighs when I ask what she thinks.

“It won’t benefit either town,” Frye says, but then quickly adds, “Well actually it will benefit Saugatuck from a marketing stand.”

“And they’ll get our money,” another parent, who wished not to be identified chimed in.

“And they’ll get Douglas’ money,” Frye agreed, “and then Douglas will get put on the back-burner.”

Supporters: consolidation “is our last step”

Saugatuck and Douglas have a lot in common. They both have roughly a thousand residents; Douglas a little more, Saugatuck a little less. They both have frontage on Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River. They both attract massive amounts of tourists in the summer.

Supporters point out the communities already share a police department, fire department, water and sewer, a school district, a historical society and a district library.

“The only thing that’s really left is the city governments. Everything else has been consolidated in this area. That is our last step,” said Max Matteson, co-chair of the Consolidated Government Committee.

By combining the city governments, Matteson says they’ll be able to tackle big problems more efficiently, like the shared harbor that’s in desperate need of dredging and repairs.

“Everything that we’re doing now we’re trying to do for the future. We realize that we’re in a challenging world and we need to be competitive,” Matteson said. He points to South Haven and Holland as communities who’ve been able to maintain their harbors. He says they’ll be able to attract more tourists that way.

Plus, taxpayers will save money. Studies show it’ll add up to around $470,000 a year.

Opponents: losing identities, representation “not worth the risk”

But that potential savings is not enough to risk losing the communities’ identities. At least, that’s Matt Balmer’s view. The former Douglas mayor and small business owner describes himself as sort of a spokesperson for the opposition committee.

“I think everybody here feels that we have a real strong sense of place. And why we would want to mess with that I just don’t know. It’s certainly not going to be for this huge cost savings because in the grand scheme of things, under $500,000, isn’t much of a savings. We’re talking about $15, $16 bucks a month to the taxpayer. So I mean, what are we really doing this for?” Balmer said.

Balmer notes the savings don’t take into account a multi-million dollar bond debt Saugatuck has to pay, and he’s not convinced they’ll get the same level of services.

What’s different between business, what (leaders of the CGC) are used to, and government is this; in business you’re out to make a profit – period. And when you do a corporate merger or a corporate takeover what they’ll do is, they’ll take whatever doesn’t make a profit and they’ll eliminate it. Well in government you don’t’ make a profit. You provide service to your residents. So the only way you’re going to save money is by lowering the service,” Balmer said.

Another CGC co-chair, Bobbi Gaunt, doesn’t think the neighboring cities risk losing their identities.

“Identities are never built by governments – never. Identities are about people who founded the community, who’ve lived in the community, who’ve contributed to the community. That’s the character of the community. So to imply or suggest that the Douglas City government or the Saugatuck City government really creates the character – please – I don’t think so,” Gaunt said.

Consolidation would be the first in Michigan in more than 10 years

Consolidations like this are pretty rare.

Justin Marlowe is a Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. He can only find 10 city-city mergers in the United States in the past 30 years. It’s important to note he does not count annexations, where larger cities swallow up their tiny neighbors.

“When successful city-city consolidations happen, it’s usually for reasons that have little if nothing to do with saving money,” Marlowe said.

Usually, Marlowe says, the reason is to transform into a new, bigger city with more services – which end up costing more money. The other main reason is more grim.

“It’s basically consolidate or die. In large part because it’s not delivering basic infrastructure that people come to expect,” Marlowe said.

That’s what happened the last time some Michigan cities consolidated. Three old mining towns in the Upper Peninsula became the single city of Iron River in 2000.

The only other time something even close to that happened was in the 1980s, when Battle Creek and Battle Creek Township merged. Back then the Kellogg Company was threatening to build its new headquarters somewhere outside the cereal city if the two municipalities didn’t merge, so voters agreed.

“Every one of the instances we studied where we saw a successful consolidation, it’s fair to say that the majority of the participants felt that it was the only option,” Marlowe said.

But Saugatuck and Douglas aren’t facing financial collapse. There’s really nobody strong-arming them into merging. Sure, the state is offering up some money to incentivize the consolidation. But is that enough?

Voters have more of an emotion decision to make; are they willing to take the plunge and truly become one community?

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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