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Local officials optimistic about their fiscal future

By Lauren Gibbons
Capital News Service

LANSING — A report suggesting local government leaders are more optimistic about their community’s fiscal health could be good news for the state, but officials say there’s still a long road to recovery ahead for many municipalities.

Fewer local governments are less able to meet their fiscal 33 percent in 2012 down from 48 percent in 2011, according to a report by the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.

About 24 percent of surveyed officials indicated their communities are better able to meet fiscal needs, up from 16 percent last year.

Officials in St. Ignace are seeing a similar trend on a local level, said Helen Thibault, the city’s executive secretary.

The financial and economic success of St. Ignace depends heavily on its tourism base, Thibault said.

Declines in property tax value were tough to overcome for the city, but good weather and a slight increase in tourists coming through have made city officials more positive about St. Ignace’s fiscal health, she said.

“It’s not like it once was,” Thibault said. “There was a long run of it being down, but I think that we’re getting a lot of positives. I think we’re holding our own. It’s such a slow process but we have to hold on.”

Thomas Ivacko, one of the lead researchers on the report, said the results don’t indicate an individual community’s progress because each one varies in size, population and fiscal situation. Even so, the overall trend is a good indicator of potential success, he said.

“A year ago, almost half of the jurisdictions were less able to meet their fiscal needs,” Ivacko said. “Without a doubt, this is positive news.”

The report drew its data from the Michigan Public Policy Survey of mayors, township officials, city managers, county commissioners and other local government representatives conducted annually since 2009. About 72 percent of the state’s 1,856 localities participated.

The results could indicate an upturn in the overall fiscal health of the state, but many jurisdictions still face problems, said Arnold Weinfeld, director of strategic initiatives at the Michigan Municipal League, which represents cities and villages.

“We still have quite a bit of work to do, but it’s certainly a good sign that Michigan might be starting to turn a corner,” Weinfeld said.

Serious cuts to revenue in many communities and an overall decline in property values hit many jurisdictions hard, Weinfeld said. Some, including Flint, Pontiac and Benton Harbor, were taken over by an emergency manager appointed by the state in an attempt to fix problems.

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