Informing local leaders about fiscal health and economic development

March 28, 2014

Five years ago, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy launched an ongoing survey of the chief elected and appointed officials in every one of Michigan's 1,856 counties, cities, townships and villages, large and small. Among the survey's goals? Identifying their most pressing governance problems, including the impact of cuts in state revenue-sharing, tax-revenue losses, and troublesome barriers to economic development, as well as the innovative steps local leaders are taking to effectively overcome them.

Roughly every six weeks, the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS), conducted by the Ford School's Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), distributes findings to policymakers and others who can help community leaders overcome their obstacles, says Tom Ivacko (MPA '93), program officer at CLOSUP. Findings go to Michigan-based economic development organizations, legislators and executive branch leaders, foundations and non-profits, the state's local governance associations, media outlets, and, equally important says Ivacko, back to the respondents themselves, who use the information for many purposes like understanding what their peers are doing to trim costs, raise revenue, and grow local businesses.

Since 2009, survey findings have illuminated dozens of effective economic development strategies, like the use of placemaking to attract residents and businesses, the upswing in intergovernmental cooperation to cut service costs, the use of economic gardening to nurture existing businesses, and the role of data-driven decision-making. In western Michigan, for example, recent survey findings have informed fiscal policy discussions in Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Manistee, among others.

Roger Fraser (BA '68), the newly hired administrator for Cass County in southwestern Michigan, thinks it's particularly helpful to see what other communities and community leaders are experiencing—both around the state, and in peer regions. Fraser isn't a novice when it comes to public administration. He served as city administrator for Ann Arbor for nine years, helping the city prepare for and weather the recession, then as deputy state treasurer for local government in Lansing. Still, the survey will provide him with data to illuminate the fiscal and economic development issues he's facing in western Michigan.

Cass County's economy isn't broken, says Fraser, but the county's commissioners are concerned about economic growth. In a largely agrarian community, with a significant number of underemployed residents, most travel outside of the county for work, but "people on the edge economically many not have that opportunity," says Fraser. That's a point of concern.

Fraser sees a good deal of opportunity to remedy that situation through economic gardening and placemaking—development tools explored by the Michigan Public Policy Survey. He talks about the county's lakes, woods, and rolling countryside. He talks about the railroad line that could bring in materials for assembly or processing. He talks about the community's rich history as a terminus point of the Underground Railroad. And he wonders what other counties are doing to preserve their history, natural resources, and tight-knit community, while moving forward to foster economic growth. Sharing that data with his county's elected commissioners, he believes, may help the community manage change.

"There really is just nothing else like it," says Tom Ivacko of the Michigan Public Policy Survey, the only longitudinal survey of its kind in America. "We're filling an important need for our state's local leaders who are working to address Michigan's community and economic development issues on the ground."

The Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) was launched in 2009 with startup funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It is conducted in partnership with the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Townships Association, which provide contact information for survey respondents and offer input on survey topics.

[Watch Tom Ivacko discuss MPPS findings in December 2013 on WGVU television's 'West Michigan Week']