In today’s paper, News reporter Steve Sculwitz brought you an analysis of the wins and losses of water authorities, one of which could be in Northeast Michigan’s future as Alpena and Alpena Township continue productive conversations on ending the years-long court battle over water and sewer rates the city charges the township.

In Monday’s edition, Schulwitz will analyze the pros and cons of fire authorities, which officials have also briefly discussed here as Alpena Township ponders contracting with the city for fire services.

Authorities essentially act as micro-municipalities, with boards made up of appointees from the communities served by the authority and authorized to make decisions affecting the services provided to those communities. Authorities can set rates for fees or, in some cases, levy property taxes. The authorities own the infrastructure necessary to provide the services — say, a fire truck or a water treatment plant.

Like anything else, authorities have their downsides.

For one, no individual community within the authority can make decisions about the service. A city with its own fire department, for example, could decide to buy a new piece of equipment or invest in a new fire truck or, when times get tough, lay off several firefighters. In an authority, only a majority of the board representing all communities could do so.

For another, no individual community owns the infrastructure or can claim the revenue from services. A city with its own water plant could raise water rates to raise enough money to invest in facility improvements. Under an authority, only a majority of the board could do so.

But authorities bring many benefits, too. A municipality that doesn’t own a water plant also can avoid the headaches of maintaining and staffing the plant, but benefits from pooled resources to more efficiently operate and maintain the plant. A town without its own fire department doesn’t have to staff someone to recruit new firefighters, but benefits from the pooled resources that can bring more firefighting bang for the buck.

Intangible benefits happen, too, Schulwitz reported. Towns already working together through an authority have built-in relationships and trust that could help those towns work well together in other areas.

We can’t say if an authority is the right answer for Alpena and Alpena Township or any other areas. Only residents and elected officials in those communities can say so.

Thanks to Schulwitz’s reporting, however, we can say authorities seem to work well elsewhere, and should be part of the conversations as the city and township discuss their collective futures.

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