Mika Meyers PLC attorney Mark Nettleton has been appointed to a one-year term as the chair of the Public Corporation Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. In this position, Nettleton will lead the 600-member group that includes attorneys who represent municipalities, townships and other government bodies, and the various boards and public authorities established by those entities. The Public Corporation Law Section informs its members on important changes to the law and other developments that could affect their clients. The group also advocates for municipalities in the state Court of Appeals, Michigan Supreme Court and on the federal level. In his own practice at Mika Meyers in Grand Rapids, Nettleton focuses on public finance law and general representation for municipalities. He spoke with MiBiz about his new role and pending headwinds faced by municipalities.
In your work with communities, how have they balanced fiscal discipline with the need to fix infrastructure?
In Grand Rapids, I think they have a dedicated millage. Particularly with a lot of the townships, that’s the mechanism by which local government is addressing those needs because there’s been this unwillingness at the state level for many, many years to adequately address the infrastructure and roads. I think that’s just going to continue.
What can be done to change the state’s unwillingness to spend on infrastructure?
Obviously, what we’d love to see happen is that everybody outside of Michigan declares Michigan is the place to be and we’re bringing in new businesses and jobs and tax base. But until that happens, the burden is just going to be shifted reluctantly — from a local’s viewpoint — from the state to the municipalities. The problem there is that you’re going to have — like you used to have with the schools — unequal funding from the community. Those who can afford it and voters who are motivated will have better roads and infrastructure. Those communities that can’t, won’t.
MiBiz recently reported on decreases in state revenue sharing over the years and how cities are reacting. Is this contributing to the problem?
Oh, sure. The burden is resting more squarely on the municipality to figure out a way to finance their capital and infrastructure needs. Less and less is the state available to assist. There are some great programs both on the federal and state level for communities in need, and we work with the state and federal government. It’s a very cooperative relationship, but you have to fit within the peg in order to qualify for that assistance. Other than that, it’s pretty much squarely on the municipality.
How are municipalities positioned to contend with a coming economic downturn?
I don’t have a metric by which to measure all municipalities across the state. I’m familiar with the municipalities that I represent, and they’re all generally doing well and taking the opportunity to both save and build up the rainy day fund and invest in infrastructure and plan for growth, but not bet the bank account that the growth will happen. That’s obviously the danger when things are in an uptick in an economic sense. … For my clients, I think they’re generally well-positioned, conservative, well-intentioned people. I really think it comes down to the communities that have historically done well are doing well and are poised to continue to do well, and those that have struggled are continuing to struggle.
What are the smartest cities doing to manage and prepare for the downturn?
The smart communities are cautiously optimistic so they’re putting some money away, but they’re also taking care of those infrastructure problems that have been long-term problems they’re trying to get solved. They’re seriously looking at them and saying, ‘We don’t want to spend it all, but we need to do something and what’s going to give us the most bang for the buck in the long-term.’ (They’re doing that) particularly given historically low interest rates and financing but, again, not overextending. I think that’s ruling the day in city and township halls in successful communities.
How does this lack of state support for municipalities affect businesses?
My gut would say that businesses that are (considering) relocating to Michigan or in Michigan are taking the communities they’re looking at and the infrastructure and the tax base into account, and choosing carefully.
You’re only chair of this State Bar group for a year. What do you hope to accomplish?
I want to expand the number of younger attorneys who are practicing in the field and get them involved. We have a wide range of experienced attorneys. At some point, we’ll have some people that want to get off the council and retire so we’ll want to bring in those younger practitioners. Those are some goals: expand membership and expand the number of young attorneys involved in the section, because it really is a rewarding practice area. You have a great ability to shape communities, policy and have input on making communities in the state a better place to live and work.
What are some challenges you face in attracting young attorneys to the field?
As we experience in any profession, there are greater demands on time for people. Whether that’s due to work-life balance issues (or something else), I think it’s harder for people to say, ‘This is something that I want to get involved in and not just be a member of but actually take a more active role in.’