Townships Struggle With Calls To Downsize

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Townships around Ohio use property taxes to pave roads, provide utilities, and purchase emergency equipment, like this fire engine at the Mifflin Township Fire Department.(Photo: Steve Brown, WOSU News)
Townships around Ohio use property taxes to pave roads, provide utilities, and purchase emergency equipment, like this fire engine at the Mifflin Township Fire Department.(Photo: Steve Brown, WOSU News)

For nearly a year, Ohio’s governor and auditor have been pushing local governments to trim the fat in their budgets, even merge jurisdictions altogether if possible.

The most common targets have been townships, a form of government that predates Ohio statehood. With leaders of Ohio’s more than 1,300 townships convening in Columbus for a conference this week, we decided to check in on the state of townships.

Go about 30 miles northwest of Columbus, to Marysville. Then head east. There’s not much there. Some plowed fields, a country gas station…and Dover Township.

“We’re basically an agricultural township,” says Dover Township Trustee Ron Miller.

And they get by on a pretty small budget.

“About $780,000.”

$780,000 to cover all township services. There aren’t many: a couple cemeteries to keep up and some country roads to pave and plow. It’s a modest form of government, but one that Miller says suits him and his constituents, most of whom he knows from living in the area since 1954.

“Someone calls and says they have a problem, we deal with it, whether it’s zoning or they’re having other issues. I don’t feel that adding more people to the county or state government would answer that problem.”

But Governor John Kasich thinks shrinking local government can solve financial problems.

Kasich helped pass a state budget that will eventually cut Ohio’s local government fund in half, then formed a commission to, in his words, “give local governments the tools they need.”

Auditor Dave Yost has been one the plan’s biggest advocates. His office operates the Web site, which offers tips for townships and other governments trying to cut or merge services.

“I intend to be a salesman for this process,” Yost said when announcing Skinny Ohio last year. “As we see townships or counties that are in a position where this could make a big difference for them, I’m going to sit down and talk with people. I’ll have my staff out there knocking on doors, trying to convince them that this is the way to go.”

But not everyone is convinced.

“As a matter of public policy, it’s not sound,” says Matt DeTemple, executive director of the Ohio Township Association.

DeTemple says many of his members have been dealing with falling property taxes and shrinking budgets for years, and are even more concerned with the new policy coming out of Columbus. DeTemple says contrary to comments from state leaders, studies funded by his group show keeping townships is actually cheaper than folding them into state government.

“It’s a little counter-intuitive, but if you look at the studies, states that have a lot of local government tend to have a lower cost of government.”

While more and more Ohio townships are sharing things like water and sewer service, none have completely consolidated. Nancy White is a trustee in Mifflin Township, just east of Columbus. She says total mergers are probably in the state’s near future.

“There are some townships that unfortunantly only provide small services like roads and that type thing. They’re not going to be able to hang on. I can see where possibly some of the larger townships will get even larger by consolidating with some of the smaller townships to provide services,” White said.

Mifflin Township definitely ranks among the larger, more financially-secure townships. It’s headquartered in downtown Gahanna and offers plenty of services, including police, water service, trash pickup, and a fire department.

As Lieutenant Mark Hendricks shows off the station and its $1,000,000 fire engine, he says closing even rural fire stations would be dangerous.

“When you consolidate, that means you’re spreading people. That means longer response times. So if you consolidate or take away one of my stations, it’s a longer response time to help somebody.”

That tension, the push and pull between townships and state government, will be one of the overriding themes at the Ohio Township Association’s winter conference. It starts Wednesday and runs through Saturday. It’ll be highlighted by an address from…Governor John Kasich.