Walz townships1

Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the Minnesota Association of Townships Saturday about the importance of township government and the need for state support. Township officials across the state are emphasizing participation in the upcoming U.S. Census next year as a way to enable rural areas still get representation at the state and federal level.

MANKATO — Township officials across the state are coming together to emphasize next year’s Census for a critical reason: a seat at the table in state politics.

That was the message at this year’s Minnesota Association of Townships conference, where elected officials stressed the need to count as many township residents as possible to ensure they still have a voice at the Minnesota Legislature, as well as Congress.

“There’s concern about if rural areas are going to get the same degree of representation as they have in the past,” said David Hann, the association’s executive director.

Minnesota, like the nation as a whole, has followed the general demographic trend where its population has moved toward urban areas and away from rural regions over the past few decades. A 2017 report from the Minnesota State Demographic Center shows more than 73% of the state’s population live in urban areas, while another 11% of the state’s population — about 610,000 — live in or nearby cities with more than 10,000 residents.

Almost 915,000 Minnesotans live in one of the state’s 1,781 townships, from Aastad Township in Otter Tail County to Zumbrota Township in Goodhue County to local townships in south-central Minnesota. Yet those townships receive less state and federal aid than larger communities and urban areas.

Minnesota is on the verge of losing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as other states are growing in population at a faster rate. In addition, the next census will provide the population breakdown state officials will use to redo legislative districts after 2020.

Despite making up a sixth of the state’s population, townships deal with about 40% of the state’s roads and spend about $170 million a year on road maintenance, according to the association.

“In the rural areas, we lose population and then we lose representation, and then funding,” said Sandra Hooker, a supervisor for Medo Township near Pemberton.

Hooker pointed out townships have to work on a thin budget since they don’t have the sizable tax base larger cities and metro area command. If people continue to leave areas like Medo, which has a population of about 374 residents according to the 2010 U.S. Census, it will further limit the township’s ability to deal with local infrastructure and other issues.

Hann, himself a former lawmaker and at one point a Senate minority leader for the GOP, said townships need more representation if they want solutions to issues such as getting more state highway fund money.

“There are differences between the perspectives who live in rural Minnesota versus people who live in the metro area,” Hann said. “You want to make sure you have a good voice in places that make decisions.”

Gov. Tim Walz agreed. Walz spoke to more than 200 township supervisors in Mankato Saturday about their importance in providing “bread and butter” public services across Minnesota.

“They need to be part of any conversation we have, whether it’s a transportation package or broadband and economic development,” Walz said.

Walz, a Mankato native, joked he decided to run for Congress in 2006 because running for local office was too difficult. But he also stressed the serious funding disparities between rural and urban school districts, as well as urban and rural development, as issues the state needs to address.

“The problem is we’re setting up a system of the haves and have-nots when we predicate too much on property taxes,” Walz said. “That’s a real burden in Greater Minnesota.”

Mike Miller, an Oxford Township supervisor in Isanti County, pointed out urban needs often align with rural issues as many goods and services are created in rural areas.

“If you want to eat and live in a city, you pretty much need to depend on a farmer living in the country,” Miller said. “We need proper roads so we can bring our commodities to town. If you want to live in a house that happens to be built with some wood, those wood products have to come over from where they start in a township.

“No matter what it is, it starts in a township or on township roads,” Miller added.

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