State townships OK

Minnesota’s most numerous unit of government, townships, received high grades in their annual financial review.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto sees no major concerns in the fiscal health of the states nearly 1,800 townships.

The “Minnesota Town Finances Report” shows that state townships spent about $260-million in 2009, a 3.7 percent increase over the previous year. On the revenue side, Minnesota’s 1,786 townships took in about $263 million, a 4.8 percent increase over 2008.

Most of the money goes for some very basic functions: road maintenance, snowplowing and bridge upkeep.

There’s a lot of that sort of work to be done, since townships hold nearly 20 percent of the state’s population, just under one million people. The state auditor says townships are generally thought of as the most efficient form of government, since most have no full-time staff. That means nearly all revenue goes directly for projects.

The most basic change in townships’ finances over the last decade comes on the revenue side. Taxes have become more important for maintaining fiscal health. In 2000, taxes accounted for about 51 percent of all township revenue in the state, said Kent Sulem, general counsel and chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Association of Townships.

By 2009 that had risen to 70 percent. The main reason for that increase occurred in 2002, when the legislature ended direct state aid for townships, Sulem said. That forced them to pick up more of their budget needs through property taxes.

Given the state’s budget deficit, Sulem doesn’t see any chance that state legislators will restore that aid. He said that during the current legislative session townships will play “defense” and try to limit any state actions which could adversely affect their budgets.

All but 50 townships reported their finances to the state auditor for the 2009 report. There’s no penalty for those who didn’t, but Otto, the state auditor, said they will receive a letter reminding them that state law requires the annual information.

She said anyone can check out the resources of any township for themselves.

“When residents want to see the finances of their town they can find that on our website,” Otto said.

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