Township boards throughout the state handle revenues totaling more than $325 million.
They make decisions regarding roads, bridges, sewer projects, tax levies and more.
They're considered the oldest form of government in Minnesota and represent grassroots government at its purest level.
Yet a lot of people don't know what they do or understand the scope of their importance or even their populations size.
LaGrand Township here in Douglas County has a population of 4,223 - the third largest non-metro township in the state (or 11th if you add in the townships from the Twin Cities metro area). Alexandria Township's population of 2,832 ranks as the 14th largest township away from the metro area.
Of the 20 townships in Douglas County, the five biggest - LaGrand, Alexandria, Carlos, Ida and Lake Mary - have a combined population of 11,569, which is nearly as large as the city of Alexandria.
A new report issued by State Auditor Rebecca Otto last week offers insights into townships. It analyzed town financial operations for the calendar year ended December 31, 2017.
• In 2017, there were 1,781 townships, compared to 853 cities and 87 counties. The 2017 population estimates from the state demographer show that 914,174 individuals live in townships representing about 16.4 percent of the state population. Township populations range from 10,951 in the Town of White Bear to 5 in the Town of Hangaard. About 53 percent of townships have a population of 300 or less.
• In 2017, Minnesota townships reported total revenues of $325.3 million. This amount represents a 2.6 percent increase over the total revenues reported in 2016. From 2013 to 2017, total township revenues increased 16.3 percent.
• Minnesota townships reported total expenditures of $306.4 million in 2017. This amount represents a decrease of 1.4 percent from the amount reported in 2016. Over the five-year period of 2013 to 2017, town total expenditures increased 14.7 percent.
• Debt service expenditures are the principal and interest payments on outstanding indebtedness. Townships had debt service expenditures of $13.3 million in 2017. This amount represents an increase of 18.5 percent from 2016. Over the five-year period of 2013 to 2017, debt service expenditures increased 3.8 percent.
• Outstanding indebtedness totaled $56 million in 2017. This represents a decrease of 2.4 percent from 2016. Outstanding bonded indebtedness totaled $34.9 million in 2017, which represents a decrease of 1.7 percent from the $35.5 million outstanding in 2016.
• Between 2008 and 2017, total township revenues in actual dollars increased 29.5 percent. In constant, or inflation-adjusted, dollars, total township revenues increased 9.8 percent over this 10-year period.
• In the west central region of the state, which includes Douglas County, 222 townships reported total revenues in 2017 that increased 1.6 percent and totaled $37.6 million, accounting for 11.6 percent of total town revenues. Total expenditures in this region decreased 7 percent and totaled $35.8 million, accounting for 11.7 percent of total town expenditures. Debt service in the region increased 25.0 percent and totaled $2.2 million, accounting for 16.7 percent of total town debt service.
The bottom line: Many townships have significant populations and manage their budgets efficiently. All of them make important decisions with taxpayer dollars. And townships have clout. A total of 10,559 township residents in Douglas County voted in the Nov. 6 election, representing 58 percent of the turnout. That's something that Legislature should consider while making decisions that impact rural Minnesota.