The best leaders are often those closest to home, and some of them and the township form of local government were celebrated as Ohio Township Day was observed Wednesday.
Ed Good has been a Mead Township trustee for 28 years and sits on the Ohio Township Association board of directors. There are 20 directors from different counties across the state.
“There are 22 states that have a township form of government,” he said, adding that the township system in the Buckeye State dates from 1801.
“It’s well-documented that the township form of government is the most effective, efficient form of government. … There have been a number of reports that have been commissioned to study the township form of government,” he said.
Good referred to the Cox report of 2012 commissioned by the Ohio Townships Association, which focused on Ohio’s 1,308 townships and factors such as the miles of road they were responsible for and the number of services provided.
He said one advantage of township government is the wide-ranging representation seen in the association, from small, rural townships as well as large, urban ones.
“The beauty and the strength of the Ohio Township Association is in her diversity. We have some townships that have less than a $200,000 budget, and we have other townships with budgets as high as $30-$40 million, but they’re all equal as far as representation within the Ohio Township Association,” Good said, adding that Mead Township maintains more than 48 miles of road, as well as cemeteries and a park.
Good said more information about the history and development of Ohio’s townships can be found under the “history” section of the Mead Township website, meadtownship.com.
Heidi Fought, executive director of the Ohio Townships Association, also touted the strengths of the government entities.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily what municipalities or counties don’t do, it’s just that the township form of government was the first form of government in the state of Ohio, and townships have been around for over 200 years and have thrived in that position,” she said. “Townships have proven that they are an efficient and an effective form of government.”
Fought asserted that townships are the form of government “closest to the people.”
“These township officials, both the trustees and the fiscal officers, these are people’s neighbors, they’re who they go to church with, they are who their kids go to school with. They see them in the grocery stores. They’re local. They’re not down at the county courthouse, 20, 25, 30 miles away,” Fought said. “They’re the ones plowing the roads, patching the potholes, digging the graves at the cemetery, mowing the ballfields in the park.”
She said this work is primarily funded by property tax levies that are very specific regarding what those funds will be used for.
“When they pass those levies, the residents know that those monies must be used for those purposes,” Fought said.
She added there are resource packages such as videos and educational materials for townships to promote themselves. Fought mentioned the importance of recognizing these officials’ efforts.
“We encourage townships to open their doors, have open houses at their fire stations, their township halls and their parks,” she said. “So often township officials, they’re really good at doing their job and their employees are really good at doing their jobs.”
Fought said that when a job is well done, people often do not notice the effort that goes into keeping roads clear or parks maintained.
“Townships do it without fanfare or recognition, so folks don’t realize.”
Richland Township Trustee Rick Ferrell agreed there is an advantage to accessibility.
“The officials and the township employees, they’re much more accessible,” he said. “These are people that live in your community. They know the roads and can better serve constituents at the local level.”
He said as the largest township in Belmont County, Richland Township is responsible for 95 miles of road, while the majority of townships in Ohio have 35-40 miles.
“We have a very large township by area, so a lot more responsibility,” he said.
Ferrell has been a trustee since 2013.
“It’s great working with the residents of the township, and most understand the challenges that we face,” he said. “We just ask, especially in the wintertime, for residents to be patient with our workers.”
And interaction with constituents is a key to doing a good job.
“You’ve got more individual contact with the citizens,” Smith Township Trustee Ron Duvall said. “In Smith Township, we were able to purchase the old Centerville school for a community center. That’s been just a big blessing to our township and our community.”
Duvall said Smith Township has 49 road miles. He has been a trustee for almost 26 years.
“I just like being around people and trying to do the best we can,” he said.
There are many present and future challenges for townships. More recently, Good said the association was successful in lobbying for funds from the American Rescue Plan.
“When they did the Rescue Plan initially, townships were not included in that plan. We were excluded from receiving any of that funding. As a result of our lobbying our federal legislators, we were able to become a qualified entity,” Good said, adding that Mead Township received more than $240,000 of that funding that was used to purchase equipment to aid in mowing and road care.
“The challenges on the ground now are primarily funding,” Fought said. “It’s finding additional, stable revenue sources for townships, especially since the state 10 years ago cut the local government fund in half. … Townships who rely more on local government funding than municipalities and counties, they lost a significant amount of funding in that revenue stream.”
“The challenges we face are that the majority of our residents would like paved roads,” Ferrell said, adding that Ruchland Township trustees have not asked the residents for additional levies for road maintenance.
Fought said there have been other funding cuts, such as the elimination of the estate tax and other taxes that served as local revenue streams. Another hardship arose when more people began working from home, since municipal income tax is collected where people work.
“If they’re working from home, municipal income tax is being collected in that jurisdiction,” Fought said. “You’ve got some communities, particularly cities and bigger villages, that are losing out on municipal income tax, so they are threatening annexation. It’s just trying to find a fair balance in annexation laws so that township residents who want to stay township residents can do so, as opposed to being forced to annex into the neighboring municipality.”
Duvall agreed that financing work has been onerous since the local government fund was cut.
“But in Belmont County, the oil and gas tax has helped a lot of the townships purchase equipment or with road maintenance, so that was a big plus,” he said.
Ohio Township Day is observed annually on Feb. 1.
Robert A. Defrank is a Times Leader Staff Writer, timesleaderonline.com