North Dakota Leads in Hyper-Local Government

The state, which has the most governments per capita, represents one of the nation's last remaining systems of hyper-local governance.
by | September 13, 2012

When residents of a sparsely populated township of northeastern North Dakota have a problem, they call on Chuck Thacker.

Only 32 families live in rural Felson Township, so there’s no large bureaucracy nearby to meet all their needs. Instead, Thacker, a retiree who serves as the township’s chairman, acts as a jack-of-all trades. He manages the township’s budget and contracts with two other supervisors. If a farmer wants to dig around a ditch, he ensures they have a permit. And when roads flood in the spring, he takes on public-safety duties.

This type of local governance is the norm in North Dakota. More than 1,300 civil townships crisscross the state, some home to only a few residents. Along with townships, another 942 fire protection, water and other special districts also span its boundaries.

The state, which ranks 47th in population, boasts the most governments per capita in the country, with new Census Bureau data tallying 2,666 governing entities -- about 39 per every 10,000 residents. Only neighboring South Dakota recorded a comparable number of governments per capita, but at a much lower rate of 24 per 10,000 residents.

The state’s rural townships represent one of the nation’s last surviving forms of hyper-local government, comparable to the town meeting model in parts of New England. While other areas of the country explore mergers and consolidation of services, North Dakotans remain mostly content with the system they have in place.

“There’s a great deal of identity with the townships,” said Terry Traynor, assistant director of policy and programs for the North Dakota Association of Counties. “It’s really a voluntary, true citizen government.”

Each year in March, township residents gather to elect officers -- often at a business or even kitchen table if there’s no public building. The few officers chosen typically make up a township’s entire government: three to five supervisors, a clerk, treasurer and an assessor, when necessary.

The issues they face aren’t akin to most big-city problems. Thacker -- who said he devotes six to eight hours per week to the job -- fields complaints ranging from maintaining gravel roads to farmers digging too deep.

“Everybody watches what everyone else is doing,” he says.

Local officials devote much of their time to the upkeep of township roads, which accounts for the bulk of their annual budget. Townships are also tasked with zoning and property tax assessment, but most contract this out to counties.

Serving as a township official isn’t exactly a well-paying proposition. Many volunteer, and those paid typically receive no more than a few hundred dollars per year. Thacker, who also serves on a county board, is compensated $600 annually for his time and expenses. After mileage costs from driving around the township, he’s lucky to break even for the year.

“If you’d like it as job you’d make any money on, you best not accept the position,” he said.

Although residents are thinly spread across the state, the 36 square-mile blocks surveyed before North Dakota gained statehood remain the townships’ boundaries today. Nearly all encompass rural farmland. Of the more than 1,300 organized townships, only 225 recorded populations of at least 100 in the 2010 Census.

To provide services not offered by localities, numerous special districts extend across multiple townships. These include 235 fire protection districts, 55 soil conservation districts and 136 rural ambulance districts. Others are comparable to services typically managed by county agencies elsewhere.

Illinois, the state with the most total governments, similarly reported many special districts. Several states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, also have townships. Yet no state comprises nearly as many governments for so few residents as North Dakota.

The state’s governing structures have remained largely untouched over the years. But now, some areas face new pressures with rapid development and population growth stemming from the oil boom in the western region of the state.

Traynor, whose group lobbies for the state’s counties, said local officials who once dealt primarily with farmers now negotiate with international corporations to set weight limits for roads or plan housing expansion. This represents a daunting task, particularly for those with limited knowledge of such matters. Without trained staff, township officers are often left to rely on counties or the state for advice.

“It’s a whole new set of challenges for townships officials, and they have little ability to staff up to do it,” Traynor said.

But don’t expect townships to consolidate anytime soon. Robert Wood, an associate professor with the University of North Dakota’s political science and public administration department, said the oil boom has only strengthened calls to preserve local control.

“I’m sure they were feeling pressure to consolidate before,” he said. “I think that pressure has been eased considerably.”

Some localities previously strapped for cash now enjoy surpluses. A measure on the ballot earlier this year even proposed completely eliminating state property taxes, but was soundly rejected.

Having so many governments may appear to be inefficient. This isn’t necessarily the case, though, for North Dakota. Townships don’t possess complete autonomy, while more urban areas in the state mirror other U.S. cities. For the most part, Wood said, these varying jurisdictions don’t cause much conflict.

“There are strong community bonds that push them toward collaboration,” he said.

And the state’s special districts -- as the name would imply -- usually perform a very narrow, specialized service that doesn’t overlap with other agencies. The result is a system of local governance responsive to citizens, but at a cost lower than what is typical of other areas.

“As far as bang for your buck, you’re getting an awful lot of local government,” Wood said.

Some state legislators floated the possibility of consolidation in the past, but the idea never gained any traction, said Larry Syverson, president of the North Dakota Township Officers Association. Much of it has to do with townships’ low price tag. Syverson argues the local officials are among the nation’s lowest paid, and hiring full-time employees needed for larger jurisdictions would only add costs.

The resistance to consolidation is also reflected in the state’s culture. Some residents deeply value local control, fearing outsiders don’t understand their needs. Others simply feel governing is their responsibility.

“We’re just used to the idea that somebody has got to be taking care of these things, so it’s either we have to roll up our sleeves and do it or the next guy has to,” Syverson said.

Merging townships represents a loss of identity for some families who’ve farmed the same land for generations.

Thacker has seen young people move away and small family farms begin to disappear in his corner of the state. But in his mind, this shouldn’t cause governments to consolidate.

“Why tear apart and try to fix it when it’s running good?” he said.

North Dakota Townships Map

Census Data

The Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments every five years, categorizing each government in the country. The table below lists 2012 data and for each state and totals per 100,000 residents, calculated using 2011 population estimates. General purpose governments include all counties, cities and other localities, excluding school and other special districts.

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