Understanding townships in Michigan

State laws direct township government functions.

The Michigan Constitution of 1963 recognizes various units of government within the state. Article VII of the constitution, entitled Local Government, authorizes the establishment of counties, townships, cities and villages. The U.S. Bureau of the Census offers a definition of Michigan townships:

There are 1,123 townships and 117 charter townships which are all actively functioning governmental units. Townships are the original units of government formed in the state. Typically, though not always, townships are 36 square miles in size. Each township is governed by a board of trustees consisting of the township supervisor, township clerk, township treasurer, and two or four elected trustees. The entire state is covered by township governments except for areas within cities.

State laws authorize both types of Michigan townships to perform mandated and permissive functions.

Mandated Functions are activities that townships are required to perform. The three broadest mandated responsibilities are assessment administration, elections administration and tax collection. In addition to these broad mandates, there are other more narrow state requirements. Procedures for the township’s financial administration, such as budgets, accounting, investments and deposits, are closely regulated by the state. Township meetings must comply with Michigan’s Open Meetings Act and township records must be stored and made available in conformance with specific laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition to the above required duties, Michigan townships are authorized to provide a wide variety of services that are generally expected from governmental entities. Virtually all townships provide fire protection and many also offer law enforcement as well. Other common programs include parks and recreation opportunities, public water and sewer services, trash collection and recycling programs, sidewalks and trails and cemeteries.

Townships have broad powers to enact and enforce ordinances, such as zoning and planning and may utilize other sources of revenue to support services. User fees, permits, fines and special assessments on real property are common sources of income generation.

According to the Charter Township Act, a township with a population of 2,000 or more inhabitants (according to the most recent regular or special federal or state census) may incorporate as a charter township. The charter township shall be a municipal corporation, to be known and designated as the charter township of_______. The charter township, its inhabitants and its officers shall have, except as otherwise provided in this act, all the powers, privileges, immunities and liabilities possessed by a township, its inhabitants and its officers by law. Charter townships may do so by either a vote of its board or the members of the township.

Charter township status is a special township classification created by the Michigan Legislature in 1947 to provide additional powers and streamlined administration for governing a growing community. A primary motivation for townships to adopt the charter form is to provide greater protection against annexation by a city. As of 2011, 138 Michigan townships were charter townships.

The Michigan Townships Association offers great resources to learn more about township government including resources for educators.

The Michigan State University Extension Government and Public Policy team offers training for elected and appointed officials for improved effectiveness in several areas, including various public policy issues and effects of government programs, regulation, incentives, strategies and more. By working together with local elected and appointed officials, and interested citizens, MSU Extension is able to provide education on critical local and state issues.The MSU Extension Government and Public Policy team also offers professional training in Parliamentary Procedure.

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