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Small town downtownTown and township governments (both labeled “townships” by the U.S. Census Bureau) have a special significance as small community institutions. The 16,519 towns and townships in the United States serve more than 50 million residents, according to Census of Governments figures. This total includes more than one million persons in each of 10 states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Towns and townships comprise more than 20 percent of the U.S. population.

More so than any other form of local government, towns and townships are rooted in rural and small-town traditions. New England towns of the 17th century were the first real local governments on the American continent, with Virginia counties running a close second. The nation owes many of its present ideas of local self-governance to these colonial organizations, including the town meeting and the election of citizens to individual offices and boards. From New England, town government—in one form or another—spread south and west to several mid-Atlantic states and most of the Midwest.

Township governments were actually in place in most of the Midwestern states before they achieved statehood. A critical step in this process was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, enacted by Congress to establish the initial government of the territory that eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The territorial governor and legislature began to create county and township governments in 1790, with the townships largely coinciding with the six-mile square land divisions established in the federal surveys of the region.

Today, towns and townships operate in 20 states, in three regions of the nation:

New England—Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Mid-Atlantic—New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Midwest—Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Because they often serve rural areas, Midwestern townships tend to focus on providing roads and bridges, fire and rescue, and other basic services to scattered populations. New England town governments—and mid-Atlantic towns and townships to a lesser degree—deliver extensive and varied services similar to those provided by cities. For example, towns in Connecticut, Maine and Vermont spend more in total revenues than cities in these states. Most New England towns also fund or administer K-12 schools.

This regional variation in the role of town and township governments goes hand-in-hand with differences in what county governments do as service providers. In New England, where county governments are nonexistent or perform limited activities (usually confined to judicial functions and regional jails), towns are the primary local governments. Midwestern townships, however, share responsibilities with relatively active county governments.

Such regional distinctions are not always an accurate guide to the activities of individual governments. Many Midwestern townships, for example, have become municipal service providers in recent years. They take responsibility for services such as water supply, wastewater treatment, police protection, and zoning and building code enforcement. Program expansions of this sort are usually responses to community change, particularly population growth, and occur in states where townships have flexible powers.

Source: Grassroots Governments and the People They Serve, National Association of Towns and Townships