State laws authorize Michigan townships to perform a wide variety of functions in two important categories: mandated and permissive.
Mandated Functions—Mandated functions are activities that townships are required to perform. The three broadest mandated responsibilities are assessment administration, elections administration and tax collection, which are legally assigned functions of the supervisor, clerk and treasurer, respectively. State laws also specify details for performing these functions.
Permissive Functions—Beyond the mandated functions, Michigan townships are authorized to provide a wide variety of services that are generally expected from general purpose governmental entities. Virtually all townships provide fire protection and many also offer law enforcement as well. Parks and recreation programs, public water and sewer services, trash collection and recycling programs, sidewalks and trails, and cemeteries are other common township functions. Townships, as well as other local governments, can provide these services by themselves, or jointly with another entity, and townships can buy from and sell to other governments any function it can produce by itself. In some but not all cases, townships can also contract with private entities to provide programs and services.
Of the eight states that administer elections on the local level, Michigan is the largest—involving 83 county clerks, 1,240 township clerks, 274 city clerks and 93 village clerks. Michigan elections are administered by 1,690 county and local election officials—making it the most decentralized election system in the nation (Bureau of Elections, June 2011).
In Michigan, all federal, state, county, township, city, village and school elections are restricted to three dates each year:
Exceptions to those dates include:
Michigan election law designates the secretary of state as Michigan’s “chief election officer,” with supervisory control over local election officials in the performance of their election-related duties.
The Bureau of Elections works under the direction of the secretary of state and the State Board of State Canvassers. The Bureau of Elections accepts and reviews petition filings, conducts statewide training programs on elections, assists local election officials with their administrative duties, oversees the operation of Michigan Qualified Voter File (QVF) system, publishes manuals and newsletters, and monitors legislation affecting the administration of elections. In addition, the Bureau of Elections administers Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act and Lobby Registration Act.
County clerks are responsible for coordination of the administration of elections for school districts that are contained within more than one township, training precinct inspectors and assisting with the administration of Michigan’s QVF System.
Township clerks are certified by the State of Michigan under the Election Officials’ Accreditation Program mandated by Michigan election law to maintain voter registration records for their township, and are responsible for administering all federal, state, county, township and, in some cases, village elections. Township clerks who have a school district wholly contained within their township are also responsible for the administration of the school district’s elections. Election administration consists of:
Four governmental bodies ensure the integrity of the voting process in Michigan:
As Michigan’s local governments have experienced to varying degrees slight to extremely severe revenue declines in recent years due to the changing Michigan economy and the collapse of the residential housing market, state leaders have extolled local governments to save money by cooperating and combining local government services. There is a presumption behind the common wisdom that services can be performed cheaper if they are spread over larger geographic areas and populations. This principle, called “economies of scale,” often exists in services that involve high fixed costs, such as investments in equipment or facilities.
On the other hand, services with costs that are mostly personnel-related often increase in cost as the size of the program or service expands. This is because the administrative oversight costs and prevailing compensation increase at rates that exceed whatever economies of scale might result. Nonetheless, savings also can result when combining services allows a local government to tap into expertise that would otherwise not be available or would be costly to duplicate.
MTA is a strong proponent of local government cooperation where local officials have identified a resulting real cost saving or an improvement, but we caution that state mandates and sweeping generalizations that service consolidation is a “best practice” does not reflect the true complexity of local government services.
Land Use Regulations
Americans have a long tradition of considering the ownership and enjoyment of property to be free of government intrusion, but what happens when the choices and actions of one property owner have an impact on the value of another person's property, or another person’s enjoyment of their property, or on the local government’s ability to attract new business?
Since the 1920s, the courts throughout the United States have recognized that governments can impose reasonable regulations on the use of privately owned land. While some people still bristle at this notion, most people recognize that when a person creates unsightly blight that others have to look at, or use their property in ways that create unreasonable noise, odors, lighting or creates a threat to the safety of others, it is reasonable for the local government to step in and stop the nuisance behavior.
Local governments focus considerable attention reviewing plans for new development to prevent problems and conflicts before they materialize. Land use regulations protect the overall appearance of the community, protect the natural features that residents value, and help minimize the cost of local government services.
Local governments exercise land use authority through local planning and zoning.
A master plan guides the overall direction of where land uses are most appropriate by considering local and regional assets, needs and opportunities, as well as development patterns driven by market forces and infrastructure improvements.
A zoning ordinance is a township law establishing land development districts and regulating land development. In suburban and rural areas where the dominant intent of zoning is to protect the value and use of private residences, zoning often focuses on segregating incompatible land uses. This objective is also common in other, more dense communities, but in recent years planning experts have moved away from primarily focusing on land use segregation and have, instead, returned to land use practices that were popular in the 19th century, such as mixing residential and commercial land uses to promote more walkable communities and fostering more social interaction. “New urbanism” emphasizes shared open spaces, homes built closer to sidewalks with alleys and smaller yards, and building apartment lofts above storefronts. Form-based codes are also growing in favor that focus on more on structure exteriors and arrangements and less on the activities within the building in denser communities.
Placemaking is another set of activities that build on existing assets in rural and urban communities to create more economically competitive and resilient communities. This is done by focusing on public and private improvements that make an area more attractive to new residents, talented workers, and new businesses. Rural and urban communities that work together on regional placemaking projects have the potential to make the entire area more competitive for jobs in the global New Economy.
It is customary for general purpose units of governments—cities, villages, townships and counties—to take some level of responsibility for the health, safety and general welfare of residents other persons within their jurisdictions. How this responsibility is addressed is a governmental policy decision, meaning that local governments have broad discretion to decide what they will do, how much, and for whom. Public safety in some communities means that personnel are cross-trained to perform law enforcement, fire suppression and emergency medical services and that a unified department coordinates all three services.
However, public safety more often means the delivery of services related to these functions with specialized departments. Communities that provide both fire suppression and emergency medical services most often combine these functions, and a few entities have combined law enforcement and emergency medical services. Treatment and transportation of the sick and injured (emergency medical services) is often provided by a department owned and operated by the governmental entity, but it is also not unusual in urban settings for the private ambulance companies providing this service on a fee basis. Local governments can charge for emergency services as well, but that practice is more the exception than the rule. As tax revenues diminish, more communities are likely to impose fees to cover some portion of their public safety expenditures.
Public safety services can be performed by the public entity itself, or it can purchase emergency services from other governmental entities, and public entities can join together to provide emergency services on a cooperative, shared basis. None of these options are necessarily the best choice for a given community, as local circumstances and differences in policy preferences can rule out cooperative ventures. An extensive paper on joint services is located elsewhere on this website, and can be found by clicking here.
Virtually all townships provide fire suppression services, most commonly through a department owned by the township, but almost as many townships provide fire suppression by purchasing the service from a neighboring entity or by a jointly-owned department serving multiple jurisdictions. Fire authorities, which are separate public corporations created by local governments but subsequently empowered to act with a high degree of independence, is another option growing in popularity. Local governments also purchase specialized services and equipment such as aerial apparatus, hazardous materials responses, confined space rescues, or inspection and code enforcement. The incidence of structure fires has declined in the past several decades due to better construction and fire prevention codes. In addition to fire suppression, fire departments often provide fire safety education and enforce a fire prevention code.
Most fire departments in Michigan are staffed entirely by personnel who are either paid to respond to individual emergencies from their homes or businesses, or who receive no compensation at all. Extensive training is required by state law for fire fighters before they can be actively engaged in fire suppression activities. In medium-sized communities fire departments have a few career, full-time fire fighters who are augmented by on-call personnel. The largest townships and cities are served entirely by career-personnel. For more information on Fire Safety download the Residential Fire Prevention and Safety Guide
Most townships are relatively rural and have very infrequent incidents needing law enforcement; consequently, state police and sheriff deputies provide an adequate basic level of service. As townships grow in population or have major roadways that create more law enforcement issues, contracts with sheriff departments for additional patrols and crime investigation services are more common. Larger townships, as well as other smaller townships have their own police departments similar to those of most cities and many villages. Jointly operated law enforcement entities are relatively rare but may become more common as local governments seek innovative ways to cut costs.
Emergency medical services (EMS) involve the pre-hospital treatment and transportation of the sick and injured. In communities with dense populations, privately owned ambulance companies frequently provide EMS services, with fire departments providing support. Unlike law enforcement and fire services which are traditionally funded with tax dollars as governmental services, EMS has evolved as an adjunct of the field of medicine, where payment is expected from the patient and third party payers such as insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid. The revenue stream available to EMS providers allows the private sector to profitably operate in areas where there are enough calls for service that the providers fixed costs can be recovered. Unfortunately, that market only exists where there is a high call volume.
Local governments provide EMS services in a variety of ways, including stand alone departments; in combination with the fire department and less often by the police department; contracts with other governmental entities; and through a jointly owned department or a multi-unit authority. Some EMS departments only provide pre-hospital emergency treatment, and transportation is provided by another public entity or a private ambulance company. Regardless, any government or firm that represents itself to the public as providing emergency medical services must be licensed by the state of Michigan and all personnel who treat the sick and injured must hold current state licenses at varying levels of skills. The license level of the service and the individual determines the level of sophisticated medical procedures that a patient can receive. All EMS providers are supervised by a medical control authority under the auspices of a licensed physician.
Local governments are also expected to be prepared for exceptional emergencies and disasters. Examples of disasters potentially occurring in Michigan include tornadoes, snow and ice storms, hazardous material discharges, nuclear power plant malfunctions, terrorist attacks on people and infrastructure, or other broad scale infrastructure failures. Because no local government has sufficient resources to handle any and all emergencies such as these, local governments need to coordinate their plans that address mitigation (disaster prevention), preparedness, response and recovery.
Emergency response is a coordinated effort involving all levels of government. County emergency management directors are primarily responsible for emergency planning and response in communities under 10,000 populations and for larger entities that have not appointed their own emergency management director.
Local governments also protect the public by enforcing a state-adopted construction code that builders and contractors must follow when they construct structures for human occupancy. The code is written by national experts to minimize design and construction flaws that could result in injuries and preserve the property’s value. Local governments also adopt ordinances that regulate behavior that can be detrimental to other people. And local governments plan with other governmental entities for major emergencies and disasters that would require a response that exceeds an individual community’s resources.
Local governments do not provide public safety services in a vacuum or without regard for the efforts of other governmental entities. Law enforcement entities coordinate their efforts so that police officers and sheriff deputies are appropriately deployed; fire departments routinely provide mutual aid when a fire or other emergency requires additional staffing or equipment; and emergency medical services are coordinated to ensure that the most appropriate service is provided regardless of political jurisdiction. Disaster planning is coordinated by the Emergency Management Division of the Michigan Department of State Police, and the state fire marshal oversees the investigation of suspicious fires.
Property Taxes and Assessment
Property taxes are the primary revenue source of most local governments, and the administration of the property tax system is also a primary role of local governments. The power to tax is granted by the people to the government in the federal and state constitutions. The state’s taxation power extends in the constitution to local governments. However, the Michigan Constitution only authorizes cities, villages, townships, counties and some special purpose district to levy a property tax, and only cities can also levy an income tax. Local governments do not levy sales taxes or tax on business activities, other than the property tax.
Taxes fund local government services that benefit, or potentially benefit society in general, and especially when funding by a specific fee charged to users is impractical, unfair or contrary to the purpose of the program or service. Taxes generally are assessed in some manner based on an indication of a person’s ability to pay—through the individual’s consumption or purchases (sales taxes); income; or accumulated wealth (property and estate taxes). Gas and weight taxes, on which state and federal transportation systems are funded, are both a consumption tax and an indication of a person’s usage of highways and bridges funded by those revenues.
Property taxes originated in a time when agriculture was the dominant means by which many people earned their living, and the value of a person’s property was considered an indicator of their financial ability to support local government programs and services. While the property tax system is subject to a number of criticisms as the primary means by which local government services are funded, it does offer a number of administrative advantages. Property is difficult to hide, so tax avoidance is minimized. The revenues are relatively stable compared to other taxation sources, and market distortions are minimal.
Property taxes are assessed on real estate—land values and the value of improvements (structures) on the land. Taxes are assessed based on the property’s value, which is an estimation of what the property would sell for in a normal transfer of ownership. That value would not be known precisely, of course, until the property actually sold, so assessors base their sales studies on what prices similarly situated properties have recently sold. Property owners might not agree as to whether other properties in the sales study are truly representative of what their own property would sell for, or whether there are mitigating factors that would adversely affect the value of their own property. Property owners can discuss with the local government assessor the method by which their properties’ values were determined and if the disagreement is not resolved to the property owner’s satisfaction, the property owner can appeal his or her assessment to the board of review. Boards of review, with the agreement of the township supervisor, can also issue hardship exemptions for those who are unable to support the public good. Boards of review must follow prescribed guidelines developed by the township board. Adverse decisions by the board of review can be further appealed to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.
Property assessments, however, are only half the property taxation story. The other side are millage rates which are applied to property values to arrive at the tax bill that is levied on property. The term “millage” means a rate per thousand, so a millage rate is a multiplier that is applied on a property’s rate per thousand dollars of taxable valuation.
Every parcel of property is located in multiple tax levying jurisdictions. The state of Michigan levies a statewide school education tax, with a rate of six mills on all properties. School operating taxes usually 18 mills, are also levied on all property., However a person’s primary residence (homestead) and agricultural property are exempt from this tax. Counties, intermediate school districts, special purpose districts such as a library district and local governments also levy taxes. The local governments prepare the tax bills on behalf of all of the other tax levying entities, so a single tax bill includes the taxes levied by all applicable entities.
Historically, property taxation adhered rigorously to a principle of uniformity—that similarly situated properties would be similarly assessed. However, when real estate values rapidly accelerated, property assessments similarly increased, which caused considerable hostility to property taxes. The Michigan Legislature adopted a number of laws intended to blunt the rate of increases, and the voters also approved a property tax relief measure in 1978. The so-called “Headlee Amendment” to the Michigan Constitution requires local entities to roll back their millage rates so that property tax revenues remained in line with the rate of inflation. But the taxes on individual parcels continued to rise during periods of high volume of property sales that “bid up” valuations.
In 1994, the Legislature placed on the Michigan ballot a proposal, approved by the voters, that changed the method by which schools were funded, and also capped the rate of assessment increases on individual parcels of property. Referred to as “Proposal A,” the change to the Michigan Constitution ended uniformity and substituted a new principle of assessment stability and predictability. Assessment on individual properties can now increase at a rate not to exceed the rate of inflation or five percent, whichever is smaller. Property begins at an assessed valuation which is 50% of a property’s true cash value, but the assessment is adjusted each year to arrive at a new valuation on which the taxes will be based, called the property’s “taxable value.” When market forces increases the value of a parcel by 5%, the taxable value is reduced to a new amount that reflects the rate of inflation or 5% (whichever is less) compared to the prior year. When the property is sold, however, the taxable value reverts to its assessed valuation at 50% of true cash value. Property that is owned by the same person for a longer period of time will have a taxable value less than similar property that has changed ownership more recently. Consequently, two property taxpayers owning properties that are comparable in value will pay taxes in different amounts if they have owned their properties for different periods of time.
Townships Support Other Governmental Units
Townships serve other governmental units by providing tax collection services. To avoid imposing an unnecessary burden on citizens to pay separate property taxes to the township, schools, special assessment districts and the county, Michigan townships provide uniform assessment of property values and collect all property taxes on behalf of the other units of government. Only a very small portion of the taxes collected are retained by the township for its own operating purposes.
Roads and Transportation
A significant difference between townships and cities and villages in Michigan is the general lack of authority in townships to perform maintenance and construction on roads. In most states, townships take care of local roads in their jurisdictions, but Michigan law transferred responsibility for roads to county road commissions and, most recently, provides the option for county boards of commissioners to transfer road responsibility from road commissions to themselves.
Under very specific circumstances, larger townships may contract with road commissions to assume road maintenance responsibilities, but only one township has opted to accept road responsibilities to this degree.
Townships do not receive gas and weight tax distributions as cities, villages and counties do. It is the county’s statutory responsibility to keep roads in a safe condition, but township boards recognize that counties do not have sufficient resources to take care of all the road needs. As a result, townships collectively spent nearly $200 million on roads annually, even though they are not required by law to do so.
Other Programs and Services
Townships commonly operate cemeteries, parks and recreation programs, and fund senior citizen programs. They may also regulate or provide services to remove trash and recycle materials, and provide municipal water and/or wastewater treatment systems. They market the agricultural, commercial and industrial opportunities that are available within the township and in the surrounding area.
Cities, and to a lesser extent villages, are intended to have the taxation authority and statutory flexibility to provide a portfolio of services that are restricted only by state and federal prohibitions. Counties and townships, on the other hand, also provide a broad range of services, but within constraints of functions that are either expressly provided for or implied in state law. Counties provide a number of services that are local extension of state functions, such as courts, equalization of local government assessing, community health and social services.Show More