GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP—A group of Greenwood residents say they’ve had it with what they see as profligate township spending and they have started a petition drive aimed at dissolving one of the …
GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP—A group of Greenwood residents say they’ve had it with what they see as profligate township spending and they have started a petition drive aimed at dissolving one of the region’s wealthiest townships.
If approved by enough township residents, the move would dismantle the township’s governing functions and let St. Louis County administer necessary services.
Petition organizers will need to get a number equal to at least half of the township’s registered voters to sign the petition at least 60 days before the township’s annual meeting, to get the question on the ballot.
Greenwood Township was founded back in 1979, primarily to create a local fire department. Since then the township has grown to an organization with an annual budget of about $500,000.
About 50 township residents attended a public meeting held on Sunday, Nov. 20 at the Vermilion Club. The meeting was called by the group which is circulating the petition.
John Holm opened the meeting by explaining the purpose of the petition. Barb Lofquist, a frequent critic of township spending, said she felt that St. Louis County could take over many of the township’s tasks, such as planning and zoning, for less money.
“We want to have our decisions count,” she said. “The town board does what it wants, even at the annual meeting.”
Township residents had tried unsuccessfully to reign in increases in township officials salaries at a previous annual meeting, but town board members insisted that they alone had the authority to set township salaries, and that the only role of the residents at the meeting, in regard to the budget, was to approve or deny the tax levy.
In response to the idea of forming a nonprofit fire department, town board member Carmen DeLuca noted that current state statute says that in the case of a township’s dissolution, all township property and equipment becomes the property of the county.
“Who would run the fire department?” asked Wally Snyder, former town board member and former fire department member. Snyder noted that if the township lost it’s current department, residents would lose the class seven insurance rating, which is dependent on the amount of fire-fighting equipment in the department.
The discussion was heated at times, and many questions went unanswered.
Larry Tahija asked for a show of hands in the room, to see how many of the 50 or so in attendance had ever been a member of the township’s fire department. About six people raised their hands, to a round of applause by most everyone in the room.
Rick Worringer asked those circulating the petition exactly what spending they were upset about, and what spending they felt was out of control.
Holm said while the discussion so far had focused on the fire department, the group had other concerns, for example, the cost of local control of planning and zoning.
Several in the audience spoke in favor of keeping planning and zoning within the township, but others questioned the cost, especially in light of recent lawsuits, which cost the township an unspecified amount in legal fees.
People also questioned the need for a full-time maintenance employee, as well as the amount the township currently has in reserves, which is approximately $700,000. Township officials noted that this amount was in line with recommendations from the Minnesota Association of Townships.
Lofquist said that the township’s reserves are some of the highest in the state.
Town Board member Kirsten Reichel noted that some of the township’s reserves are for specific items, such as the eventual replacement of the Isle of Pines bridge, or the township’s low-interest loan fund for septic replacements.
The discussion grew heated.
“This township is nothing but a duplication of services,” said Bill Macomber, who likened the township structure to a private club.
“Start your own club,” he said, “but don’t do it with our tax dollars.”
While township supporters outnumbered those in opposition, township officials were definitely ready to listen to the complaints that were surfacing.
The discussion eventually turned into a series of small group discussions, with township officials and their opponents sitting and calmly discussing the issues that had been raised.
Some of the discussion focused on issues with the fire department, which has been struggling to retain members. Several also expressed concern with spending in the fire department, and with the recent discussion over the replacement of the outboard motors for the fire boat.
Holm noted that many people who wouldn’t come to a town board meeting had attended this session at the Vermilion Club. He also said that he had talked to numerous people who support the petition but who are unwilling to express their views in a public forum. He said their group had been talking with County Commissioner Mike Forsman about what would happen if the township dissolved, but that Forsman had not gotten back to them with the information they requested.
DeLuca noted that the town board was listening, and said that many of the changes being requested would take time.
“We can’t change everything overnight,” he said. “We have to do it legally.”
DeLuca noted that the township’s budget process, for 2013, would be beginning in January, and the process was open to the public. He said the preliminary budget, once approved by the town board in February, would be posted on the township’s website. Copies of past budgets are available at the town hall for interested residents, he said.
Holm said they were happy with the outcome of the meeting, but wished it hadn’t focused so much on the fire department, because that isn’t necessarily the focus of the group. He said they are planning on going door-to-door with the petition.
“If nothing else,” he said, “we’ve generated a little excitement.”
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