White Bear Township received $14 in state aid this year. That was about $3 less than the year before.
Leaders in White Bear — classified as the only urban township in Minnesota, not to be confused with the next-door city of the same name — say they’re expected to maintain roads, sewers and wells and meet Metropolitan Council demands just like their citified neighbors, but with almost no help from the state.
Now the township, the most populous in the state and the only one left in Ramsey County, is seeking a legislative fix. It wants “urban township” added to the statute making it eligible for the kind of local government aid (LGA) now earmarked exclusively for cities.
That would allow White Bear to share more than $560 million in annual aid with Minnesota’s 853 cities, vs. sharing about $10 million in the aid allocated to the state’s nearly 1,800 townships.
“We have gone forever without receiving local government aid. That’s primarily because we are a township, not a city,” said White Bear Township Clerk-Treasurer Patrick Christopherson. “We are not treated the same, yet held to the same standard. The Met Council dictates a lot of things we have to comply with.”
Township leaders say that for now they’d rather push for the law change rather than the alternative, which would be incorporating as a city.
“We like township government. It’s grassroots,” said Township Board Member Steve Ruzek.
Increasing state aid for a township — whose residents pay lower taxes and rely on the amenities and roads in neighboring and higher-taxed cities — also may raise some hackles, said Gary Carlson, the League of Minnesota Cities’ head of intergovernmental relations.
“People in White Bear Township can come over to White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi and do their shopping and recreation, and yet enjoy lower property tax rates,” Carlson said.
A board of three governs White Bear Township and each resident gets to vote on the budget at annual town meetings. The township, population 11,700, has an annual operating budget of around $4 million. Residents readily embrace the community’s natural and rural feel.
“It puts our citizens closer to the decisionmaking process versus a mayor and council,” Ruzek said, “We would like to save that because that is what residents prefer.”
The need for state aid feels more acute than ever for township officials, as White Bear embarks on a 10-year, $25 million street improvement plan.
Township leaders bonded for $1.3 million for the first year of repairs, Christopherson said, but are hopeful state aid could cover some of the future costs.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who represents White Bear Township, has agreed to carry the legislation again in 2020 after a failed attempt this spring.
“They are a unique township. They’re in the metro. They are impacted by additional requirements, which means more costs,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t like doing these one-offs, but they happen all the time.”
Chamberlain said that even if White Bear Township becomes eligible for a standard LGA payout, it still may not collect much under the aid formula. Nearly 100 of Minnesota’s most affluent cities with newer housing stock receive nothing, including nearby Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake, Shoreview, Arden Hills and Roseville.
Other Ramsey County cities do receive significant state aid. The city of White Bear Lake will receive $1.6 million in 2020; Maplewood will collect $1.1 million and Little Canada will get $430,000.
‘Very direct democracy’
White Bear Township was established in 1858 and named for the lake. The cities of White Bear Lake, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake and North Oaks were carved out of the original 36-square-mile township, leaving five separate parcels that now make up the township, including much of Bald Eagle and Otter lakes and portions of White Bear Lake’s shoreline. Parts of the township contain residential neighborhoods, other parts farm fields.
Unlike many townships, White Bear operates wells that provide municipal water, and 99% of its homes are connected to the township’s sewer system. The township provides water and sewer services to parts of North Oaks and Birchwood and administrative services for Gem Lake.
Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities said many cities and townships struggle to finance repairs for aging roads and infrastructure. He said an exception made for just one township, even though it’s urban, could be a hard sell.
“It’s not just happening in White Bear Township. It’s happening across the state,” Carlson said. “There are plenty of townships on the fringe of the metro where development has occurred. They might make similar arguments.”
The small-government mentality in White Bear Township, its lower taxes and its annual meetings where every resident may vote on the annual budget — all of it is a point of pride for many residents such as attorney Salena Koster, who with her husband moved there about three years ago.
“It’s very direct democracy,” said Koster, who serves on the park board.
But she estimated that only about 40 of the township’s nearly 12,000 residents attended last year’s meeting. And she said she’s willing to consider incorporating if necessary for the community’s future financial health.
“I would be open to at least hearing the discussion and asking some questions,” Koster said. “I think a small contingent would be upset, but I don’t think it would be a huge outcry.”
David Hann, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, said White Bear is in an unusual situation.
“It probably makes sense for them to access some of the state funding that other, larger municipalities have access to,” he said.
Ultimately it’s up to the residents to determine whether to remain a township, Hann said.
“It’s a grassroots, citizen-participation form of government that many people treasure,” he said. “Many people who live in townships don’t want to give that up.”