With a brief, unflashy show of hands, a distinct form of democracy sprang into action last week in Anoka County's lone surviving township.

It happened without much pomp or pizazz. It happened before a crowd of Cub Scouts and parents, of neighbors in loafers and house slippers.

Linwood Township residents packed into a new town hall, debated their taxes and then did what only a township could do. They set next year's levy in a vote that played out quicker than the Pledge of Allegiance.

Become a city? No thanks.

Grass-roots government and rural independence, thank you very much. In general, the democratic gospel according to townships means mostly gravel roads, no mayor and an annual meeting where neighbors decide what their property taxes should be.

Linwood residents say they wouldn't trade this direct say-so in their governance for all the city-style amenities in Minnesota.

"They will defend their township to the end," said Pam Olson, the township's clerk.

Tuesday marked Township Day in Minnesota — the day each year when residents gather to vote on their tax levy, among other annual tasks. For some, setting the gopher bounty is always a hot-button issue. How much money should a pair of feet snag?


Forty-two townships remain in the seven-county metro, with Anoka and Ramsey counties having one apiece. Hennepin County lost its last township when Hassan was annexed by the city of Rogers in 2012.

At a time when the number of townships across the state creeps downward, the 1,781 left are working to remain viable by adapting with the times.

Sometimes the decision to become a city is driven by development. Other times townships incorporate to hedge off annexation efforts from nearby cities.

Townships first popped up in Minnesota more than 150 years ago, said Gary Pedersen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships. And for almost as long, residents have had to decide whether holding on to such a storied form of government outweighs the services offered by city life. Becoming a city sometimes brings with it water and sewer systems, more funding for roads and local police protection.

A city can also have a municipal liquor store, issue liquor licenses, establish a park board and more closely regulate local restaurants or other businesses, said Jeanette Behr, research manager at League of Minnesota Cities.

"I think the general idea is that there's more that a city can do," Behr said. "They can take more action and regulate more and probably encourage more development and activities."

But swapping a board of town supervisors for a City Council comes with trade-offs. It can mean higher property taxes, smaller lot sizes and more restrictions on owning certain animals, Pedersen said.

Increasingly, townships are working to juggle residents' appetites for rural living and their desire for expanded services.

"We're trying to get townships focused on being more proactive and providing services like parks," Pedersen said. "It's much more than managing roads, which at one time, that's what it was all about."

In Chisago County, for instance, Sunrise Township is working to bring high-speed internet to many of its 700 households. The township has worked closely with the county and CenturyLink and recently got a state grant to help pay for the $2.4 million broadband project, said Jeske Noordergraaf, vice chair of the township's board of supervisors.

"We're adapting to the times, and the credit has to go to the citizens," Noordergraaf said.

White Bear Township, the state's largest with 11,000 residents, has for years had its own public works department, mostly paved streets and police and fire services under contract. It also has 18 full-time employees — an anomaly among townships.

"We're pretty much already operating like a city, with the exception of our annual meeting," said Tom Kelly, the township's finance officer.

While cities may have more state aid available for upkeep like infrastructure, residents value White Bear's style of government and have no immediate plans to change, Kelly said.

Some townships hope to attract new families by adding community amenities. Newcomers in Greenwood Township in St. Louis County, for instance, can now picnic in a pavilion built last summer. Nearby is a bocce ball court as well as a new tennis and pickleball court.

"We're hoping to get a younger crowd moving in," said Sue Drobac, the township's clerk.

A tricky balance

In Anoka County, two townships became cities in the past 15 years: Columbus Township incorporated in 2006 and Burns Township became the city of Nowthen in 2008.

Linwood Township is the last stop in Anoka County's northeastern corner, flanked to the south by Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area. Like other townships, Linwood has weighed the pros and cons of becoming a city. Residents say the idea has never gained much traction.

After all, Linwood Township has its own fire department, parks, an active senior center, a baseball field, a new town hall and an expanding recycling program.

The growing pains that the township now faces mostly involve juggling the urban and rural expectations of its households, said building official Mike Jungbauer.

"A lot of shooting goes on here, and some people who move in from the cities aren't used to it," Jungbauer said.

When Sandy Lee moved to town from Coon Rapids last August, the gun shots so near her home were a surprise, but she has since adjusted to the quirks of country life.

"We now laugh at the ATVs and golf carts on the roads," Lee said.

At the town's annual meeting, it took hardly any time to pass the $1.625 million levy, but other topics crystallized clashing ideals. A young man pitched limiting trash services in town to one or two haulers. Some bristled at what they saw as removing their choice. The word "dictatorship" even popped up in the overflow crowd.

Ask longtime residents if Linwood Township has changed, and the answer slips out like a reflex.

"Oh, drastically," said 88-year-old Melvin Pfaffendorf. "But we're still self-governing."

hannah.covington@startribune.com 612-673-4751