Some townships foregoing plowing to save money

Unplowed road
An unplowed road in Wilkin County near Kent, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

When the wind blows in Wilkin County, it doesn't take long for snow drifts to clog narrow township roads.

For decades, county highway department plowed those roads and charged the townships an hourly fee. But last fall, when three vacancies opened in the highway department, the county saw an opportunity.

"We had to make decision if we were going to replace those people and plow all the roads in the county, or if we were going to change our whole program and have the townships do their own work," County Engineer Tom Richels said.

The county decided not to fill the positions, saving about $170,000 a year. It then helped townships find private contractors to work on the township roads and even leased some equipment to one of the contractors.

Wilkin County is among a number of Minnesota Counties that stopped plowing township roads this winter to save money. The county eliminated nearly 40 miles of roads that weren't being used. The townships did the same thing.

Richels thinks the new system is working well, although he has received a few complaints about township roads not getting plowed as quickly. Some township officials try to save money by not plowing the roads every time it snows, he said.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

Unplowed road
The town chose not to plow this road in Wilkin County, near Kent, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

It can be a tough call, Nordick Township supervisor Tony Nordick said.

"It's always a judgment," said Nordick, whose family name the township carries. "We can't go out every time it snows and we don't want to wait to long and have people who can't get out of their yards, but we hear about it when people can't get out and that's fine."

Only eight of the 32 miles of Nordick Township's roads are being plowed this winter. Nordick said he's only had one complaint. He said many people have four wheel drive trucks, and some rural residents have tractors to clear the road if they need to get out before the snowplow arrives.

"In the township I think we depend more on people helping themselves," he said. Maybe that's not a good thing in a way, but in a way it's all right if you can help your township and save yourself some tax that's not a bad thing. It's a small personal form of government."

Tony Nordick
Tony Nordick has been a township supervisor for 25 years. He farms near Kent, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Townships only plow the roads necessary for mail delivery, school bus routes or emergency vehicles.

County highway departments across the state are looking for ways to cut back in response to state budget cuts and opposition to property tax hikes.

Le Seuer County Engineer Darrell Pettis, guesses about two dozen counties still maintain township roads, but more are handing that responsibility to the townships. In some cases, county roads are being turned over to the townships to maintain.

"I know there's some counties that changed their county roads onto the township system, and that's a funding issue," said Pettis, also president of the Minnesota County Engineers Association. "Township roads do receive some money from the gas tax whereas your straight county highway system receives only property taxes. So they're able to get a little bit of a benefit there."

Pettis said it's cheaper for townships to maintain roads because they typically do less maintenance. He's also seeing many sparsely-populated counties in western Minnesota turn over some of their road maintenance to private contractors.

Tom Richels
Tom Richels, Wilkin County Engineer.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

He expects that trend to spread across the rest of the state.

"I've gotten a number of calls, just disgruntled landowners saying they're not getting plowed in a timely manner. 'I can't get to work, can't get out of my driveway at eight, they don't get here 'til noon.' " Pettis said.

In Wilkin County, Tom Richels says county officials are considering hiring private contractors to mow road ditches and spray weeds this summer. That's a necessary part of keeping the county budget balanced, he said.

A few people to complain that removing some roads from the plowing lists caused them to make lengthy detours to reach their destination. But that's the downside of county efforts to economize.

"We said that's just what's going on right now," Richels said. "People have got to cut back."