There is a little discussed level of government in Kansas, with 15 of the boards existing in Harvey County: Townships.
Townships encompass 36 square miles — a six mile by six mile square. It's what Steve Bayless, township trustee for Halstead Township, calls government at the “lowest level” and what county administrator John Waltner says gets a decision-maker the closest to the front door of residents.
“We are accountable to our neighbors. We are going to be more responsive,” Bayless said. “You have to live within the township, so they are your roads, too.”
Each township levies taxes. Each has a trustee, clerk and treasurer that runs a township budget. And each township focuses a little differently — some on drainage issues, other on roads. According to Harvey County administration and township trustees, in 2017 the primary work of townships is road maintenance, culvert maintenance and drainage issues in unincorporated portions of the county.
“The argument could be, the closer government is to you, the more likely you are able to interact with them in a positive way and gain satisfaction,” Waltner said. “... It is a very efficient way to accomplish what we need to accomplish here in Harvey County to have townships.”
It wasn't always that way — when Kansas became a state, townships had other duties as well. When townships were first drawn, each had an area for a school. The township school system disappeared as populations shifted to towns, and school consolation centralized education.
Townships, however, continued on, shifting focus to roads and drainage.
The county cares for all the bridges, and any culvert that is on a county right of way. The county also maintains some culverts on township roads, based on the size of the culvert. In Harvey County, if you are driving on a sand road it is likely a township road. Black top is likely a county road.
“In a county system, the county takes care of every mile and all the infrastructure in that county. In the township system, the county has their responsibility and the townships have the remainder,” said Jim Meier, director of Harvey County Road and Bridge. “... I personally like the township system, as long as the townships realize why they are in the position they are in. For the most part, our 15 townships do understand. They have their own budgets and their own responsibilities. They take care of what is theirs.”
Harvey County townships levy taxes on township residents — the highest levy comes from Alta, in the northwest corner of the county, at 23.285 mills in 2016. The lowest levy assessed is by Garden Township, just east of Alta Township, at 6.963 mills in 2016. Eight of the townships levy taxes on behalf of a fire protection district, two for cemeteries.
One of the cemeteries is in Halstead township. According to Bayless, the township trustee, townships take over cemeteries when they are abandoned.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, civil townships, also known as governmental or political townships, are political subdivisions within a county, usually responsible for activities such as road maintenance and fire protection in rural areas. The Kansas state censuses are subdivided by civil township. Most civil townships are identified by name, and their boundaries may or may not coincide with survey townships.
When a township was created, a section for a school and a section for a church was allocated.
A survey township is a geographic unit based on the Public Land Survey System, used to identify parcels of land for deeds and other legal documents. Survey townships were created by an act of Congress in the Land Ordinance of 1785.
According to Meier, if townships did not exist, the county would have to employ more staff in the road and bridge department to deal with road and drainage issues. However, it is likely that the county would not have as much equipment — and less opportunity to maintain the gravel and sand roads.
“Overall, there might be fewer road graders, considering how much equipment is in the townships,” Waltner said.
Currently every township owns or leases its own equipment.
“Instead of your roads being gone over twice a month, you would be lucky if your road would be maintained once every two months,” Bayless said. “There are some counties, that are sparsely populated, that are operated that way. The argument is, and you can certainly argue that, our townships are set up in 36 square miles, is it practical for every 36 square miles to own the machinery for maintenance of the roads.”
Bayless said his township leases the equipment, keeping it newer. Others purchase equipment and use it until it wears out — sometimes about two decades.
There is no pressure to move to a county system. Meier said it has been decades since a county converted from a township to a county system.
“I like the idea of townships, because it gives people who live in the unincorporated area a person that they know, they have access to the people who are ultimately responsible to maintaining their road,” Waltner said.
And, it's a job that Meier said the county doesn't necessarily want. Meier said the county has a good relationship with the townships, and they do a needed job.
“It is a tough job,” Meier said. “It is one of these jobs that you rarely get told you are doing a good job, but are always hear about inadequate you are and are focusing in the wrong direction. … It is a hard job, and these people are riddled with phone calls all the time.”