How Townships Began
The Pilgrim fathers brought the township form of government to America in 1620. This unit of local government eventually spread as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Today, it is found in 20 states, known as the town or township.
In Ohio, the township predates our state government. The townships’ size and shape were determined by the Congressional Acts, which established the various land grants. Within each of the Ohio land grants, Congress set aside sections of land for the use of schools and the support of religious institutions.
As the Oho territory became populated, it was only natural that the surveyed townships should become the basic unit of local government. In 1804, the elected officials of a township consisted of three trustees, a clerk, two overseers of the poor, and a sufficient number of supervisors of highway - in addition to justices of the peace and constables.
In the early years of statehood, Ohio township government cared for the poor, maintained the roads and preserved the peace.
Today, just as in 1804, the township is a political subdivision of the state. To keep pace with the demands of changing times, the functions, duties and obligations of the township have changed over the years. Demands for increased or different services have prompted the state legislature to grant Ohio’s 1,308 townships the authority to fulfill these changing needs.
Three trustees and a fiscal officer, each elected to a four-year term, administer our townships today. Additionally, some townships now appoint a township administrator, whose duties are defined by the Ohio Revised Code and the individual township. The township administrator typically helps plan, coordinate and implement township goals.
Elected officials fill their roles on a part-time basis. Their intimate knowledge of their community, its needs and its citizens enables them to offer more personal service than any other unit of government.
What Townships Do
State law authorizes Ohio townships to operate under a basic form of government and perform a wide variety of functions. There are 1,308 townships in Ohio and they are varied in population size, annual operating budget, and range of services delivered to residents.
Ohio townships most commonly provide residents with services such as road maintenance, cemetery management, police and fire protection, emergency medical services, solid waste disposal, and zoning. Ohio townships have direct responsibility for maintaining 41,000 miles of roads and streets, and townships manage more than 2,400 cemeteries.
The maintenance and repair of township roads is the largest function of most of Ohio’s townships today, and includes such activities as snow removal and weed control. Ohio townships receive part of the state’s motor vehicle license fees and gasoline tax, as well as generating additional revenues through local taxation to fund road maintenance.
Due to the tremendous increase in population, government units across Ohio face a waste disposal problem. Townships are authorized to provide waste disposal services to residents. It may collect and dispose of garbage or contract with other political subdivisions or private providers for such services.
A board of township trustees has the authority to employ local police officers and create police districts, or to contract with neighboring jurisdictions for police protection. Today, Ohio township police have, in general, the same authority and power that the law grants to the sheriff, and are required to receive basic training in the duties of a police officer.
Fire Protection/Emergency Management System (EMS)
Ohio law permits townships to provide fire protection directly or by contract with townships, municipalities and other jurisdictions. Township fire departments are staffed with full-time and/or volunteer firefighters, or a combination of both.
Voters must approve the purchase or appropriation of land for a cemetery, but once it is established, township trustees have the authority to sell plots, set up service fees, maintain the cemetery, and provide for expansion.
Townships receive revenue from local property taxes and from the gasoline and motor vehicle license taxes, as well as the local government fund from the state. Increases in property taxes must be approved by voters. Townships collect less than 6 percent of local property taxes in Ohio.
Parks and Recreation
Townships may establish and operate a park on their own or by joint action with another political subdivision. Townships may purchase land and material and may use township funds to acquire or improve a park. A township park district may also be established in a township. The park district is a separate political subdivision and has its own board with taxing authority.
Zoning is the regulation of the use of land and buildings that permit a community to control development. It provides for orderly growth by protecting homes and property from harmful use on neighboring properties. Ohio law provides for the submission of a zoning plan to electors of a township and includes provisions for the adoption, administration, enforcement and amendment of the zoning plan.
Other Township Functions
Township trustees also have responsibilities for ditches, drains and other surface waters; line fences between adjacent properties; township hospitals or township hospital districts; and the control of weeds and brush.
Trustees also have permissive authority to erect monuments to commemorate those who died in the service of their country, and a board of township trustees may provide artificial lighting when it is determined that public safety requires such lighting. The township may install its own lighting system or contract with an electric company.
Ohio Home Rule
Townships possess only those powers expressly delegated to them by statute, or those which are reasonably implied from those delegated, which include the powers previously mentioned here. In general, townships do not possess broad police powers or the ability to provide for public health.
An exception to this general rule is found in Chapter 504 of the Ohio Revised Code, which permits certain townships with at least 2,500 residents in an unincorporated area to adopt a limited home-rule government. If adopted, limited home-rule townships may exercise “all powers of self-government,” subject to certain exceptions. Such authority is limited to the unincorporated areas of the township and resolutions of the township may only be enforced by civil fines up to $1,000.
Candidates for Ohio township office - as a trustee or fiscal officer - must be a resident of the township in which they are running for election.
Nominations of candidates for election as township officials must be made by a nominating petition, unless a majority of township residents have petitioned for a primary election. The nominating petitions must be signed by 25 township residents and filed with the county board of elections at least 90 days before the general election.
Township officials are elected on a nonpartisan ballot in the November general election, in odd-numbered years. The filing fee for candidates is $10.
Every other year, half of the township officials are up for election. Two township trustees will be up for election in 2017. In 2019, the remaining township trustee and fiscal officer will also be up for election.
Township trustees and fiscal officers serve four-year terms, unless an official retires or steps down, at which point someone is appointed to carry out the remainder of the term. Term of office for a township trustee begins Jan. 1 following election, and township fiscal officers start April 1 after election.
Township trustees and fiscal officers must take an oath of office. That oath is administered by an elected or appointed official.
Townships are grassroots, statutory governments that perform many of the basic services of local government. Those services include road maintenance and repair; police and fire protection; emergency response; solid waste disposal; maintaining parks and cemeteries; zoning; and more.
Townships are considered an efficient and effective form of government. Townships do not levy income or sales taxes and do not receive casino revenue. Their principal source of local revenue is the property tax, and yet, townships levy only about 6 percent of property taxes in Ohio.
- Section 2, Article X of the Ohio Constitution provides for the election of township officials and grants them the power of local taxation. The four-year term of office for township officials is addressed in section 1, Article XVII of the Ohio Constitution.
- Section 7, Article V of the Constitution addresses the process for placing candidates for township offices on the ballot. The limitations on revenue generated by property tax levies, expressly including those levied by townships, are addressed in section 2, Article XII.
Ohio Revised Code
The Ohio Revised Code is a collection of Ohio statutes and includes several provisions concerning townships and township officials — some that grant authority and some that contain restrictions. (This links to the online version of the Ohio Revised Code www.codes.ohio.gov.)
In fact, Title V of the Revised Code is titled “Townships.” There are 13 chapters in Title V that address townships. Those chapters include code guidelines for the following: original surveyed townships; general provisions; limited home-rule government; trustees; clerk; constables; memorial buildings, halls and parks; hospitals and joint hospital districts; lighting; cemeteries; township zoning; private sewage collection tiles; and merged townships.
There are a number of other titles and statutes in the Ohio Revised Code that townships frequently encounter. Tax levy law is set forth in Title 57, and many provisions pertinent to tax levies are found in Chapter 5705 of the Revised Code.
The Sunshine Law, which requires that public meetings be generally open to the public, is found in Section 121.22 of the Ohio Revised Code. Public records requirements are set forth in section 149.43. Many ethics law provisions are contained in Chapter 102 of the Revised Code, but some are in Title 29, which is the criminal code. If your township gets sued over a personal injury matter and you’re wondering whether some kind of immunity defense applies, your lawyer would be looking in Chapter 2744 of the Revised Code.
Federal Law and Townships
Federal law can also apply to townships. These include anti-discrimination provisions and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among others. If your township has employees, you may be subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. There are a number of federal agencies — such as the EPA — that enforce federal laws that occasionally impact townships.
As you can see, townships are directly impacted by many provisions of state and federal law. One should consult legal counsel to address matters impacting your township. While the Ohio Township Association provides legal information to its members, we are prohibited from giving legal advice about specific situations. A complete summary of the law applicable to townships is beyond the scope of this website.
Ohio Township Day
Two sentences in the Ohio Revised Code forever changed what Feb. 1 means to Ohio’s township officials. House Bill 652, enacted in 1998, designated Feb. 1 as Ohio Township Day. The year 1999 marked the first Ohio Township Day.
The idea for a statewide township recognition day originated in the very county where the OTA originated. As the first county in Ohio to form a county association, Ashland County led the effort to establish the statewide association.
Townships have not only survived the test of time, they have thrived. Townships uniquely balance small community living and the preservation of farmland and Ohio’s agricultural industry with infrastructure advancements and economic development. Once viewed as a “temporary government,” townships today are key players in Ohio’s governmental system.