Local Government 101: Townships vs. Cities

Some Lowell residents don’t technically live in Lowell. They may have a 49331 address, but their home is in Vergennes, Grattan, Keene or Boston Township. Or maybe they live in the Lowell Area Schools district, but when they vote, they head to the Bowne Township Hall.

To a certain extent, residency is a state of mind. When someone says they are from Lowell, no one is pulling out a map to see if they have a City of Lowell or Lowell Charter Township address. Instead, if you associate with Lowell and call the community home, you’re part of the club.

However, it is still important to know exactly where you live. Your local jurisdiction can determine everything from how much you pay in property taxes to whether you can set up a chicken coop in the backyard.

Although the greater Lowell area includes a portion of the many townships mentioned above, the following three municipalities are generally considered to be the core of the community:

  • City of Lowell
  • Lowell Charter Township
  • Vergennes Township

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between townships and cities and what that means for you.

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Townships: Lower Taxes, Fewer Services

From its early history, Michigan was broken down into townships which have square boundaries that run 6 miles on each side. The only land in Michigan that is not part of a township is land that is part of a city. As a result, the Michigan Townships Association (MTA) reports 96% of the state’s land is governed by townships.

“Michigan’s 1,240 townships range from very small, rural communities offering a quiet way of life to large, urban municipalities,” explains Neil Sheridan, executive director of the MTA. “So, townships can provide residents the community characteristics and the level of local programs and services that best fits their wants and needs.”

Townships can be one of two types:

  • General Law Townships
  • Charter Townships

Lowell Township is a charter township while Vergennes Township is a general law township.

The MTA notes only 139 of Michigan’s townships are charter townships and says a township might choose this option because it provides greater protection against annexation by a city.

From a practical standpoint, charter townships might operate more like cities than general law townships. A charter township has a supervisor who is often responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the township, much as a city manager would do in a city. Charter townships tend to be larger and may offer more services than rural general law townships.

“We’re becoming more like a city with all the subdivisions popping up,” says Jerry Hale, supervisor for Lowell Charter Township. He adds that residents of the township have access to a great school system, and the township millage rate is one of the lowest in Kent County.

“Townships serve as the tax-collecting entity but actually retain a very small portion of the amount collected,” according to Sheridan. “The majority of taxes are disbursed by the township to other forms of government, like the county, school districts and back to the state.”

Since townships typically retain relatively low property taxes for themselves, they generally offer fewer services than cities. Critical services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, are generally handled by the county rather than the township. For residents of Lowell Township and Vergennes Township, that means the Kent County Sherriff’s Department responds to calls for non-emergency service and the Kent County Road Commission clears the roads after a winter storm.

While low taxes are a nice perk of township life, Sheridan says that’s not the only benefit of living in these municipalities. “Surveys have shown that townships are considered one of the most trusted forms of government,” he says. “Residents know their leaders, and they trust that they’ll make decisions with the township’s best interest in mind.”

Cities: Higher Taxes, Comprehensive Services

There are 279 cities belonging to the Michigan Municipal League (MML), an organization representing both the state’s cities and villages. Cities in the state range in size from Omer, located near Saginaw Bay and home to less than 300 residents, to Detroit which has approximately 670,000 residents according to 2019 Census Bureau data.

“Most cities have a council and a city manager, where the manager runs the day-to-day [operations] and the council enacts policy decisions,” explains Mike Burns, city manager for the City of Lowell.

While the power of townships is limited to those granted by the state, most cities are home rule municipalities. That means they have broad powers to set their own charter and ordinances. “The most local control you can have in a community is a city,” Burns says.

Services vary by community, but cities are typically associated with offering a full range of amenities. For instance, the City of Lowell has a police department, water and sewer facilities, department of public works and municipal electric utility. It also maintains a network of parks, public sidewalks, and a library building.

“If I’m in a city that offers those services, that’s a huge convenience,” says Shanna Draheim, director of policy research labs for MML. Even the layout of many cities is designed with convenience in mind. “Often, cities are formed around a downtown or Main Street,” according to Draheim.

However, services and convenience come at a cost. “We could not operate on 1 mill like Lowell Township or Vergennes,” Burns says. While he understands some people may not like paying higher taxes in a city, there are benefits. “When the snow flies, you know you’re in the City of Lowell because the roads are plowed.”

Those who live outside the city may have a lower millage rate, but they could be paying for services in other ways, Draheim says. “You have to add up the full cost of your daily life.” Living in a city goes beyond services though and includes the quality of life that comes from living in what is often a walkable community with a distinct identity. Draheim explains, “There’s a quality of life that people identify with.”

Blurring the Lines in Lowell

There are no longer gates marking the entrance of the City of Lowell, and it’s not always clear to visitors – and even some residents – where the townships end and the city begins. This is particularly true on the west end of town where development in Lowell Charter Township has been concentrated in recent years.

The light at Main Street and Bowes Road/Alden Nash Ave. is the dividing line on the west end of the city. Meijer and Walgreens are in Lowell Charter Township while Mercantile Bank and Metro Health are in the city. From there, head north about a half mile on Alden Nash, and you’ll find yourself in Vergennes Township.

However, it isn’t just physical boundaries that can be confusing. As the townships have grown, city services have begun extending beyond the borders. Lowell Charter Township owns capacity in the city’s wastewater facility and is a wholesale purchaser of water from the city’s plant. That means some township residents, particularly in new subdivisions, receive city water and sewer services. They may also get their electricity from Lowell Light & Power.

While the townships continue to add new residents and businesses, the City of Lowell is largely built-out with little room to grow. This has put local leaders in a quandary about how to pay for services in the future. City tax revenue doesn’t grow along with the townships, but a growing township population may rely on city services such as parks and the library.

Currently, the City of Lowell and Lowell Charter Township are trying to determine what to do with a wastewater facility that is nearing capacity as new subdivisions join the system. The solution may be to create an authority with shared ownership, such as what was done when the Lowell Area Fire Department was reorganized to its current form. Another option would be for the township to build its own facilities and provide services directly to its residents.

As a growing community, Lowell is more than any one municipality, and its future may be marked by increased collaboration between local governments. Still, even as services expand outside the city, local ordinances don’t cross city and township boundaries.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about local zoning laws and how each municipality dictates what you can and cannot do on your property.

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