Townships are a prominent part of Michigan’s system of local government. Local governments are sometimes called political subdivisions of the state because all local governments are, in a very real legal sense, "creatures of the state.” The Michigan Constitution and state laws provide for the authorities and responsibilities of Michigan’s counties, cities, villages and townships.
Townships govern the 96% of Michigan’s land area outside of cities. Villages are political subdivisions as well, but their territory remains part of the township in which the village is located, and the two governmental entities share responsibility for governmental functions within the village boundaries.
Michigan’s system of local government is sometimes described as "confusing,” "overlapping,” and "redundant,” but the existence of townships actually provides a degree of simplicity and cohesiveness that other, non-township states lack. In states that do not have township government, a much more complex system of special purpose districts must be created to deliver the services that township government provides in Michigan.
Some government functions are shared in a coordinated manner between counties and local governments. For example, counties perform parts of the property tax assessing, tax collection and election functions, while townships carry out other aspects of these functions. This division of responsibilities provides a system of checks and balances.
While township government predates Michigan statehood, township government form and functions have evolved to meet ever-evolving state needs. The U.S. Bureau of the Census offers this succinct definition of Michigan townships:
There are 1,123 townships and 117 charter townships which are all actively functioning governmental units. Townships are the original units of government formed in the state. Typically, though not always, townships are 36 square miles in size. Each township is governed by a board of trustees consisting of the township supervisor, township clerk, township treasurer, and two or four elected trustees. The entire state is covered by township governments except for areas within cities.
Michigan’s oldest townships developed in Monroe County, where French settlers established the earliest communities. Those townships were later ratified and a number of other townships first established by the Legislative Council of the Territory of Michigan in 1827—10 years before Michigan became a state—in an Act that organized townships in:
Oakland (Oakland, Troy, Bloomfield, Farmington, and Pontiac Townships),
Monroe (Monroe, Raisinville, Erie, and Port Lawrence Townships),
Lenawee (Tecumseh, Logan, Blissfield, and St. Joseph Townships),
St. Clair (Cottrellville, Sinclair, and Desmond Townships),
Macomb (Harrison Township),
Washtenaw (Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Dexter Townships),
Wayne (Maguagon, Brownstown, Huron, Plymouth, Bucklin, Ecorse, Spring Wells, Detroit, and Hamtramck Townships),
Crawford (St. Anthony Township),
Menominee (Holmes Township) and
Chippewa Counties (St. Marie Township), along with
Green Bay Township in Brown County, which is now in Wisconsin.
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