Small cities experience urban sprawl; quality of life requires accommodation


The city of Kerkhoven purchased a new ambulance a couple of years back. So far, two of the townships served by the ambulance and community rescue squad have stepped forward to help pay for the life-saving equipment.

While the community is to be commended, there is still a downside to this story that is all too familiar to small cities all across rural Minnesota. Six other townships served by the ambulance haven’t, as yet, decided to help pay for the vehicle.

This is a sensitive issue throughout rural areas of the state, said Dave Engstrom, Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities. “Can we keep asking taxpayers living in a city to keep paying for services for the surrounding community,” he asked?

The issue is important because of several measures currently before the Minnesota Legislature. One is an effort to reauthorize an ongoing committee to work on the always thorny problems involving municipal annexation. Another comes as the Legislature works on rural economic development proposals, including the Pawlenty administration’s proposed Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development (SEED). Any success the SEED might have in truly rural areas is likely to mean more development in townships that will need city-like services.

Two other converging factors also make resolving local cooperative action by governments important. One is the demographic reality that rural areas are becoming popular retirement locations for people on fixed incomes, and second, more rural housing is likely to come onto the market for non-farm families and retirees as a result of high farm commodity prices.

The latter is expected to cause another land rush. Expanding farmers will likely displace people currently living on the land. But unlike an earlier agricultural boom cycle in the 1970s, this new land rush will see people leaving modern farm homes that will be desirable housing for people wanting to enjoy life in the country.

This suburbanization of the countryside comes with a price and demand for local services. Police, fire, emergency and ambulance services are among the service demands.

Engstrom said many local townships with industrial developments recognize these needs and strike deals for local services with nearby cities. Hastings and surrounding Denmark Township, for instance, have such arrangements because of a ski resort development in the township.

Industrial developments, such as ethanol plants, are often built outside city limits for a host of environmental and traffic reasons. The plant at Benson, however, and its township have contracted with the city for services needed by the plant.

But at least one partly developed township close to the Twin Cities has stopped making voluntary payments to help cover county sheriff’s office patrol costs in its developed area, Engstrom said. “The thinking is the sheriff has to patrol the whole county anyway,” he said.

This is also a problem in some lake country communities where people are buying year around lake homes and simply expect the county to provide city-like police protection in their rural and resort areas.

In some cases, it is simply a matter of thinking about being part of a larger community with modern needs. A report in the Feb. 27 Kerkhoven Banner notes that city clerk Mona Doering briefed the city council on efforts to get financial help from area townships to help pay for the ambulance and some minor improvements to the fire hall.

Under existing agreements, townships and the city of Kerkhoven split the cost of fire trucks 50-50, she said. It strikes her that the same type of arrangement should apply for ambulances and health emergency equipment.

Such shifts in thinking about the new rural Minnesota aren’t just a matter of fairness. They are becoming urgent for communities to have a chance to adapt, grow and prosper.