Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, November 28, 1993
STARK TOWNSHIPS BREAK RURAL MOLD
PLAIN, JACKSON AND PERRY ARE AMONG THE 10 MOST POPULOUS IN OHIO -- AND THE STATE HAS 1,317 OF THEM
BY DAVID KNOX
Say "township" to most city dwellers and you conjure up visions of open fields dotted by farmhouses equipped with wells and septic tanks.
In other words, rural life.
But smile, pardner, if you say that about the "super townships" of northern Stark County.
"There's nothing rural about this place," said Michael Barath, who moved into Plain Township from Canton about three weeks ago.
His wife, Deby, who grew up in Canton, doesn't regret the move, either.
"I can't say I miss anything," she said, noting that her home -- which is about 40 years old -- is in the established Ridgedale subdivision and features city water and sanitary sewers.
"Everything is the same," she said. "It's just like living in Canton, except less stress."
The Baraths aren't alone in thinking they have it good.
Plain Township, with a population of 34,318, is the second-largest community in Stark County, according to the 1990 census. Only Canton, with 84,161 residents, is larger.
Plain isn't unique. It's one of three Stark townships that defy the rural description.
Jackson Township, to the west, is the third-largest community in the county, with a population of 31,774, edging out Massillon by about 1,000.
Not only does Jackson have large subdivisions, but it's also home to the largest commercial complex in the county -- the stores, restaurants and office buildings surrounding Belden Village Mall.
Perry Township, wedged between Canton and Massillon, has only slightly fewer residents -- 30,300. That's more than Alliance, North Canton or Louisville, the remaining three cities in the county.
These three townships are giants in the state of Ohio: They are among the 10 most populous of the state's 1,317 townships.
The growth of the northern townships and the refusal of their voters to incorporate as cities have resulted in a dramatic shift in the political balance of power in Stark County.
Today, six out of every 10 registered voters live in townships or villages. That contrasts sharply with most large Ohio counties.
In Summit County, for example, more than 73 percent of all voters are city dwellers.
The shift in population has meant that township offices, while technically nonpartisan, are no longer minor posts.
A significant number of countywide officeholders got their start in politics in townships.
Two of the three county commissioners -- Donald R. Watkins of Plain and Gayle A. Jackson of Perry -- were trustees.
Family Court Judge John R. Hoffman was a Jackson trustee. Another county judge, John W. Wise, was clerk of Plain Township. Richard J. Kubilus was a Plain trustee before becoming a Canton Municipal Court judge.
The growing clout of the townships hasn't been lost on the county's political leaders.
"Why do we go to the townships?" said Charles E. Brown, head of the county Republican Party. "It's where the votes are."
It's also where future candidates can be found.
"We spend a lot of time encouraging people to run for township trustees," Brown said. "It's a way for people to come into politics because they can make a difference."
The growing political importance of the townships is one thing on which Democrats and Republicans can agree.
"It's a breeding ground for all kinds of candidates -- judges, commissioners, prosecutors," said Roy Gutierrez, head of the county's Democratic Party. "I've got my best and brightest out in the townships."
But Gutierrez and Brown also agreed that township voters are somewhat different from their city cousins. For one thing, they tend to be less attached to political parties.
While registered Democrats make up the largest bloc of voters countywide, independents hold the edge in the townships, with nearly 35 percent of the voters not declaring a party affiliation. That compares to 34 percent for Democrats and 31 percent for Republicans.
Those numbers spell opportunities for the GOP, which traditionally is badly outnumbered in the cities by Democrats.
"In the city of Canton, the Democrats have 45 percent," Brown said.
Gutierrez said the Democrats have learned it's best to "downplay the party affiliation" in its campaign literature to appeal to independent-minded township voters.
"They don't want to think they're drones marching to the drum of a party," Gutierrez said. "That's the aura of township living."
But politics isn't the reason people are drawn to townships.
"People don't care about that," said Robert DeHoff, president of Prudential DeHoff Realtors and a major developer in the county. "They look at the neighborhood. They look at the schools."
DeHoff conceded that after living for a while in townships, many people find the simpler government attractive.
Unlike cities, with mayors, councils and other elected officials, townships have only four elected officials: three trustees and a clerk.
"I live in Jackson Township," said DeHoff, whose company has nearly 1,000 homes under development in Jackson, Plain and Lake townships. "I think things are working pretty well. I'm happy with it. Is more government better than less government?"
Township government certainly is cheaper.
Plain, with just 50 full-time employees, has a budget for 1993 of $7.8 million, including a fire department and its contract with the county sheriff for police protection.
Massillon, with about 4,000 fewer residents, spends $9.2 million for general fund operations and about $13 million for other departments, including the water and sewage treatment department and capital expenses.
To pay the additional overhead, cities can do something townships can't: pass an income tax.
"Generally, people around here want basic services and no more," said Perry Trustee Craig E. Chessler. "They don't want a lot of bureaucracy."
Perry voters rejected a proposal in 1991 to turn their township into the city of Perry Heights.
The main argument for converting was a negative one: fear that Massillon was gobbling up the township through annexation.
Townships, which were established to govern rural territories, cannot prevent a neighborhood from petitioning for annexation to a neighboring municipality.
But over the years, the Ohio legislature has gradually given more powers to townships, including the right to establish zoning boards, police departments and fire districts.
Since 1991, townships have been able to vote "home rule," allowing trustees to pass laws about such neighborhood concerns as barking dogs and curfews. Voters in Plain, Jackson and Perry have all approved home rule.
Despite the increased powers, townships remain decidedly second-class forms of government compared with cities.
"The township is a passive form of government," Chessler said. "Originally, this was a way to take care of rural areas until they grew enough to become incorporated. We're an agent of the county."
For some essential services, that arrangement has worked well. Stark County provides sanitary and storm sewers for many growing areas in the townships.
But getting safe drinking water remains a problem.
"City water" to the township comes from a variety of sources. Canton and North Canton have lines to the townships, but both charge a hefty premium. There also is a privately owned water company in Massillon, the Ohio Water Co., that supplies many homes in Perry Township.
Longtime Plain Trustee John B. Baker Jr. said North Canton and Canton are using water as "annexation bait" by balking at extending services.
"Of the annexations I know about, the only reason I'm aware of is water," he said.
Jackson Trustee Randy Gonzales said the townships are working with the county to establish a water district to eliminate their dependence on the cities. He said they also are lobbying the state legislature for a change in law to assess property owners for waterlines.
Gonzales said another problem facing such large townships as Jackson is their dependency on property taxes.
"I really believe that if Jackson could go to the voters with a sales tax -- a half percent or a quarter percent -- earmarked for safety forces, it would pass," Gonzales said. "We've got the second-largest fire department in the county."
While that idea might have appeal in Jackson, with its huge number of stores around Belden Village, drawing shoppers from all over the area, it probably wouldn't go over as well in the other townships.
Lower taxes are one of the things Michael Barath likes about living in Plain Township. "One of the first things I did was notify the city I wasn't paying their income tax anymore," said Barath, who works at the county's Whipple-Dale workshop for the retarded in Plain Township.
But for the Baraths, the biggest appeal of township life isn't that it's cheaper. It's the sense of neighborliness and security
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