Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Before Rockville merged with Pleasant Lake and Rockville Township to become the City of Rockville about six years ago, its residents were governed by Rockville Township. That entity no longer exists. At the time, Mike Loesch, whose family has had ties with Rockville Township dating back to 1858, remembers hearing the leaders of the consolidation effort say that the merge would benefit residents by giving them better service and a more efficient way of doing business. He hasn't seen either happen. Since then, Mike, Gene Merten, and other dissatisfied rural residents talked among themselves about how they could return to a township form of government. Gene approached Supervisor John Wicker of bordering Maine Prairie Township, asking for his help in their efforts to detach from the city and annex to the township. They represented 43 households in Sections 31 through 36, approximately 118 Rockville residents who comprise 4.5 percent of the population. Rockville occupies 36 square miles, geographically one of the biggest cities in Minnesota. The petitioners' properties make up one-sixth of that area. Mike Loesch's circumstances are unique in that he is presently a Maine Prairie resident who is also taxed by the City of Rockville for 120 of his farm acres. Supervisor Wicker brought the request to the monthly town board meeting. Supervisors agreed that it should be the residents of the township, not the supervisors, who said yes or no to the proposed plan. However, the township would first need to review the roads and tax base involved before they could present it to voters at the annual meeting. Gene Merten, a Rockville resident for 40 years, said that when the determined Rockville residents first kicked their plan into motion, they didn't know exactly what they were doing. "Our first petition wasn't documented right," he says. They obtained legal counsel who set them on the right track that enabled them to resubmit the petition to the state. Of 85 land parcels, 84 landowners supported their efforts by signing the petition. "Better than 98 percent support," Mike Loesch points out. The petition was submitted, under State Statute 414.06, to the State's Office of Administrative Hearings. Christine Scotillo, Executive Director of the Municipal Boundary Adjustment, a division of that office, is handling the proceedings. In its 49-year history, the office has handled 454 requests for detachment, including Rockville's, but it's uncommon that petitions cover an area this large. The State office mandated that officials from the two involved entities meet three times before April 22 to hammer out boundary details and tax issues associated with the detachment. Two meetings have been held so far. Supervisor Wicker describes them as cordial. On the second Tuesday in March every year, Maine Prairie residents are encouraged to attend their annual meeting. At this year's meeting on March 11, one of the agenda items voters were to consider was Rockville's request. Since the supervisors hadn't been able to gather sufficient information on the important issue affecting their Rockville neighbors, they chose to reconvene on April 15, an unprecedented move. "We should be able to give a nearer figure at the meeting," Wicker says. Supervisors Wicker, Dennis Loewen and Jim Unterberger hope that residents will mark April 15 on their calendars as a reminder to attend the reconvened meeting. This grassroots form of government gives a great deal of power to its residents who determine such matters as what their tax levy will be for the year. If voters give their approval in support of the annexation, its supervisors will take those results, an official nod to proceed, to their third and last meeting with the City of Rockville the next day. However, if a majority says no, Mike Loesch says it'll make it a bit more difficult to have their petition approved. "We're too far into this process," he says. "I believe strongly in this or I would not have put so much effort into it if I didn't feel we had a fighting chance." With their potential yes vote, residents must also be willing to assume some cost risk if the process doesn't go smoothly. "But I don't even want to throw a figure at it now," Wicker says. "A lot depends on how smoothly the process goes." What exactly is at stake in these very unusual proceedings? For Maine Prairie Township, it's 8 miles of road to maintain, along with growing their tax base. But Supervisor Wicker explains, "It's a rural area, largely agricultural, and the residents feel they would be better served by a town government rather than a city government." He adds, "There is nothing there to designate it a high growth area that it should remain in a city." And for the Rockville rural residents what's at stake? Mike Loesch answers, "Our petition is all about how we want to be governed." Gene Merten says, "We're quite a ways from the heart of Rockville. We feel we should be covered by a township. There is no reason to belong to a city. They will never be able to extend city services (to us)." He points out that some of the petitioning residents are four or five miles from Rockville, and some are just as close to Kimball as they are to Rockville. "That's why it's a perfect fit for Maine Prairie Township," Supervisor Wicker says. "Many of the roads fit well with Maine Prairie Township; it fits their boundaries as well." John Wicker says the supervisors want to provide as much information as possible. Fact sheets will be handed out at the meeting before a vote is taken. He's invited residents to call and ask questions, but so far, no one has approached him. Because of a family commitment, Supervisor Wicker will be unable to attend the meeting. He shares this view so that voters know where he stands on the issue. "Knowing what I know today, it will be a win for the people of Maine Prairie, a good move for the people. It's a long-term way to expand our tax base." Mike Loesch expresses a similar view. "It should be viable for the township to have our assets," he says, "and that means voting or buying power, five to ten years down the road." "If 100 percent of the people want to do something, I don't think it should be denied," says Gene Merten.