Small towns adapt to digital world
Mar 30, 2012 (St. Cloud Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As more aspects of daily life move online, government entities are taking their information to the Internet in an effort to be more accessible to residents. While some area cities are moving on to second or third generations of their websites, some area townships have only recently gone digital.
Farming and Munson townships started websites in the last year, putting basic information such as agendas and minutes on their sites for the public to see.
" (The vendor's) program is real simple. It's easy for me to put information on," said Judy Bruemmer, Farming Township clerk. "It doesn't take long at all to do it. I was kind of amazed ... I'm not that savvy with that stuff."
Startup costs are generally less than $2,000, including software, a domain name and sometimes tech support in setting up the site. Costs vary depending on how extensive the site is and how much technical support is needed.
For Farming Township, the cost was less than $2,000 for initial setup and then a small annual fee will be needed to maintain the domain name.
The township used to publish a newsletter twice a year, but now that information is instead distributed on the website, saving money on preparation and postage.
The website had more than 500 hits even before official word got out during the township's most recent annual meeting. It's the way people are checking out information now, Bruemmer said.
The township's site is among the more robust in its class. In addition to government data, it includes information about area organizations, community stores, associations and civic clubs.
The transition isn't always an easy one. Michelle Hemmesch is still learning how to maintain Munson Township's website.
"It's a little difficult," she said. "I'm just not used to it yet."
Residents called for a website at the 2011 annual meeting, but she hasn't heard much reaction to it so far. The township ended up spending about $1,000.
Munson and Farming Township will continue to post information in paper form at their designated posting sites.
"It's just another addition for people to have," Hemmesch said. "It will help with people obtaining minutes, permits and renting the town hall."
Karolyn Boucher of Clearwater has helped seven townships in Central and northern Minnesota set up websites. She also provides training, but townships are responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the sites.
"There's a wide variety of looks," she said. Many are operated through GovOffice, a company that creates websites for government entities.
"There's a lot of software out there that's really, really easy to use," Boucher said.
Semi-retired, Boucher only takes on a small number of sites each year as a side project. She continues the work because she's seen how well websites can serve townships.
"It's just one of the easiest ways to get information out to a township, because of the limited budget," she said. Her home township of Lynden has had a site for five years, with 80,000 hits in that time. The population is only a little more than 1,000 people.
For some townships, the move to a website might be hindered by technology limits or by the fear that it would take too much time to maintain. The issue hasn't risen in St. Joseph Township, Clerk Anna Reischel said. The township will continue to use paper postings at three locations.
Other townships have maintained sites for years. Collegeville Township's website dates back more than five years.
Clerk Joe Pohl is able to track unique visitors over a 60-day period. In that period, the home page was visited 1,160 times from almost 350 unique Internet addresses. Agendas, minutes and public notices are the most popular pages.
The township still has newsletters once or twice a year, and an occasional postcard reminder of events such as a cleanup day or an election. Last month, the township started publishing documents as PDFs.
And Pohl wants people know they can get forms online, including applications for construction permits or variance requests. They can go to the website instead of showing up at the town hall.
"We always remind people at our annual meeting that it is available," Pohl said.
Hosting companies such as GovOffice can make the sites basic or highly designed, with multiple features that can be turned on or off depending on the township's needs, Pohl said.
"It's very, very simple and really intuitive," he said.
Wakefield Township has had a website for three or four years, Clerk Heidi Stalboerger said.
"At first it was kind of slow to take off. People didn't realize that we had it," she said. "Now I think it's a good tool for us to use if we're interested in getting information to the public."
The site has provided better visibility as well. Stalboerger has heard from people outside the township who found contact information through the site.
"It just makes us easier to find," she said.
One resident recommended the township map be put up online so people can know what roads officials are talking about in meetings.
The website also has cut down on the number of places where he posts general announcements. One, a posting box several miles from the town hall was eliminated because it never got used. "It's more convenient by putting on the website," he said.
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