Township Debate Lingers In Illinois

Nov 30, 2012

Credit WNIJ

A state advisory panel is gathering information about the layers of local government in Illinois. The commission’s goal is to see where services are duplicated, and make recommendations on how to create efficiencies. The effort is expected to renew the debate over the role of township government.

Illinois leads the nation with nearly 7,000 units of local government. That statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau is often cited by those who want to reduce the number of smaller taxing bodies. Things like mosquito abatement districts often come up in these conversations. Another target: township governments. Recent efforts to eliminate some of these units have been unsuccessful.

Now, the Local Government Consolidation Commission is trying to see where taxpayer savings can be found. The panel is a mix of lawmakers and those representing smaller governments. It was authorized last year, but the effort has been slow to get off the ground.

State Senator Linda Holmes of Plainfield sits on the commission. She says they’re in the exploratory stage of determining just how many of these units are necessary, and what might be the best way to streamline services.

Holmes says agencies that oversee townships will be a key focus. But she’s hoping for a careful approach.

“I’m never sure that there is a one-size-fits-all solution in a state as diverse as Illinois is. We’ve got a major city like Chicago, and then we have many small towns and villages, and Illinois is basically an agricultural state. So I don’t wanna go in there and say that what’s gonna work in the city, is gonna work in the suburbs is also going to work in a small farming community,” Holmes said.

Holmes says besides the usual road maintenance and property tax assessments, services offered by township government can vary. Some of them offer Meals-on-Wheels. Others do things like immunization clinics.

DeKalb Township Supervisor Eric Johnson isn’t shy about touting the work performed by his office and other township governments around the state.

“I, personally, have been working with our statewide association and working with the General Assembly to help dispel some of the township myths: that we are a duplicate layer of government, that we are a wasteful layer of government,” Johnson said.

Johnson says DeKalb Township is starting to do more in the way of social programs. He admits some of that work could be picked up by a larger agency. But he questions whether it would be cost-effective for DeKalb County to absorb a mandatory township function, such as road maintenance.

“In DeKalb County alone, there’s about 800 miles of township roads, compared to only 200 miles that the county currently maintains. If townships were to go away, you’re gonna take the county from 200 miles of road to a thousand miles of road,” Johnson said.

Asked about that scenario, the DeKalb County Highway Department agreed that it could open the door to added costs. For example, the department says when planning for snow removal, it would either have to hire township crews or find contractors. Either way, the department doubts it would lead to savings for taxpayers.

But others say while some communities around the state rely heavily on township government, the larger discussion on reform needs to happen.

Last year, the Better Government Association issued a report that called into question the effectiveness of township government.

The Association’s Robert Reed was involved with the report, which looked at 20 townships in suburban Cook County. He says one thing that stood out was that these offices were sitting on a healthy supply of cash reserves. Reed says it amounted to $87 million in cash on about $77 million in debts.

“Some people think that’s great, stellar budgetary management. But we would argue that’s too much money in the hands of government, and would be better off deployed in the hands of taxpayers,” Reed said.

Township officials argue that having money in reserves comes in handy when a necessary project suddenly comes up.

Meanwhile, Reed downplays the effect of taking away certain social programs, and putting them into the hands of a larger agency.

“There are people who benefit from the townships, but there aren’t enough people who benefit. There are more people paying into the township, who don’t benefit from it,” Reed said.

And while his organization is calling for state lawmakers to take a serious look at township government, Reed isn’t optimistic that changes will be made anytime soon. He says township officials have a strong lobbying presence in Springfield. Reed also questions whether lawmakers would have a desire to act on the commission’s recommendations, when they eventually receive them.