Townships are feeling the heat.
Increasingly, these often-obscure units of local government—which were spawned in Illinois during the 19th century—are coming under fire from critics and lawmakers who dispute the need for having 1,435 taxpayer-supported townships in 85 of 102 state counties.
A buzz is building against townships in the current General Assembly, so look for some streamlining legislation to come down the pike this spring session.
The township critics’ objective is to pass a law that will pave a way toward getting rid of unnecessary townships or, at least, vastly reduce their number.
While not mentioning townships by name in his inaugural speech this January (see video), Senate President John Cullerton asserted that the time has come to “re-examine the need for so many units of local government that result in higher taxes and less efficiency.”
The BGA agrees that township government is ripe for reform.
In late 2009, a BGA investigation with ABC7 News uncovered startling inefficiencies and redundancies within the township governments.
The BGA, which favors streamlining Illinois government and making sure taxpayers get value from every tax dollar, continues to focus on township reform and is a resource for advocates in Springfield looking to appropriately curtail this local level of government.
There’s plenty to examine.
For starters, the boundary lines of townships are based on geography, not necessity or population centers. The lines, originally drawn to be 36 square-mile areas, were set long before cities expanded to include the areas they now occupy.
As a result, a single township can contain numerous cities whose own boundaries straddle both township and county lines.
Consider Northfield Township in Cook County.
That township contains parts of seven municipalities, each with their own governing bodies: Glenview, Northfield, Prospect Heights, Northbrook, Wilmette, Glencoe and Deerfield, according to the office of the Cook County Clerk.
Moreover, townships are permitted, but not required under law, to provide a hodge-podge of various services to residents.
The services a township may provide range from senior and public health services, to prohibiting animals from running at large, to providing fire protection. They can also purchase land and maintain roads in unincorporated areas.
As a result, townships levy taxes on their residents to pay for such services—services that critics say could often be efficiently absorbed into the county operations, which would likely make delivery more practical and less costly to taxpayers.
Redundancies don’t necessarily end there.
There’s already a county assessor, so why have separate township assessors or assistant assessors?
Roads get plowed and maintained by overlapping municipalities or the state, so why do the township road crews do it too?
And general aid and assistance to the poor is handled by a plethora of government-supported human services agencies, so what exclusive support role do townships perform?
What’s more, township taxes also pay for the salaries and pensions of the township’s elected officials.
Elected officials in township government usually include a supervisor, highway commissioner, assessor, and four trustees who make up the township board. Townships also employ clerks, deputy level commissioners and assessor, and other support staff.
That is, at least, seven salaried elected officers per township, plus salaried department staff.
Which begs the question: Is the township delivering services that a city, county or state could not?
For many residents the answer is “No.”
Yet, even if outraged voters wanted to rid themselves of an unwanted township, the task would prove to be almost impossible.
Under state law, voters cannot vote to dissolve their own township. In order for a township to end, or “discontinue,” every other township in that county must also vote via referendum to discontinue it.
That means even in townships where residents want to eliminate the organization, they must act collectively by getting 10 percent of voters in every township in the county to sign a petition to get the issue on the ballot as a referendum in the next general election.
This is an unreasonable standard.
In cases where residents of townships have seen first-hand the waste, inefficiency, and redundancy of township government, they should be able to use an easier referendum vote to purge all or parts of townships that are no longer adding value.
There are Township Supervisors, like Sam Yingling of Avon Township in Lake County, who want reform. In fact, Yingling is a rare township employee—he’s actually advocating for the elimination of his own job by calling on state lawmakers to make it easier for a township to discontinue itself.
Even with such reform, communities that are being well served by their township government can choose to keep it. But those who wish to discontinue their township and streamline the layers of government in Illinois can also do so.
Altering the township landscape in Illinois won’t be an easy task.
Advocates for townships argue these government entities provide an important link between citizens and their government, particularly in rural areas where city and county governments may not be as easily accessible to residents.
In Illinois, the first township was formed in 1850. The past 161 years have changed the make up of Illinois; population centers have formed and the cities of Illinois have sprung up without regard to township lines.
It’s time for a closer look.
The people have a right to determine if a township still serves an important purpose or if it is a superfluous and costly relic of the past.