Illinois just took one small step toward streamlining government sprawl.
Under the new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday, residents in individual townships in Cook County can now vote on whether to eliminate the office of highway commissioner – generally the township government post with the largest taxpayer-backed budgets.
Townships are a form of government that began in the 19th century, before population centers formed, and municipal and county lines were drawn.
As discussed on this blog before, townships can be necessary links between citizens and their government—particularly in rural areas where county and municipal governments cannot provide the community outreach needed to serve the needs of their citizens. But the role townships play in more urban areas—and whether that role is necessary—has been under attack and questioned by disgruntled taxpayers and growing number of lawmakers.
In townships, highway commissioners run the road district, and are responsible for caring for unincorporated roads not served by municipalities or counties.
However, townships with multiple municipalities located within its boundaries (with their own public works programs) have very little road to tend. Nonetheless, the costs of maintaining these roads can be very high.
For instance, the Northfield Township road district maintains only 19.8 miles of road but the road district is budgeted for $2.2 million in the 2011 to 2012 budget, with almost $1 million of that amount going toward worker salaries and benefits.
Under the new law, the board of trustees of a township in Cook County can submit a ballot measure giving voters the opportunity to eliminate the road district in that township. That ballot can appear in a general or consolidated election.
If a majority of voters say “yes”, the road district and the position of highway commissioner is eliminated as of the following January 1. The township board absorbs the duties of the highway commissioner, and can decide whether it wants to handle the duties of the highway commissioner itself, or if it should enter a contract with local municipalities and counties.
That means that if a township board decides to put the question on the ballot, taxpayers could be voting on the question as early as November 6, 2012.
With just over 1,400 townships in Illinois, beginning to streamline the townships of suburban Cook County is just a small step. But for Cook County residents who see their township road districts as inefficient and redundant government entities, this is a first step they will no doubt be eager to take.