During the 1800s, a still rural state of Illinois let counties establish townships that were designed for residents to administer government services on a localized scale. As the population grew, residents chose to create villages and cities, and the state gave these municipalities overriding control of services initially run by townships.
As townships services were ceded to municipalities, townships generated other services to justify their existence. These newly created services often replicated services being provided by other private and governmental entities. This approach exacerbated the ongoing property tax burden that Illinoisans face today.
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Illinois has more layers of taxing bodies than almost any state in the country. Township government is yet another layer. All of government is facing fiscal crisis, and dialogue has heated up about duplication of services by various taxing bodies. Springfield is looking at legislative solutions to consolidate layers of government, and townships are at the top of the list.
I was elected Avon Township supervisor two years ago on a slate committed to lowering tax levies and reducing salaries to elected township officials. We have reduced levies by nearly 8 percent and returned our elected official salary increases.
I realize our efforts to reform government and lower property taxes are beyond the township's control. Illinois' statute governing townships has gone virtually unchanged since its inception in 1850. The elected offices within township government have practically no mandated functions, have no checks and balances with each other, and each board of trustees has little statutory authority.
Today, many residents have no idea what townships do let alone that they live in a township. The world has changed and townships haven't. What worked on the open prairie is no longer relevant in counties with bustling populations.
Township road districts are relevant in rural areas but not in populated areas. Avon Township is responsible for only 11.7 miles of road yet is mandated by law to have and finance a highway commission even when these roads could be more cost effectively maintained by the county.
The current system is neither fair nor efficient for the taxpayers. The township model no longer works. State law makes it nearly impossible for the residents to determine what portions of the township they want to keep, if any. It's time to change this law. Voters must decide what is best.
Major obstacles to reform have come from The Township Officials of Illinois, the lobbying group that uses taxpayer money to represent townships. They have made it their mantra to protect an antiquated system over embracing reform. TOI represents nearly 11,500 elected township officials that earn about $250 billion per year and opposes any legislation that would dismantle their fiefdoms, regardless of how reasonable the legislation.
It's time for TOI to realize that defending an outdated system is hurting already burdened taxpayers. As the debate heats up, township officials will be defending their existence instead of reform. I call upon all elected township officials to join me for the greater good, to support reform, and to begin the fight to reduce property taxes for all our constituents.
• Sam Yingling is supervisor of Avon Township in northern Lake County.