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updated: 3/7/2012 1:15 AM

Township study gives high marks to townships

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Township government provides the most bang for a taxpayer's buck.

That's according to a study commissioned by Township Officials of Illinois, the lobbying arm of more than 1,400 township governments statewide.

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"The overwhelming conclusion is smaller governments save money," said Wendell Cox, the researcher who conducted the study. "The larger the government, the greater the expenditure on common core government services."

Cox said the data he used would back up the conclusions reached, no matter who did the study.

The report, released Tuesday, indicates that townships spend more frugally and borrow less frequently than other governments. This is possible because townships use part-time labor more frequently and full-time workers are rarely unionized, the study indicated. The report dismisses calls for consolidation with other governments, noting that often when governments merge services the operation with the highest personnel costs becomes the norm.

"Township government is best suited to follow the needs of the residents of the community," said Bryan Smith, executive director of the state township group.

Smith wouldn't say how much the study cost. While his organization is funded solely by dues paid with tax dollars from the state's townships, he said the agency is exempt from disclosing its expenditures. The group recently hired a public relations firm as well to help promote township government happenings across the state as legislators and the public have begun to scrutinize the usefulness of the township form of government, especially in urban areas.

The chief duties of townships are to provide road and bridge maintenance, property assessments and general assistance. Critics contend the nature of those services, unlike costlier governmental operations like public safety, are the reason costs are so low for townships. They also maintain the services could easily be taken by other governments. A 2008 report by David Hamilton of Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs argued township government "has outlived its usefulness."

Hamilton's report says taxpayers could be saved half of the $80 million spent by Illinois townships if they were eliminated.

"Township government was clearly developed for an 18th century rural society in which transportation was slow and difficult," Hamilton wrote in his report. "If townships were not already in existence, they would not be invented or necessary."

Township officials like Lake Villa Township Supervisor Dan Venturi said townships often provide services other forms of government can't or don't want to, like senior transportation and social services.

"That's a good example of where townships make a good impact," he said.

But Christopher Berry, a professor of government at the University of Chicago who wrote a book about the dysfunction of states with many layers of government, said taxpayers often don't know what townships do and that creates voter apathy. He also said township officials like to point to the relatively small percentage property tax burden -- about 1 percent to 2 percent in most cases -- that townships create to highlight the cost of their services.

"Whether it's a small share is irrelevant, it's whether it's a necessary share," Berry said.

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