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updated: 3/7/2012 8:07 PM

Township model still needs critical eye

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It should come as no surprise that a study commissioned by the Township Officials of Illinois association has determined that townships are the most efficient means of providing services to local residents. But the survey reported by the Daily Herald's Jake Griffin this week shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

It makes some interesting observations -- most notably that townships are able to contain the costs of many services because they rely so much on nonunion, part-time labor that other municipalities cannot or do not tap into. Townships also provide social services in some communities that residents might not get otherwise, the report notes. And it emphasizes that townships operate virtually without debt. All are intriguing observations that need to be factored into any discussion about efficiency in government. The trouble is that it's hard to take these assessments very far, either in the context of common sense or in the context of competing studies that have come to very different conclusions.

If it's true, for example, as the association claims, that townships are inherently capable of providing recreation services to towns like Lake Villa more cheaply than those towns can provide, one has to wonder why towns like Arlington Heights, Libertyville, Naperville and dozens of other communities across the suburbs are providing the services rather than letting that duty fall to townships.

Similar questions arise regarding senior citizen services, youth services, transportation, tax assistance, road work and a wide and diverse hodgepodge of duties that the state's 1,400-plus townships have variously come to take on. It may well be, as the association would contend, that townships are stepping in to fill a need that would otherwise go unserved. But it also may well be, as critics including David K. Hamilton, the author of a 2008 Roosevelt University study, contend, that townships are justifying their existence by undertaking services that local communities, especially in the sprawling suburbs, could absorb.

The association report also emphasizes the comparatively small financial commitment townships require from tax payers, claiming that it amounts to only about 2 percent of a typical tax bill. But the question, of course, is whether that 2 percent is necessary or whether it at least might be reduced to, say, 1 percent. The Roosevelt study found that Cook County townships alone spent a total of $82 million in 2006. If that figure could be eliminated or reduced even by half, most citizens likely would consider that a substantial improvement. As University of Chicago government professor Christopher Berry told Griffin, "Whether (the amount townships cost) is a small share is irrelevant; it's whether it's a necessary share."

The township model certainly may have some valuable things to teach us about how to manage public affairs efficiently, but the key conclusion to draw from the township association's report isn't that this layer of government is indispensable, it's that the entire system still needs to be carefully and critically examined.

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