Property values plummeted on average more than 20 percent from 2009 to 2012 across 50 suburban townships.
Meanwhile, leaders of 36 of those townships increased property tax collections during those same years.
And some of the 14 townships that cut property tax collections did so because leaders said they had too much money.
"We wanted to deplete a couple funds that got a little heavy," said Wauconda Township Supervisor Glenn Swanson.
Swanson's township cut what it gets in property taxes by nearly $500,000 in 2012 compared to 2009, going from about $2.4 million in property tax revenue to about $1.9 million, according to property tax extension data from the Lake County clerk's website. The reduction saved homeowners an average of $20 to $30 on their property tax bills, Swanson estimated.
Yet critics argue many of the reductions to township reserves haven't gone far enough. They say township leaders who continue to increase taxes are doing so to fund initiatives and programs that are beyond their purview.
"Townships are a really interesting layer of local government that many people would argue is unnecessary," said Brian Costin, director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending.
"Some might say it's redundant to have this third layer of local government that may creep and drift past what I see as the three purposes of townships and what state law says they're supposed to do."
Costin said state law outlines that township governments maintain unincorporated roads, assess properties and provide emergency financial assistance to low-income residents.
However, that same law doesn't stop those units of government from taking on additional responsibilities that can cost taxpayers extra.
Maine Township Supervisor Carol Teschky said the 13.9 percent hike in property taxes comes from having a township code enforcement officer and an emergency management office. It was the largest increase among the 50 suburban townships analyzed and amounted to nearly $1 million more in property taxes for the township in 2012 than what was collected in 2009, according to data from the Cook County clerk's website.
Meanwhile, the value of property in the township dropped nearly 21 percent, meaning property owners shouldered a bigger burden.
"We're a big deal here," Teschky said. "We're one of three townships that has an office of emergency management because we are typically the one hit hardest by flooding."
She said the township hires a code enforcement officer because Cook County's code enforcement detail doesn't go far enough. Additionally, Teschky said the township's 2013 property tax levy didn't increase like in previous years.
"We have our reserves built up, and I thought it was a safe amount," she said.
Townships typically account for a small fraction of a person's property tax bill, which also funds government bodies like municipalities, counties, schools, libraries and parks.
Dundee Township taxpayers in Kane County experienced a 12.8 percent increase in township property taxes between 2009 and 2012, according to tax extension data on the Kane County clerk's website.
Township Supervisor Sue Harney attributes that to debt payments from an $18 million voter-approved tax hike in 1997 that paid for 862 acres of open space.
"More than half of the tax levy is for those bonds," she said. "When it's paid off in 2016, taxes will decrease. Believe me, I'm going to be shouting that from the rooftops."
Meanwhile, the value of taxable property in Dundee Township dropped 20 percent.
While voters approved the borrowing to preserve open space, Costin argued that the township wasn't the proper agency to handle the land deal.
"I would argue that when you see a township getting involved in preserving open space, especially in a county that has a forest preserve and park districts, it ends up costing taxpayers more," he said. "If it's not within your primary mission, you should hold off making purchases."
Most townships collect property taxes for three funds: township operations, general assistance, and roads and bridges. Until a recent court decision that limited township reserve funds to no more than 2½ years of annual operating costs, townships could sock away as much money as they wanted.
Costin called 30 months of operational costs "really excessive."
Even Township Officials of Illinois Executive Director Bryan Smith said the "rule of thumb is no more than six months."
Excessive reserves is the main reason many township boards decreased property taxes from 2009 to 2012. But taxpayers shouldn't expect that trend to last.
"We didn't change the budget, we just levied less," said Lisle Township Supervisor Rick Tarulis.
"We aimed to have six months in the bank."
Tarulis said the nearly $900,000 dip was a one-time thing and in 2013, the amount of property taxes collected by the township increased once again.
"It was disappointing," he said. "But only one person called. Nobody noticed."