Naperville Township could forgo levying property taxes for its road fund for two years and still cover the routine annual costs of running the department with money left in reserve.
But the township's highway commissioner said there's a perfectly reasonable explanation why his reserves are more than double his annual operating costs.
"We're supposed to be widening North Aurora Road from four lanes to five, and that would entail rebuilding the (Canadian National Railway) bridge," Naperville Township Highway Commissioner Stan Wojtasiak said. "We're looking at turning a shovel in 2017 or possibly 2018, and the last figure I was given for our share of the costs was $3.3 million."
Naperville isn't the only suburban township road district with plenty in reserves, but it does have the widest percentage of reserves to annual expenses -- more than 206 percent in 2015. Wheatland Township in Will County has 197 percent of its operating funds in reserve, and Palatine Township in Cook County has 190 percent, a Daily Herald analysis of 40 suburban township road district financial reports shows.
But with more than $3.7 million in reserves and averaging $1.6 million in operating costs over the past three years, the Naperville Township Highway Department is above the maximum recommended reserve level of double the amount of average annual expenses, according to a "Laws & Duties Handbook" sold by Township Officials of Illinois.
"Court cases have allowed only about 200 percent of the average expenses over last three years," the handbook reads. "However, this amount may be hard to justify."
Now, Wojtasiak finds himself under pressure from his fellow township officials to cede authority of the 49.3 lane miles of road under his department's purview to the city of Naperville, where officials contend they can do the work for about half the cost and reduce taxes. Wojtasiak spent $1.8 million in 2015, about a quarter of that on personnel. Lane miles are the total length of lanes of roads that must be maintained.
City administrators say they could do the road district's work for about $1 million annually, but Wojtasiak and his supporters claim the city is cutting costs by reducing services.
The outcome of the power struggle could be a bellwether for other local township road departments as the push to consolidate government services throughout the state gains steam.
While the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity recommends keeping six months of operating expenses in reserve, the Daily Herald analysis shows 31 of 40 road districts exceed that and eight road districts have at least a year's worth of operating costs in reserve.
In all, the 40 suburban township road districts combined to spend more than $66.7 million while ending the year with almost $43 million in reserves, or 66 percent of annual operating costs, according to the analysis.
Only Cuba Township ended the year with a negative road district reserve balance, something that Township Supervisor Dave Nelson chalked up to quirks in reporting payments made by many of the municipalities that contract with the township for road maintenance.
Suburban township road districts have become an easy target of proponents of government consolidation because of the few miles maintained by many townships. Among the 40 townships in the analysis, the mileage maintained by the road districts ranges from 193 lane miles in McHenry Township to nine in Elk Grove Township, and it's often a patchwork of semirural, rarely traveled streets.
A 2014 report on transportation funding by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning suggested savings are likely through municipal takeovers of township road district operations.
"Township roads in largely urbanized townships could be maintained by adjacent municipalities through formal agreements or, in some areas, by annexation of unincorporated land by municipalities," the report stated.
Naperville Township Supervisor Rachel Ossyra supports the city's takeover of the township's road program because of the savings the city promises. She acknowledges it might have been politically easier to slate a candidate next year for highway commissioner who was on board with the takeover plan rather than duke it out with Wojtasiak, who has said he plans to retire at the end of his term in 2017.
"The reason it's important to do the right thing now is because people are being taxed out of the homes," she said. "You can never get that money back once you levy it. When there's an opportunity to do the right thing, take that opportunity now and not when it's personally convenient for someone else."
For his part, Wojtasiak believes he has the will of the people on his side. Several residents of unincorporated areas have been vocal about their concerns that services like brush pickup, leaf collection and street sweeping will be reduced. But these are services that all Naperville Township taxpayers pay for, not just those living in unincorporated areas, proponents of the city takeover point out.
Wojtasiak remains unconvinced the city can do what it promises. He complained that the city, which faced an $8.2 million budget deficit last year and instituted a 0.5 percent home-rule sales tax, hasn't been as mindful of its finances as his department.
"I have a balanced budget and no debt," he said. "How can I turn it over to them when they haven't done the same?"