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posted: 10/16/2016 7:12 AM

Wheeling Township voters could be first to eliminate roads commissioner

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Wheeling Township could be the first in Cook County to eliminate its highway road commissioner, as voters will decide the job's fate on Nov. 8.

If the initiative passes, the responsibility to maintain 5.4 miles of unincorporated roadway will fall to the township board, according to Jo Stellato, director of finance and administration.

The taxes to do that roadwork would still be collected, so the only cost savings would be in eliminating the highway commissioner post.

Wheeling Township does not have a garage, crew or equipment, so all the work done to those 5.4 miles of road is already contracted out -- which would continue.

Stickney Township in southwest Cook County proposed eliminating its road commissioner in 2012. The proposal failed by 24 votes.

The Wheeling Township referendum nearly didn't even make the ballot.

It came up at the June meeting, where township trustees Michael Domrzalski and Robert Hoban asked why they were even discussing it since the referendum came up internally, not from residents.

They asked for the vote to be tabled until they got numbers on how much money would be saved, but the vote was held over their objections.

According to the minutes, Hoban and Domrzalski voted against putting it on the ballot; trustees Ruth O'Connell and JoAnn Schultz voted for it and Township Supervisor Kathy Penner broke the tie in favor.

Penner did not return calls asking for comment. All the township public officials are Republican.

The current highway commissioner, Scott Saewert, says township residents would lose a level of independent oversight without a separate entity handling the roads district.

Saewert has been the highway commissioner since 2001, elected every four years. The roads district was created when the township was, in 1856.

"Taxes won't be eliminated; no one is going to be saving money," Saewert argued, suggesting the referendum is a money and power grab by other township officials.

"With me being personally elected, I feel I am accountable and I try to maximize the tax money we have," he added.

"With it rolled into the township, it will become invisible and you won't know what's happening with the money."

Last year, the Wheeling Township roads district levy brought in about $780,000 in taxes, Saewert said. He said whatever money is unused -- about half, Saewert said -- goes to the municipalities in the township.

Saewert, his administrative assistant and deputy would all likely lose their part-time jobs, which he said combined costs the township less than $31,000.

"Consolidation is a great thing, but there are reasons why we have certain things in government," he said. "Once this passes, it's gone forever."

If it passes, the roads district would cease to exist starting Jan. 1, 2017.

If the referendum fails, Saewert says he'll still be able to get along with the township officials who tried to oust him.

"We've always had good relationships. We've always gotten through things," he said. "It's healthy to have disagreements."

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