Should Vernon Township voters eliminate highway district? Officials disagree

Vernon Township residents have the rare chance to jettison a layer of government this election.

Voters will be asked if the township road district - a small, independent government agency - should be abolished. The district's duties would be absorbed by the township starting in 2021.

The only real change, Township Supervisor Daniel Didech said, would be the elimination of the elected highway commissioner post and his salary and benefits, which total about $109,000 a year. Snow removal, road repairs and other services wouldn't be affected, Didech insists.

Highway Commissioner Michael Lofstrom opposes the plan. Although the board studied the possible effects of consolidation and heard public testimony about the proposal, Lofstrom said the panel has done no real financial analysis beyond looking at his pay and perks.

And no one knows if ditching his salary will create any real savings because officials haven't said if they'll rebate the money to taxpayers or spend it elsewhere.

New law allows move

Lake County has 15 township road districts that maintain mostly residential streets in unincorporated areas.

Vernon Township includes parts or all of Buffalo Grove, Vernon Hills, Lincolnshire, Long Grove, Lake Forest, Riverwoods, Mundelein, Indian Creek, Mettawa, Wheeling and Bannockburn, as well as unincorporated areas of Lake County. Its road district maintains about 13 miles of local roads.

The road district also has a contract to maintain less than 2 miles of roads in nearby West Deerfield Township. Payments totaled about $15,397 in 2017, but they vary annually based on projects and snow levels, officials said.

A 2017 change in state law allows Lake County voters to eliminate road districts. Residents in Cook County's Wheeling Township voted to eliminate their highway commissioner in 2016.

Didech said Vernon Township officials started talking about absorbing the district's duties last fall. The highway commissioner "is a very unaccountable position" because of the lack of oversight, Didech said.

"That is not a responsible way to run a government," Didech said.

Lofstrom disagreed.

"I'm responsive because I'm elected," Lofstrom said, adding that cutting his job would be undemocratic.

Lofstrom isn't the plan's only critic. West Deerfield Township Supervisor Alyson Feiger opposes consolidation and has publicly praised the district staff's professionalism and performance.

What's the impact?

If approved Nov. 6, the move would be effective when Lofstrom's term ends in May 2021. A township employee would oversee the highway department.

Services wouldn't be affected, Didech said.

"If you're a resident, we don't think this will make any change in your life," said Didech, who is running for the state House this fall.

Lofstrom collects a $93,844 annual salary. He also receives vision and dental insurance, a cellphone reimbursement and other benefits.

Didech said axing the post will save taxpayers money. But when pressed about the potential savings, he admitted township officials haven't decided if they'll rebate the savings by reducing the township's tax levy or budget the money elsewhere.

Didech also noted the township's tax levy will increase if it absorbs the highway district - although the figure likely would be less than the current combined levies for the township and district.

Lofstrom said officials don't know what the long-term financial impact of the proposed change will be.

He also raised concern about the township possibly outsourcing road maintenance instead of handling it with its staff. If that happens, he said, costs will go up.

A property tax savings, Lofstrom said, "couldn't be further from the truth."

Didech said officials don't intend to privatize services.

"It's going to be the same people maintaining your roads," he said.

• Daily Herald Deputy Managing Editor Pete Nenni contributed to this report.

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