Editorial: The case for township road districts' demise
A Wheeling Township experiment recently caught our eye.
The township eliminated the elected position of highway commissioner and in the first year dropped its tax collections for roads by 12 percent, a recently completed 2018 audit shows. A manager who reports to the township board now is in charge of township roads, much in the way a public works supervisor manages streets in most towns.
Wheeling Township is one of seven local townships that cut road district property taxes from 2016 to 2017, out of 47 townships examined by Daily Herald reporter Jake Griffin.
Now, one year in one township isn't much evidence, but it's an enticing addendum to the argument that the current way of handling township roads is out of date in the mostly urban areas that surround Chicago.
Township roads make up a tiny fraction of your property tax bill. But at a time when property tax bills are top of mind for many homeowners, this is the low-hanging fruit.
For one thing, most townships don't handle many roads. In Wheeling Township, it's a paltry 5.2 miles. The numbers get higher the further out you go -- McHenry County's Nunda Township, which includes parts of Island Lake and Crystal Lake, tops the suburban list at 91.5 miles.
Yet, virtually all highway commissioners are independently elected to run their departments, which seldom is a recipe for significant cost cutting, sometimes is a recipe for politically motivated hiring and occasionally contributes to township dysfunction with the highway commissioner at odds with the township supervisor, also elected.
Their small territory also gives highway departments few opportunities for economies of scale, which in part could account for swings in per-mile road taxes levied, from $106,609 in Leyden Township, near O'Hare International Airport in Cook County, to $7,953 in Kaneville Township, west of Aurora in Kane County. Of course, Leyden's roads are multilane and have curbs, gutters and sewers, which exponentially raises costs. But adjacent Maine Township's road taxes come to $87,682 per mile, 18 percent lower than Leyden.
We long have favored doing away with road districts in townships that have only a few miles of roads and contracting out paving, plowing and other services. Barrington Township in Cook County and DuPage Township in Will County have gone this route. Elk Grove and Schaumburg townships both have fewer than 10 miles of roads.
Voters in Naperville and Lisle townships voted in 2017 to merge road districts. But the townships have yet to move in that direction and Naperville Township Highway Commissioner Richard Novinger ended a contract for Lisle to handle its road work.
And Naperville Township's road taxes? The amount jumped 22.1 percent in 2017 and another 9.7 percent in 2018 -- another bit of evidence that the current system for handling township roads is outdated and expensive.