Consolidations would reduce costs, improve efficiency
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization dedicated to making democracy work through voter education, issue advocacy and citizen participation. The league has been engaged in local governments through its observer corps, where local governments board meetings are observed by league members. This led our local league to study the role of townships in our communities and their impact on our property taxes.
With over 7,000 units of government in Illinois, the highest count of local governments in the nation, we wondered, how do each of these local governments spend our property tax dollars and can services be provided more efficiently and cost effectively?
Townships are the oldest form of government in the country. Townships are approximately 36 square miles and all have four trustees, one supervisor, one clerk and one assessor, regardless of township population. There are over 1,400 townships in Illinois, with 29 in Cook County. Seventeen counties in southern Illinois and the city of Chicago have no townships.
Townships have 3 main functions: to assess properties, to provide financial assistance under the General Assistance Program to qualifying residents and families and to maintain unincorporated roads and bridges. Townships have taken on extra services such as food pantries.
There is no special training or education needed to serve on the township board, except for the assessor. There is no oversight of townships. Property assessment in Cook County is done by the county assessor. The local township assessor can help with exemptions or appeals with tools that are readily available on line.
When looking at the financial reports, we found them difficult to understand, because there is no consistency in how each township creates reports. Generally, 80% of money for general assistance goes to administration and 20% goes to the individuals needing assistance. The Palatine Township has stated that they account for approximately 2% of the property tax bill.
The Road and Bridge department manages the unincorporated roads and bridges in a township. In the Sept. 22, 2016 Civic Federation report on Cook County unincorporated areas, only 2.4% or 126,034 residents reside in unincorporated areas. The report states that county residents who reside within municipalities pay the extra tax burden for services for people living in unincorporated areas.
According to the report, Cook County receives $24 million in taxes from residents who live in unincorporated areas but provides services costing $42.9 million.
The additional $18.9 million is paid for by county residents who live within municipal borders. In our area, there are fewer than 20 miles of unincorporated roads, for two townships but a whole department, building, equipment and crew to support those roads.
We found that many services offered by townships can and are being offered by other organizations. Several communities have moved to eliminate government units in order to decrease redundancy, improve efficiency and save taxpayers money. Vernon Township voters eliminated the local highway district and shifted the duties to the township board. In 2017, Naperville and Lisle Township voters approved a binding referendum to merge the township road districts of the two townships.
According to the Daily Herald, the consolidation was "projected to save $800,000 to $1.4 million a year overall on services such as snow plowing, street sweeping and collection of brush and leaves." Evanston voters voted to eliminate Evanston Township with an estimated savings of $800,000 to $1 million.
Historically in Illinois, it has been far easier to create a new government unit than to eliminate one. Some researchers think the large number of government units in Illinois contributes to a low turnout at elections. Concern with property taxes, population loss, and fairness, is tied in with efficiency and effectiveness in government. One way to improve efficiency and decrease costs is to decrease our redundant and archaic units of government, such as townships.
Laura Davis and Jackie McGrath are active members of the Palatine Area League of Women Voters.