Why some township roads cost suburban taxpayers $100,000 per mile

A few years ago, voters in Elk Grove Township decided to get rid of the highway commissioner's job.

With barely four miles of road to maintain, eliminating a salary and benefits seemed like a good way to save money, never mind the rigmarole of electing someone every four years to the partisan post.

In the five years prior to eliminating the highway commissioner's post, township taxpayers were covering an average of more than $281,000 a year for the road budget.

Last year, township property taxpayers spent $200,514 for those 4.09 miles of roads. That's a rate of less than $50,000 a mile and one of the lowest rates among Northwest Cook County townships. Only Barrington Township's rate is lower, which is because the township doesn't levy a tax for the less than four miles of roads it maintains.

“The roads are still there and they have to be maintained, we've just eliminated the cost of the commissioner and another employee,” said Paul Pioch, Elk Grove Township administrator. “Eventually, we'd like to eliminate the tax and move those road costs to the township budget.”

A Daily Herald analysis of financial records for 50 suburban townships shows the average amount of tax dollars collected per mile of road is a little more than $46,000 in the 48 townships in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties that do collect taxes specifically for road maintenance and personnel costs. However, the rate varies dramatically from $103,000-plus per mile on the high end, to less than $6,000 per mile on the low end.

Next door to Elk Grove Township are Maine and Leyden townships. Those two townships would be considered on the high end of tax dollars per mile.

According to the most recent audits from those townships, Leyden Township property taxpayers were charged $103,689 per mile, while Maine Township collected $100,834 per mile from taxpayers there.

However, officials say there's a reason why taxing levels vary between the townships.

“If you are only looking at lane miles you can't see the bigger picture,” said Maine Township Highway Commissioner Ed Beauvais. “We have one of the highest population densities within our boundaries of any township in Cook County. The amount of vehicles parking on and utilizing our roadways and infrastructure requires us to conduct a lot more road repair and maintenance work.”

Maine Township is responsible for 21.08 centerline miles of road within the township, according to Illinois Department of Transportation records. Centerline miles are calculated as the distance of the road, whether it's two lanes or wider. Most township roads are two-lane residential or rural roads. Most don't have curbs, gutters, sewers and sidewalks either, though those amenities are more likely the closer the township is to Chicago, like Maine and Leyden townships are.

“Funding is applied appropriately to keep up the standards our residents expect and are guided by the direction of the public,” Beauvais said. “At least in my office.”

The more rural the township, the lower the tax-dollar-per-mile rate becomes.

Three townships in western Kane County — Hampshire, Kaneville and Virgil — all reported tax rates of less than $8,000 per mile. All three are also responsible for more than 25 miles of road as well.

DuPage Township in Northwestern Will County doesn't levy a property tax for the 3.3 miles of road it is responsible for maintaining, records show.

“Each township is different,” argued Leigh Tracy, supervisor of Batavia Township in Kane County. “A lot of what is done in comparison to one township to another is not always accurate and needs further explanation. It's not one size fits all.”

Combined, the 50 townships are responsible for maintaining almost 1,800 miles of suburban roads, IDOT figures show. McHenry Township is responsible for the most, with 101-plus miles in its jurisdiction. Nunda, St. Charles, Antioch and Milton townships are all responsible for more than 80 miles of roads.

The 48 road-taxing townships also collected a combined $72.3 million, according to the townships' most recent audits. Warren Township in Lake County collected the most last year with $5.1 million earmarked for roads. Township officials there spent nearly $7.5 million from the road budget, and almost 20% of that went to personnel costs, according to the township's audit.

Because Illinois leads the nation in units of local government, many critics look at the 700-plus townships as a way to consolidate or eliminate duplicative services.

“You've got the state, counties, municipalities and townships all with road crews,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for ethical government and elections. “How many different government entities do we need to take care of our roads? Seems like a prime area to start saving some taxpayer dollars.”

The state legislature has made headway in recent years passing laws allowing voters to eliminate or consolidate township services, but action by voters has been scant.

“While historically many people have been happy to complain about the many levels of government, they're usually pretty satisfied with what they've got,” said state Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Schaumburg Democrat who has advocated for township reforms in the past. “In the end, you're just shifting financial responsibilities to another organization, and it's different from township to township what the cost of that responsibility would be.”

Township Officials of Illinois held its annual three-day conference earlier this month in Springfield. Of the more than two dozen workshops offered at the conference, none dealt with consolidation or elimination of township services.

  The Maine Township commissioner's office is responsible for 21.08 miles of road, according to Illinois Department of Transportation records. Joe Lewnard/
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