Streamlining or eliminating township government: It’s an idea whose time has come to Illinois. In fact, it’s long overdue.
As the BGA investigation into 20 suburban Cook County townships uncovers, most are providing an expensive patchwork of road maintenance and redundant social services not mandated by state law while sitting on millions of dollars in excess taxpayer funds.
Cook County is not alone—townships across Illinois are being criticized as an inefficient and over-lapping form of government. Illinois has 1,435 taxpayer-supported townships in 85 of 102 state counties.
That prompts a basic question: Why do we need so many?
That’s a question the Illinois General Assembly must wrestle with in the upcoming fall veto session or when the legislature convenes next spring. Increasingly, some lawmakers and advocates are skeptical of the townships’ mission and wonder if they’re still a necessary form of government. For example:
- A new law just signed by Gov. Pat Quinn gives board of trustees of a township in Cook County the option to submit a ballot measure giving voters the opportunity to eliminate the road district in their township. If voters say "yes," the road district and position of township highway supervisor will be eliminated.
- Aldermen in Evanston, immediately north of Chicago, are looking for ways to eliminate Evanston Township, among the oldest townships in the state.
- Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) sponsored a bill during this past legislative session that would give township residents a chance to determine whether they are being well served by their township government, or whether it would be more efficient to blend those services with the county or city government.
Yes, some townships can be necessary links between citizens and their government—particularly in rural areas where county and municipal governments cannot provide the community outreach needed to serve the needs of their citizens.
But the role that townships play in more heavily-populated and congested urban areas is open to debate say disgruntled taxpayers and lawmakers who prefer that a smaller number of local governments provide bigger and better services.
For starters, the boundary lines of townships are based on geography, not necessity or population centers. The lines, originally drawn to be 36 square-mile areas, were set long before cities expanded to include the areas they now occupy.
Moreover, townships are permitted, but not required under law, to provide a hodge-podge of various services to residents—services that are often duplicated at the municipal or county level.
For example, in townships, highway commissioners run the road district, and are only responsible for caring for unincorporated roads not served by municipalities or counties.
But as the BGA investigation shows in townships with multiple municipalities located within its boundaries, there are very few miles of road left for the township to tend after the public works programs of the municipalities do their part. Nonetheless, the costs of maintaining these roads can be very high.
Currently, there is no mechanism for residents to quickly but carefully eliminate the extra layer of township government if they want to dump it.
And in the past, township governments, which usually include seven elected officials plus a staff, have fought and won their fight to preserve their place as a taxpayer funded public body.
But that is changing.
The trend toward streamlining is one that will continue to vex many township officials who appear, at times, to be more interested in protecting the status quo than in ensuring good government and following the will of the people, who are cash-strapped and fed up with bloated bureaucracy.
The BGA agrees with that sentiment.
It encourages lawmakers to find a clear-cut method to eliminate townships—where and when it’s appropriate—and to make local government more efficient and responsive to taxpayers.
>> Data, Resources & Acknowledgements
DATA: Townships Roads Costs—Cook, Kane, Lake, Will, DuPage, McHenry (Excel)
DATA: Suburban Cook County Townships Roads—"Costs-Per-Mile" (Excel)
DATA: Suburban Cook County Townships Assets, Liabilities and Cash (Excel)
DOCS: IDOT Townships Study, 2008 (Document Cloud)
DOCS: "Local Democracy and the Townships of Illinois: A Report to the People," (PDF)
DOCS: "Township Government Essential or Expendable? The Case of Illinois and Cook County" (Document Cloud)
The following BGA staffers and contributors worked on the Rescuing Illinois township project:
Robert Reed, director of investigations and programming; Robert Herguth, editor of investigations; Patrick Rehkamp, senior investigator; Andrew Schroedter, investigator; James Edwards, former BGA investigator; Web Design & Illustrations: Solomon Lieberman, Taniesha Robinson and Adam Verwymeren; Policy Adviser: Emily Miller; Copy Editor: Jessica Curry; Interns: Ricardo Torres, Melanie Zanona and Michael Sandler; Freelance Reporter/Investigator: John Carpenter; and Data Provider: Metro Chicago Information Center.