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NOV 7, 2011 — DEFENDING TURF

HYPER-LOCAL: GOVERNMENT BEST

WHEN CLOSE TO THE PEOPLE

By John Carpenter

Township officials are surprised to find themselves under attack from critics and are returning fire. Government works best when its super close to the people, they argue.

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Maine Township Assessor Tom Rueckert might not be the person you’d expect to stand up and defend township government. He is, after all, an assessor who does not assess. That job has long been placed in the hands of the Cook County assessor, leaving township officials like Rueckert and his staff to function as little more than customer service representatives in Cook County.

Still, Rueckert believes his direct, local approach to helping residents make sense of their property tax assessments is precisely what makes township government worth keeping in Illinois. "We’ve had 4,000 people come to us for help in the first three months of this year," he says. "Why do they come to us? They come because they just got something in the mail from the county assessor, they can’t figure it out, and when they call the county, nobody answers the phones."

Stickney Township Supervisor Lou Viverito agrees. "Don’t even mention the word county around here," he says. "If we told people that we were turning things over to the county, they would be scared to death."

This is the idea of township government, created more than 150 years ago in Illinois to act as a buffer between rural, unincorporated areas and often-distant county seats, not to mention even more distant state and federal agencies. Townships still thrive in Illinois, collecting and spending millions in taxes every year. But in the collar counties around Chicago, where townships have long since been almost completely overlapped by suburban local governments, they are increasingly coming under fire as irrelevant.

But township proponents say that, with government officials in Springfield and Washington setting anything but a good fiscal example, now is not the time to take shots at tiny townships.

"It’s very frustrating in Illinois to see how badly they’ve been heading up the government," Naperville Township Supervisor Gary Vician says. "And they want to look at townships?"

It might come as a surprise to many township officials that they are seen as ripe for reform, seeing as how township government, especially in the heavily developed collar counties, is used to flying under the radar.

Typically a tiny portion of property tax bills, townships seem to survive on some combination of bureaucratic inertia and the fact that they have a deep well of support among state legislators, many of whom either cut their political teeth running for "entry level" offices in township government, or who find jobs on township payrolls for loyal supporters. Township officials argue it’s more than that. Suburbanites may not know much about their township governments, they say, but that doesn’t mean those governments aren’t doing anything.

"Last year we provided over 25,000 rides for the elderly and the disabled," Wheeling Township Supervisor Michael Schroeder says. "Who else is going to do that?"

Township Officials of Illinois is a powerful lobbying arm and resource organization for township government. Bryan E. Smith, executive director, says Illinois voters look at big-spending, large governments and like what they see at the township level. He even applied this to township highway departments, which produce extremely high per-mile costs in the collar counties, thanks to the very small network of roads they maintain.

"Who says that other governments maintain roads less expensive?" Smith wrote in an e-mail response to several questions. "In four counties in the state (Douglas, Piatt, Coles and Moultrie) we have counties who have turned over their county road maintenance to townships because they can do it less expensive."

Vician said this is the way to go in the collar counties. Rather than doing away with township road districts that have little road left to maintain, why not turn maintenance of county roads over to townships?

"Surveys show that people are more satisfied with township workers than they are with state or county workers," Vician said. "You can go talk to your township highway commissioner."

Schroeder, on the other hand, said he is down to 5.1 miles of Wheeling Township roads and would like nothing more than to get that number down to zero.

"I wish they were all swallowed up by the municipalities," he said. "I’ve been actively trying to eliminate those roads."

The problem, he said, is that the roads townships are often left with are the ones municipalities don’t want. In the case of Wheeling, Schroeder said the township roads are in a flood plain.

Smith agreed. He said many municipalities "have annexed areas with a lot of tax revenue in their area and left the rest for the townships."

The survey Vician cited was part of a report produced for Township Officials of Illinois by St. Louis-based demographer Wendell Cox. Titled "Local Democracy and the Townships of Illinois: A Report to the People," (PDF) the document cited a 2001 survey—also prepared on behalf of Township Officials of Illinois—in which 88 percent of residents rated the performance of township officials highly, compared to 42 percent for state officials and 27 percent for federal officials. Cox also showed spending and borrowing patterns that suggests smaller governments, including townships, are better stewards of taxpayer money.

Townships in Illinois have three state-mandated roles.

  • Provide general assistance to the poor
  • Maintain roads in unincorporated areas
  • Assess property

Some say all these functions could be turned over to other units of government, most likely either counties or municipalities.

But township officials scoff at these claims, pointing to wasteful spending at the state and county levels, and to overburdened, cash strapped municipalities they say aren’t equipped to handle township responsibilities. Even in Cook County, where township assessors no longer assess, Smith argued they are needed.

"The township assessors act like a kind of satellite office for the county," he said. "The Cook County Township Assessors deal with thousands of residents who seek out a ‘real person’ to help them with their property assessment issues. The county simply does not have the ability to provide personalized services to that many people."

General assistance varies greatly from township to township, depending on the demographics of each. The types of services offered also vary, as many townships have expanded into popular areas like recreation and senior services. They also support local service agencies through grants.

Stickney Township Administrator Chris Grunow said townships have been a lifeline for social service agencies during the recent Illinois fiscal crisis, as the state has delayed its payments to these organizations.

Grunow argues that important social service programs would quickly fall by the wayside if they were folded into the budget of municipalities or counties, which are severely strapped financially. "I don’t think a lot of these programs would survive," he said.

 John Carpenter is a freelance investigator for the Better Government Association.

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