Special Investigation: Why Townships Don't Add Up
A Better Government Association investigation into the financial records of the 20 largest Cook County suburban townships uncovers a web of government hamlets that are hoarding millions of dollars in property taxes, overpaying to fix and maintain a smattering of roads and bankrolling a number of costly, often redundant, jobs and social services not mandated by any law.
Collectively, these 20 townships racked up nearly $264 million in assets primarily from property taxes, including $87 million in cash on about $77 million in debts during the last fiscal year ending in early 2010, the BGA investigation reveals.
These ample cash reserves, however, are not a hallmark of the townships’ stellar budgetary and management acumen, say critics. Instead, it’s an indicator that these townships are collecting too much from taxpayers while providing too little in return—a charge that’s also leveled at many Illinois townships by a growing contingent of disgruntled residents and lawmakers seeking to dissolve, consolidate and streamline the state’s estimated 1,400 township governments—among the highest total of any U.S. state.
"Township officials will say: ‘We’re fine, fiscally.' But that’s because their township doesn’t make any sense," says U.S. Rep Michael Quigley (D-Chicago), a former Cook County commissioner and proponent of consolidating and reorganizing local governments. "That extra money should be in the pockets of someone else, like the taxpayers. And the few services they provide should be handled by another county or municipality at less cost to the public."
Township leaders, who are elected to office, vehemently dispute this view and are fighting to preserve their governments and rally support for the services they provide. They are also fighting efforts in the Illinois General Assembly to pass a law making it easier to dissolve townships.
"Townships are important to the community," says Robert Porter, coordinator and spokesman for the Township Officials of Cook County (TOC), which represents 26 townships. "It provides a quality of life (where people) can raise their kids and live in Happyville."
The BGA’s suburban Cook County investigation is based on the latest township financial data submitted by the 20 suburban townships and released on the wesbite of the Illinois comptroller’s office. Those numbers were compiled and analyzed by independent researcher Metro Chicago Information Center, a firm the BGA hired to gather the data and provide financial analysis.
In addition, the BGA reviewed Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) records; township payrolls and other records obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); townships financial statements filed with the Cook County clerk; public sources, including press accounts and academic studies exploring local townships; and interviews with township officials and experts.
There are 30 suburban Cook County townships, but only 20 consistently submit their financials to the state comptroller. The BGA investigation found:
>> Millions of Dollars in Cash Reserves
The majority of the 20 suburban Cook County townships carry large amounts of cash; 11 have more than 40 percent of their total assets in cash and cash equivalent assets, according to the townships’ balance sheets.
In fact, a couple townships have enough cash to cover their expenses for an entire year without going to taxpayers for more money. For more on cash reserves, see Part II: CASH CUSHION.
>> High Road-Maintenance Costs
Under state law, townships are responsible for maintaining and repairing roads in unincorporated areas within the townships. Typically, unincorporated areas are not part of the federal, state or county they are located, or part of a nearby suburb or municipality.
Compared to townships in six Chicago-area counties, Cook County townships collectively have the fewest miles of roads, but pay the highest maintenance costs, a BGA analysis of the IDOT figures determined. For more on road costs, see Part III: COSTLY ROADS.
>> Costly, Redundant Services & People
It costs millions of dollars annually to staff and operate townships. The BGA inquiry found that the 20 suburban townships employed 562 full-time workers and 425 part-time employees, adding up to $27.6 million in total salaries.
Of that total, an estimated $886,000 annually in salaries is paid to employ nearly 50 assessors and deputy assessors in full- and part-time positions.
There’s one problem: These positions are arguably unnecessary because, by law, the primary job of assessing homeowners’ property taxes and handling appeals belongs to the Cook County Tax Assessor’s office. For more on cost and job overlap, see Part IV: UNNECESSARY JOBS.
>> Township Defenders
Township government was 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.
For the pro-townships argument, see this Special Section: DEFENDING TURF.
Township advocates contend the emphasis on politics is misplaced and that residents are pleased with the hyper-local government entities and their role in society.
And if the majority of residents were unhappy, they could opt to wipe townships off the state map, says Porter, the township organization spokesman.
"Every unit of government can be dissolved by process. If residents don’t think they have a constituent return, they can abolish it," he says.
But a BGA examination of the current law finds that’s not the case because ending a township’s life is practically impossible.
Let’s say a majority of residents of a suburban Cook County township want to get rid of it. Under state law, voters must navigate a byzantine legal maze just to get a vote on dissolving their own township: In order for a township to end, every other township in that county must also vote via referendum to discontinue because townships can only be discontinued on a countywide basis.
Simply stated, even when residents want to eliminate the township, they must get 10 percent of voters in every township in the county to sign a petition to get the issue on the ballot as a referendum in the general election.
(If a township goes away, its powers and duties revert to the county.)
Rebellious Avon Township Supervisor Sam Yingling says the current law sets an impossibly high bar for voters.
Yet the absurdity of such a difficult standard, coupled with Illinois township governments’ other inefficiencies, are among the reasons why the effort to drop unneeded townships is resonating with more lawmakers in the General Assembly, he contends. For more on this issue, see Part V: REFORMS
"Perhaps I’m overly optimistic," says Yingling. "But I believe township reform is a possibility."
>> 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)