September 3, 2012 01:08 PM
What's the Point of Townships?
What does a township actually do besides collect taxes to maintain its existence? Not much, according to many government experts.
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This Labor Day weekend is particularly hard on the unemployed, underemployed and those struggling to make ends meet, but it’s a sweet holiday for a lot of folks who work in the surreal world of township government.
The Daily Herald recently reported that employees in 31 Chicago area townships are getting a new round of pay increases that will result in overall salary increases of 10 percent, or $661,387, since 2008. Most of that goes to top township managers — assessors, deputy assessors, road supervisors — and not the rank and file.
Now ask yourself: What does a township actually do besides collect taxes to maintain its existence? Not much, according to many government experts.
Townships are a relic from the horse-and-buggy era — 19th century conduits between far-flung rural, unincorporated areas and often-distant county seats — but most lack a modern-day raison d’etre in the densely populated Chicago area.
Only 20 states still have townships, and Illinois is home to 1,400 of them, the most in the country. Each is a distinct government entity, separate from counties and municipalities, and they levee their own property taxes to cover the costs of the "services" they provide, which in many cases are negligible.
Last year, the Better Government Association found that 20 townships in suburban Cook County employed 562 full-time workers and 425 part-timers, adding up to $27.6 million in annual salaries.
Of that total, about $886,000 goes to pay 50 assessors and deputy assessors who have nothing to assess because that’s the job of the county assessor, so they offer property tax advice to residents.
Adding insult to taxpayer injury, many other township jobs are also arguably unnecessary. Township supervisors have little to supervise and highway commissioners few roads to maintain.
In fact, Illinois law actually requires very little of townships — some provide welfare services and run food pantries — but those functions could be incorporated into nearby towns and villages that already offer similar programs.
Still, townships continue to hoard tax dollars and sit on cash cushions that would make King Midas jealous.
And the BGA found that when townships do spend our money they typically overpay for everything, including road repairs, snow removal trucks, equipment and personnel.
So now dozens of township employees with jobs of dubious value are getting raises at a time when the Illinois unemployment rate is nearly 9 percent, one of the highest in the country.
This is another troubling example of townships caring more about perpetuating their jobs and fiefdoms than serving the public good.
Townships are rightfully coming under fire from activists, lawmakers and editorial writers who question why this form of government still exists.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is backing a bill that would make it faster and easier for residents to vote their townships out of existence.
But the township lobby is strong — everybody’s connected to somebody — so Cullerton’s bill is languishing in the Legislature.
Let’s hope that public outrage over these insider raises will prompt the General Assembly to pass needed township reform as soon as possible.
That would be a labor of love.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.