Produced by the BGA's Civic Engagement team, the BGA Backstory project is a non-partisan guide to Illinois' most important government issues. Don't see what you're looking for? Ask us your burning questions about Illinois government.
What is a township?
A township is a unit of local government typically carved out of a county1 to represent2 a geographical or political subdivision. Townships are created at the local level to serve a specific segment of the population within a designated area. They generally provide services such as road maintenance and social welfare programs.
In Illinois, townships perform three distinct functions:
A) They assess the value of your property: In order to determine property tax bills, an assessment of properties’ value is conducted by the township assessor.
During this period of assessment, the property is “discovered, listed, and appraised” so its tax value can be determined.3 In addition, township assessors assist residents with assessment appeals, process building permits, and accept property tax exemption applications.4
Cook County is unique in this process. In Cook County, townships do not assess the value of property — all assessments are made by the Cook County Assessor's Office.5 The office of the Cook County Assessor is an elected position and is currently held by Joseph Berrios. Each township in Cook County does have a township “assessor”, but that role is limited. They are not directly involved in the assessment process and merely function as township advocates.6
It should also be noted that Cook County is assessed on a tri-annual basis. The assessor's office assesses the northern part of Cook County in the first year, the southern parts in the second year, and the City of Chicago in the third year.7
B) They maintain roads and bridges: Township governments maintain 71,000 miles of road in Illinois.8 This makes up nearly 53 percent of the total road miles in Illinois and nearly half of all bridges in the state.9 Townships assign road district commissions that are responsible for overseeing this task.
This is another area where Cook County is unique. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a unified method or procedure for how Cook County handles its road maintenance. At times roads and bridges are maintained directly by the municipality they fall in; other times, the municipality is paid by the county to maintain them.
Some roads and bridges in Cook County are maintained by the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways. Maintenance of some roads and bridges is controlled directly by the State of Illinois and the task is handled by the Illinois Department of Transportation or the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.10
Which governmental entity handles road and bridge maintenance in Cook County depends on a variety of factors. When municipalities annex land, they also annex the surrounding right of ways. When this occurs, the annexing municipality is usually responsible for that road or bridge, but again, this is not always the case.
Alternatively, there could be situations in which one governmental entity owns the right of way over land but pays another entity to maintain it. For instance, the State of Illinois could pay the Cook County Highway Department to maintain a set of state-owned roadways.11
There are also differences in the taxing process. While most Cook County townships levy a tax for road and bridge maintenance, not all of them do. Additionally, “townships”12 in the City of Chicago do not levy a tax at all as that process is solely conducted by the City of Chicago itself.
C) They provide financial assistance under the General Assistance (GA) Program: The GA program gives temporary financial assistance to qualifying residents and families to provide basic amenities. Townships evaluate a resident or family’s need based on eligibility requirements.13
1 “Territory deemed a township: The territory of any organized city, within the limits of any county under township organization and not situated within any township, shall be deemed a township.” 60 ILCS 1/15-45, Sec. 15-45.
2 Bryan Smith, “Township Government in Illinois – A rich history, a vibrant future!” Susana A. Mendoza, State of Illinois Comptroller, Last Updated: June 27, 2011.
3 Illinois Department of Revenue, The Illinois Property Tax System, A General Guide to the Local Property Tax Cycle, (PTAX-1104).
4 Cook County Township Government FAQ Part 1, The Civic Federation, April 14, 2010.
5 Phone Interview: Raymond Gottner, Manager of the Map Department, Cook County Clerk’s Office, Oct. 17, 2018
8 Township Officials of Illinois, History.
9 Supra, note 2.
10 Interview via Email: Raymond Gottner, Manager of the Map Department, Cook County Clerk’s Office, Oct. 18, 2018.
12 The City of Chicago does not contain any townships, it is divided into eight theoretical townships for the purposes of collecting property tax. Although these eight neighborhoods—Rogers Park, Hyde Park, Lakeview, Jefferson Park, North Township (east of the Chicago River), South Township (east of the River), West Township (west of the Chicago River) and Lake Township—are not townships in the practical sense of the word as they do not levy any taxes for any township type services, they are still considered “townships” by the Cook County Clerk’s Office for the sole purpose of efficiency in property tax collection.
13 Supra, note 4. Also see, Illinois Legal Aid Online, Am I eligible for General Assistance?
What is the difference between a city, county, and township?
Townships are located within counties and are smaller in size. For instance, Cook County contains 38 townships.
Cities are located in townships and are generally smaller in size. The City of Chicago is an exception. In some instances, a city sits in multiple townships1 . For example, the city of Naperville is so large that it extends is located in both DuPage and Will counties.
The functions that a township carries out are delegated to it by the larger county or city in which it is located. This delegation of duties takes place so smaller areas within a large city or county can receive more targeted attention.2
A township may even be dissolved if its functions are identical to those that a city or county government also performs.
For instance, in 2014, Evanston Township was dissolved for precisely this reason—it was performing nearly the same administrative functions as the City of Evanston.3 Two townships may be merged through a referendum if voters in both townships agree.
1 Dupage Township, History of Dupage Township.
2 One Fewer Illinois Government? Evanston Voters Favor Dissolving Township, Civic Federation, April 4. 2012, “Unlike other states where many of these services might be provided by a municipal or county government, Illinois historically has opted to create a plethora of these special districts to provide many public services. The primary reason for the multiplicity of special districts is that the 1870 Illinois constitution had strict borrowing limits, which made it difficult for municipalities to fund capital expenditures. Special districts were created as a way to circumvent those limits and finance infrastructure. The 1970 Constitution lifted the restrictions in part, but the governments that were created previously still remain for the most part.”
3 City of Evanston, The Dissolution of the Evanston Township City of Evanston, IL, August 1, 2016. Also see, Illinois Compiled Statutes, (60 ILCS 1/) Township Code, ““Dissolving township" means a township which is proposed to be dissolved into and be merged with 2 other adjacent townships.””
What is the difference between a township and a town?
Under the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, individual states are largely free to organize local government as they deem fit. With such autonomy, states have chosen to develop their units of local governments in different ways. This has led to as many different versions of a “town” as there are states. Some states may designate a place as a “town” based on whether it meets a population limit set by statute, while other states may use the terms “town” and “city” interchangeably.
In other states a town is viewed as either “unincorporated” or as an incorporated municipality—otherwise known as an “incorporated town.” Before the Illinois Municipal Code was enacted, a “town” within the state was considered incorporated if it met the minimum population threshold of 2,500.1 Only after reaching that threshold could the General Assembly, through a special act, “incorporate” that town. This was the process of incorporation in Illinois before the Illinois Municipal Code was enacted.2
As a result, the Illinois Code today distinguishes between the terms “town” and “incorporated town.” Unless otherwise defined, the term “town” carries the same meaning as "township" in the Illinois Township Act.3 Therefore, in both form and function, a "town" and a "township," by default, refer to the same entity of local government in Illinois.
In Illinois, use of the word “township” carries several connotations. Primarily, it is used to represent the following:
A) A geographical subdivision. A piece of land demarcated from the larger piece of land in which it is located. The geographical subdivision of a piece of land by a government depends on a variety of factors such as its placement on a map, boundary lines drawn, distinct physical features, population, land size, and zoning restrictions.
B) A political subdivision: A township may also be created to better represent a political subdivision. Political subdivisions are established so that they can carry out specific government functions delegated to them. They include counties, cities, towns, villages, and special districts such as school districts, water districts, park districts, and airport districts.4
C) A property index system: In Illinois, counties establish a property index system to assess and collect taxes. In counties that use this system, a unique permanent index number (PIN) is assigned to each property.5 For instance, while the City of Chicago does not contain any townships, it is divided into eight theoretical townships for the purposes of collecting property tax. They include:
- Rogers Park
- Hyde Park
- Jefferson Park, North Township (East of the Chicago River)
- South Township (East of the River)
- West Township (West of the Chicago River) and
- Lake Township
Although these eight neighborhoods are not townships in the practical sense of the word, as they do not levy any taxes for any township type services, they are still considered “townships” by the Cook County Clerk’s Office for the sole purpose of efficiency in property tax collection.6
1 Carl Vinson Institute of Government, The University of Georgia, A Brief Summary of Municipal Incorporation Procedures by State.
3 “A reference in another Act to a town (other than an incorporated town) shall be deemed a reference to a township as that term is used in this Code.” Illinois Township Code, 60 ILCS 1/1-5, Sec. 1-5 (a), Use of terms.
4 Encyclopedia.com, Dictionary of American History, Political Subdivisions.
5 Attorneys’ Title Guaranty Fund. INC, Tax Divisions.
6 Phone Interview: Raymond Gottner, Manager of the Map Department, Cook County Clerk’s Office, Sept. 24, 2018
How many townships are there in Illinois?
Illinois currently has 1,4281 township governments. According to the 2012 Census of Governments by the U.S. Census Bureau, out of the 102 counties in Illinois, 85 have township governments.2 Within these 85 counties, the only areas that do not have townships are the City of Chicago and Evanston.
The town of Cicero is unique in that it exists only as a township despite acting more like an independent city. For instance, Cicero has a township president (although no mayor), a fire department, and a police department. Yet, Cicero was never incorporated as a municipality and has always instead been treated as a coterminous township.
A coterminous township is one that shares the same boundary as the municipality in which it is located. In other words, the township can act like a municipality, perform some of the same functions as the municipality, and share the same boundaries as the municipality, but is still considered a separate governmental unit.
1 Robert McCoppin, Questions about spending of taxpayer money fuel movement to abolish township government, Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2018. Fillmore Township and South Fillmore Township (located in Montgomery County, Illinois) consolidated in 2016 to form Fillmore Consolidated Township; Rocky Run Township and Wilcox Township (located in Hancock County) consolidated after a referendum in 2016 to form Rocky Run-Wilcox Township.
2 U.S. Census Bureau, Individual State Descriptions: 2012, 2012 Census of Governments, Issued September 2013.
How are townships funded?
Townships are funded through property taxes.
Are townships in Illinois important?
In Illinois, township governments have a long and controversial history.1 In 1849, the state legislature passed a law enabling counties to adopt a township government by referendum. In that same year, 24 counties voted to adopt a township government. Today, Illinois has 1,428 townships.
1 U.S. Census Bureau, Individual State Descriptions: 2012, 2012 Census of Governments, Issued September 2013.
Are townships important?
Whether townships are an important unit of Illinois government remains a heavily debated question. Advocates of townships argue they serve as the “closest level of government to the people” as they are easily accessible, more responsive, and provide a host of social services aimed at improving the lives of township residents.
In addition, proponents argue townships maintain the roads and bridges that play an imperative role for police and fire protection, school buses, and the postal service—particularly in rural areas.1 They argue counties and municipalities could not bear the responsibility of maintaining the 71,000 miles of road and 17,000 bridges currently under township control without a significant increase in taxes.2
Proponents argue that if taxes are increased as a result of government consolidation and townships are dissolved, it could lead to the elimination of important services on which township residents currently rely.3
Opponents of townships strongly disagree with these arguments. They argue that with 7,000 local government units, Illinois has more units of government than any other state4 , partly owing to its existing 1,428 townships. They argue that townships create multiple layers of impenetrable bureaucracy while simultaneously increasing property taxes.5
Opponents frequently cite reports that local government consolidation would lower property taxes and save money.6
In 2011, the Better Government Association conducted a report on 20 townships showing they had accumulated nearly $264 million in assets from property taxes.7
In 2014, the Township of Evanston was abolished and its functions were absorbed by the City of Evanston with which it originally shared its borders. The primary reason for abolishing the township was to save taxpayers money and eliminate administrative functions that were already carried out by the City of Evanston. In its first year of consolidation, the city saved almost $800,000.8
In early 2018, Rep. David McSweeney (R) sponsored a bill proposing McHenry County be given the power to consolidate its townships following a majority vote in a referendum.9 In April 2018, the bill passed the Illinois House 80-22. It is currently pending with the state Senate.
1 Bryan Smith, “Township Government in Illinois – A rich history, a vibrant future!” Susana A. Mendoza, State of Illinois Comptroller, Last Updated: June 27, 2011.
3 One Fewer Illinois Government? Evanston Voters Favor Dissolving Township, Civic Federation, April 4, 2012.
4 Robert McCoppin, Questions about spending of taxpayer money fuel movement to abolish township government, Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2018.
6 See, Brenden Moore, Government Consolidation Efforts Gain Traction in General Assembly, The State Journal-Register, Apr.21, 2018; Greg Bishop, Rauner says taxpayers could save $3.5 billion if consolidation recommendations enacted, Illinois News Network, July 24, 2018; The Civic Federation, Transform Illinois Coalition Pushes Ahead on Government Consolidation, April 11, 2017; Madeleine Doubek, Faced with tight budgets, more Illinois counties merge clerk, recorder offices, Chicago Sun-Times, October 8, 2018.
7 Robert Reed, Better Government Association, Special Investigation: Why Townships Don’t Add Up, Nov 7, 2011.
8 One Fewer Illinois Government? Evanston Voters Favor Dissolving Township, The Civic Federation, Apr 1, 2012; Also see, City of Evanston, The Dissolution of the evanston Township City of Evanston, IL, August 1, 2016.
9 Ed Komenda, Rep. David McSweeney files bill to allow voters to abolish townships, Northwest Herald, Jan 17, 2018.
What was the first township?
The first township was established in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636.1 This makes townships the oldest unit of government that continues to function in North America.2
The charter of 1629 — known as the charter of Massachusetts Bay Company — established the first form of government in the British colonies of North America, with elections held for governor, deputy governor, and a Court of Assistance.3 The Charter — formally referred to as a “Royal Charter” — was granted to the Massachusetts Bay Company by the British monarchy. Soon after, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Company expelled Puritan minister Roger Williams for disagreeing with their religious views and for spreading “new and dangerous ideas” to his congregants.4
In 1636, Williams began the settlement of Providence Plantations as a “refuge offering freedom of conscience”5 and thus founded the town of Providence, developing a form of government now referred to as townships.
As colonial America developed over the years, two distinct models of government took form: The New England Model, consisting of small regional government units6 with complete government autonomy, and The Virginia Model consisting of larger geographical units and extensive government authority.7
2 Township Officials of Illinois, History.
4 National Society Colonial Dames of the XVII Century, California State Society, Roger Williams Chapter.
6 David K Hamilton, Township Government: Essential or Expendable? The Case of Illinois and Cook County, A study of the Regionalism Project of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, April 14, 2008.