Redundant Services & People, Tens of Millions in Salaries
Of the $27.6 million in total salaries, 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.
"The major role (of township assessors) has to be assessing property. If the county does that, then they have to sit down and manufacture new roles and that’s basically what’s happening," says David Hamilton, a township expert and former chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University, wrote an in-depth analysis on Illinois townships in April 2008.
Ronert Porter of the TOC concedes townships "don’t assess," but says the assessors and deputy assessors serve a vital role to the community by providing residents with tax assessment counsel and helping them with tax appeals.
"Can you imagine an 80-year-old going downtown to talk to the assessor?" asks Porter. "The townships are providing free staff labor to the Cook County assessor."
Nonetheless, there continues to be overlap between the townships and the Cook County Assessor’s office, which recently re-opened four satellite offices, including in suburban Skokie and Rolling Meadows, after having such offices closed a few years ago.
"Why are they not just rolled into the Cook County assessor office?" asks Avon Township Supervisor Sam Yingling, who recently announced he was running for state representative, and is an advocate for a statewide effort to back legislation to cut government costs by reducing the number of townships or eliminating township services that overlap with other government entities or the private sector.
In addition to providing tax assessment assistance and counsel, the townships spend millions of dollars granting residents an array of social services not required by law.
Under state law the townships must provide immediate general assistance help, such as emergency medical care or short-term financial aid until the recipient gets county or state public aid.
Townships are permitted, but not required, to provide some other social services and are expanding beyond their core mission by operating food pantries, offering some basic medical services or teaching courses such as CPR training, or meeting senior citizens’ short-term transportation needs, such as rides to doctors and medical centers.
Some townships provide only one of these social services while others offer all of them.
However, a BGA check of the 20 suburban Cook County townships reveals that a majority are collectively paying millions of dollars for social services already being offered by an overlapping taxpayer-financed municipality, village or suburb; a private charity or a faith-based group; or the publicly backed Cook County.
For example, eight of the townships that run food pantries have nearby food banks or soup kitchens administered by churches or charities; six of the townships provide medical services that are also provided by Cook County; two townships give rides or selected services to senior residents as do two overlapping municipalities.
Based on the townships’ data provided to the comptroller, it’s unclear exactly how much the 20 townships are paying to provide these extra social services.
In his study, Professor Hamilton found that social services are an increasingly significant part of every township’s general assistance budget.
"This is another example of townships trying to justify their existence," says Professor Hamilton.
Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli disagrees, saying his township provides bigger and better community aid. He contends Thornton is filling a demand for basic services that non-profits can’t or don’t deliver very well.
"I heard nothing but complaints about food pantries that handle 30 or 40 people," he said, adding that his township’s food pantry serves up to 3,000 persons per month.
The BGA findings surface at a time when townships throughout Illinois are under fire from a growing number of lawmakers who view townships as prime targets for cost-cutting efforts to streamline and reduce Illinois’ estimated 7,000 units of local government—the highest number in the country.
Only 20 states still have township forms of government.
In addition to Senate Bill 1907, the bill that would pave the way toward getting rid of township road supervisors, there’s ongoing efforts in the Illinois General Assembly to make it easier for residents to vote their townships out of existence.
But even the most ardent township opponent realizes that passing such legislation will be a bruising legislative and political battle.
Having first been formed in the 19th century, Illinois townships have a lot of staying power and are often backed by political muscle and patronage that’s long been enjoyed by both the Democratic and Republican parties.
"There’s a bipartisan effort to defend turf," says Rep. Quigley, when asked why township reform usually stalls in the Illinois General Assembly.
Indeed, a BGA check of the 20 suburban townships found some leaders have family or long-standing ties to influential political names and public office. They include:
- Calumet Township: Bob Rita is supervisor with annual salary of $54,500, according to township records. Her late husband John was former mayor of Blue Island and township Democratic committeeman. Her son, Robert, is a state representative (D-28th).
- Leydon Township: Bradley Stephens is supervisor, making $15,000 per year, according to township records. He’s also head of the Leyden Township Republican Organization and like his late father, Donald Stephens, is also mayor of suburban Rosemont. Stephens did not return calls.
- Thornton Township: Frank Zuccarelli is supervisor with annual salary of $101,649, making him Cook County’s highest paid supervisor, according to township data. He’s also chairman of the board of trustees of South Suburban College, a non-paying post. His political group, known as the "Z Team", is a major vote-gathering force in his area. Zuccarelli told the BGA that the township and political efforts are separate. "One does not have any effect on the other," he says.
- Stickney Township: Louis Viverito is supervisor with annual salary of $74,723—the second highest in Cook County, according to township records. He is also a recently retired Illinois state senator.
- Rich Township: Al Riley is supervisor with annual salary of $25,400, according to township data. Riley, a former urban planner who served three terms as a township trustee, is also a state representative (D-38th) making $66,289 annually.
>> 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.