New law empowers McHenry County voters to consolidate townships

New law empowers McHenry County voters to consolidate townships

A new law relaxes requirements for McHenry County voters looking to dissolve their townships by referendum, clearing a path toward greater efficiency, less waste and lower property taxes.

Illinois townships are often an unnecessary layer of local government – and voters in McHenry County now face fewer hurdles to remove them.

On Aug. 9, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law House Bill 348, which makes its easier for taxpayers in McHenry Country to dissolve their local townships by referendum, transferring their duties and services to the county.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and state Sen. Terry Link, D-Indian Creek, sponsored the measure, which allows McHenry County voters to place a consolidation referendum on the ballot by collecting either a total of 250 petition signatures or a number of signatures equal to 5% of the ballots cast in the last comparable election, whichever number is larger.

If voters approve the referendum, the county takes over the township’s responsibilities.

Prior to HB 348, residents seeking to dissolve their township had to collect a number of petition signatures amounting to 10% of the ballots cast in the previous election – in each of the county’s 17 townships. Under HB 348, the new 5% threshold applies only within the township that would be affected by the referendum.

To boot, the new law also requires both McHenry and Lake counties to dissolve any township road district that maintains 15 miles of road or less, with no action required of voters or other government bodies.

Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government, more than any other state in the nation. Over 1,400 of them are townships, many of which have become notorious for corruption and abuse.

For example, at one point in 2018, three separate McHenry County townships were simultaneously under criminal investigation. One of those investigations into Algonquin Township came following years of allegations of nepotism and improper spending against former Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Bob Miller. Miller and his wife receive nearly $100,000 in combined annual pension benefits.

In a report that year, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally described townships as “deeply flawed” and overrun with “incompetence, guile and impropriety,” recommending that the county consolidate its townships.

McSweeney echoed the idea, according to the Northwest Herald. “With the legal bills, the drama and the back-and-forth, it is an absolute example of a government that should be eliminated,” McSweeney said.

Property taxes in McHenry County are already sky-high, calling into question the value of paying for another unnecessary layer of government. County homeowners suffered an average property tax bill of $6,383 in 2017, far higher than the state and national averages.

Polling consistently shows high taxes are the main reason Illinoisans consider leaving the state. Given McHenry’s high property tax bills, it’s not surprising the county has experienced net outmigration since 2010.

Pritzker has emphasized that lowering property taxes is a goal of the new law. “Rising property taxes overburden homeowners across the state, and this administration is committed to exploring all options to provide communities with relief,” the governor said, according to the Herald.

Despite the county’s heavy tax burden, Algonquin Township trustees rejected a resolution in July 2018 that would have given voters the option to consolidate the township’s road district. Under the new law, voters now face fewer hurdles to consolidate the entire township – without the approval of township trustees.

The new law is a small but necessary step toward greater efficiency of local government in Illinois. Giving voters more control over how much government they’re willing to pay for is a model that should be adopted statewide – not just in McHenry County.

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