The bipartisan bullies of township government

The bipartisan bullies of township government

Townships are the cockroaches of governance. They won’t die.

A great deal of what’s wrong in Illinois government can be explained by a socioeconomic theory called “concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.”

What does that mean?

The loudest people at the political bargaining table are usually the special interests who stand to gain or lose a lot from governments’ decisions. Meanwhile, the rest of us who might not see a big difference either way are too busy to care.

This theory does a great job of explaining things like corporate welfare and pork barrel spending. But it also explains how the odd duck of Illinois government has evaded serious scrutiny for more than a century, and why both parties are to blame.

Illinois has more units of local government than any state, including more than 1,400 township governments. Townships are allowed to do only three things: assess property values, provide poverty assistance and maintain roads.

Sounds harmless, right?

The problem is that these governments were established for a different time with different needs. Now, Illinoisans’ property tax bills are incredibly high and other units of local government – such as municipalities and counties – can capably deliver those services at a lower cost and with more effective oversight.

This has been the case for decades. But township consolidation has been so difficult that only two places in Illinois – Evanston and Belleville – have successfully dissolved one.

Townships are the cockroaches of governance. They won’t die.

The reason: concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.

Illinois homeowners don’t pay much of their property tax bill to townships, but township officials make a living on this antiquated system. They can be loud, they can be vicious and they have allies in the General Assembly from both parties.

Northern Illinois barber Bob Anderson has been a township consolidation advocate for decades, and recently succeeded in getting a referendum on local ballots in November to consolidate his township road district. But that wasn’t without a massive fight.

While Bob was working on township consolidation (and finding rusty nails scattered in his driveway and at his barbershop as a consequence) his township road district was retaining the “consulting” services of notorious Algonquin Township Road District Commissioner Bob Miller, who was ousted from his office amid a grand jury investigation into improper spending last year. Anderson’s local road district also gifted a job to the son of a nearby township commissioner without interviewing any other applicants.

The road commissioner’s reply to questions about the clouted hire: “Do you have a problem with that?” His retort when asked why he didn’t make the township board aware of Miller’s consulting fees: “When did you ask?”

In other words, consolidation seems like a no-brainer for this community.

But sadly for local residents, the townships found a friend in Republican state Rep. Steven Reick, who vociferously opposed Anderson’s efforts and tried to pass a bill mandating a cost study before officials would be allowed to ask voters if they want to consolidate their township.

Eric Jakobsson, a Democratic alderman in Urbana, has encountered the same resistance to township consolidation from the other side of the aisle.

Despite the fact that Cunningham Township mirrors the Urbana city boundaries exactly and was home to a personnel controversy of its own in January, when the township assessor hired a former Champaign County worker facing felony charges for misuse of a county credit card, the office remains intact.

“My guess is that if it came on the ballot in Urbana, the Republicans would be overwhelmingly supportive of abolishing the township and Democrats would be split … bitterly,” Jakobsson said.

But there’s reason to believe the state is finally taking this problem seriously. State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, has filed a bill easing the process by which McHenry County voters can consolidate townships. Residents of the dissolved township would be guaranteed a property tax cut, as no more than 90 percent of the taxes levied by the former township government would be transferred in consolidation. The hope is that this measure will be expanded across the state.

McSweeney’s bill passed the House by a strong margin. Among the 22 “no” votes: Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, who also serves as Rich Township Supervisor; and Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, who is a former township supervisor and trustee.

Are the end times of townships nigh?

That’s ultimately up to taxpayers, who might finally be screaming louder than those who benefit from local government largesse.

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