Vernon Township voters drive their road district to the junkyard

Vernon Township voters drive their road district to the junkyard

Voters just north of Cook County scrap an unnecessary layer of local government and its six-figure commissioner.

Residents of Vernon Township decided Nov. 6 they don’t need a township road district, or more specifically, a person making $107,750 to run it.

The road district is an independent unit of government staffed by an elected highway commissioner, whose compensation totals $107,750. Vernon Township will absorb the responsibilities of the road district and its 15 miles of road. The highway commissioner hands over the keys in 2021, when his term ends.

Taxpayers will save $107,750 a year when the township absorbs the road district, according to a study commissioned by the township in February. Those savings were entirely attributed to eliminating the district commissioner’s six-figure compensation.

Vernon Township Highway Commissioner Michael Lofstrom takes home an annual base salary of $93,844. But $1,380 in mobile phone reimbursements, $500 in health benefits and other perks bring the commissioner’s annual total earnings to $107,750. The district sits just north of Cook County and near Buffalo Grove.

The February study recommended that the township board include the consolidation referendum on the ballot, concluding that there would be “no reduction in service” nor any outsourcing of services “to private contractors and neighboring government entities.”

The ballot question read, “Shall the Road District of the Township of Vernon be abolished with all the rights, powers, duties, assets, property, liabilities, obligations, and responsibilities being assumed by the Township of Vernon?” Of 23,489 votes cast, 75 percent picked consolidation.

Responsibilities the township will inherit from the district are mainly road construction, street maintenance and snow removal. Vernon Township Supervisor Daniel Didech told the Daily Herald in October that consolidation would not negatively affect the delivery of those services.

Didech said township leaders viewed the role of highway commissioner as “a very unaccountable position,” which earlier this year prompted discussions about the possibility of consolidation, the Daily Herald reported. Inadequate accountability is a familiar theme among townships and township road districts across Illinois, and has given way to patterns of corruption and abuse.

In February 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates. The task force published a report in December 2015, recommending that lawmakers empower Illinoisans to consolidate local government units through referendum.

In August 2017, Rauner signed into law Senate Bill 3, allowing township boards serving a population of fewer than 3 million to hold voter referendums over whether to consolidate their road districts. The law also gave township boards the authority to allow voters to dissolve the township altogether.

Swaddled in nearly 7,000 layers of local government, Illinois boasts more taxing bodies than any other state. The cost of maintaining so many government units is a core driver of Illinoisans’ growing property tax burden. In Lake County, where Vernon Township is located, the average effective property tax rate in 2017 was 2.7 percent, according to property analytics company ATTOM Data Solutions. That’s more than double the national average. Allowing taxpayers to exercise control over how much government they wish to pay for is a necessary step toward relief.

While the most urgent reforms must ultimately come from state lawmakers, municipalities should continue giving taxpayers a voice in shaping the local government they fund.

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