Daily Chronicle Editor Eric Olson recently published an opinion that stated that township government is superfluous today, and that doing away with township government would result in saving the taxpayers money.
During my tenure as DeKalb Township supervisor, this is an opinion I have often heard. I have found that when presented with the role township government plays in Illinois, many are surprised at all we are charged with, and no longer agree with Olson.
Let me start by giving a brief overview of the operations for which the township is responsible: Illinois has 1,432 townships, all charged with three primary functions: administering general assistance, property tax assessments and road maintenance.
These duties are carried out by eight elected officials: supervisor, highway commissioner, assessor, clerk and four trustees, all elected at large from the township. The annual meeting also allows any resident to cast a vote for the business at hand rather than having an elected official do so on his behalf, making townships the last unit of pure democracy.
The trustees set general legislative policy for the township and approve budgets and expenditures. The supervisor is CEO and treasurer of all township funds, and also administers general assistance, providing food, shelter and emergency relief for people in need until they can support themselves.
The township highway commissioner is responsible for the construction and maintenance of all roads and bridges within the township road district. Township assessors are responsible for the appraisal of all taxable property within the township. Mass appraisal requires that the assessor perform three vital duties: list and value all new construction within the township; ensure that existing property is valued at the appropriate statutory level of market value; ensure that similar property is valued in a uniform manner.
Beyond these mandated services, many townships provide programs for vulnerable populations, including senior citizens, youth and the disabled. They also may provide health services, funding for nonprofit organizations and cemetery maintenance. This flexibility allows for each township to assess the needs of its community and offer the services needed with its borders. DeKalb Township, for example, funds more than a dozen social service organizations and created a committee on youth to assist organizations battling juvenile delinquency.
Because these services are chosen and paid for locally, citizens know their tax dollars are going to help their neighbors.
Illinois townships are responsible for 53 percent of the roads in Illinois; abolition of townships would require other governments to assume their maintenance.
For example, DeKalb County currently maintains 190 miles of road, whereas the 19 townships within it collectively maintain more than 800 miles. If townships were abolished, DeKalb County would become responsible for these 800 additional miles, undoubtedly increasing tax levies to cope. In fact, counties across the state would have to absorb the maintenance and cost of over 71,000 miles of additional roads.
So although the taxpayers would see a decrease in taxes supporting townships, they would see a disproportionate increase in taxes elsewhere because (according to a comparison of 2012 revenue streams between DeKalb County and all of DeKalb County’s townships) township roads cost approximately $6,500 a mile annually, while county roads cost taxpayers $29,500.
Another argument for the elimination of townships is redundancy. Some believe that townships duplicate services already provided by other units of government, thereby creating waste and inefficiency. If this were true, I’d agree that funding should be streamlined, given the painful fiscal state in which Illinois finds itself.
However, all units of local government have specific geographical areas of responsibility. For example, no two local units administer solid waste collection to the same customer, nor do they maintain the same streetlights or streets. Township elimination does not remove the need for property tax assessment, general assistance administration, or road maintenance; it just shifts the costs to another unit of government, an idea that has been proven to cost the taxpayers more, according to a recent study by Wendell Cox.
There are many additional reasons to support your local township, and I hope it is clear that their elimination wouldn’t be painless, as some suggest. If taxpayers feel inefficiencies exist, they should vote for new leadership rather than look to eliminate the form of government altogether.
• Eric Johnson was appointed DeKalb Township supervisor in 2010 and was elected to a full term in April. He has his law degree and a degree in political science from NIU and resides in DeKalb with his wife, Jennifer, and 2-year-old son, Benjamin.