Are Townships a Relic of the Past?

An NBCChicago & Better Government Association Report

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Townships around Chicago are flush with cash, while other local governments struggle. Are those townships worth the tax money you pay them?

    Do you get your city services from a township? Not sure? Don’t even know what a township is?

    Check your tax bill.

    Back in the 1880s, Illinois, like many states, was divided into townships to serve the needs of rural families. But in modern times, where many of those rural areas have been filled in with actual communities, critics argue that the days for townships have long since passed.

    “This is government looking for work,” says Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley, a longtime critic. “It made sense a century ago, but it really doesn’t make sense now.”

    Indeed, a Better Government Association report suggests that Cook County townships are sitting on buckets of cash, even as they tend highway budgets which are exponentially larger than those of the state or even surrounding communities. And usually for only a few miles of very expensive road.

    An IDOT study cited by the BGA suggests taxpayers in those Chicago area townships are not getting the best bang for their buck. Roads in Leyden township cost an estimated $139,000 per mile. In Stickney Township, the state says the road budget comes to nearly $257,000 per mile. In Hanover Township, it’s just over $107,000.

    The average for all Cook County townships is about $80,000 per mile, compared with $32,174 in Will County and $27,399 in McHenry County.

    “You don’t need a township with five miles of road,” says Quigley. “It makes absolutely no sense!”

    Critics argue the townships should be dissolved, with their duties taken over by county governments, or neighboring communities.

    Adding to the argument is the big balances many township governments maintain. At a time when many municipalities, counties, and even the state are running deficits, many townships are sitting on mountains of cash. The BGA study showed a balance of $14.6 million in Thornton Township, $13 million in Lyons, over $9 million in Stickney.

    “Cook County’s townships are some of the larger townships in the state,” argues Robert Porter, chief of the Township Officials of Cook County. “I think the other units of government should at least take a peek at townships and say, ‘Hey, how are they being able to put some money away, and why can’t we do it?’”

    Why do townships maintain such fat bank accounts? Officials argue that they need to keep a rainy day fund stocked full, and that when they do decide to spend their money, they pay cash, instead of saddling residents with needless borrowing.

    “If you have a one million dollar township operation, you should probably have a million dollars sitting in reserve,” says Porter.

    Andy Shaw of the BGA disagrees.

    “Show me a unit of government that is sitting on a pile of cash,” says Shaw, “and I will show you a unit of government with nothing to do.”

    In Stickney Township, southwest of Chicago, Supervisor Louis Viverito shows off a sparkling new community center, which his government has already paid for. Seniors enjoy free meals and art classes, and a clinic offers free dental and medical checkups.

    “You wouldn’t get that anywhere else, but in township government,” Viverito argues. “I believe we’re more efficient financially, than having the county come in here.”

    Viverito argues that the seemingly inflated highway numbers are misleading. His highway department provides a variety of services, he says, from tree trimming, to sewer services, and rodent control.

    “There’s nothing that I know of, to compare with what we’re doing,” he says.

    Not everyone is on board.

    “Just because you’re doing good things, does not mean you’re essential,” says Quigley. “It’s time for townships to go.”

    In Lake County’s Avon Township, even Viverito’s counterpart, Supervisor Sam Yingling, says it’s probably time for the government he oversees to be dissolved and its duties taken over by local communities or the county.

    “Government is not in the business to be hoarding taxpayer money,” Yingling argues. “I believe the residents of a township should have a right to determine for themselves, which portions of the townships they want to keep.”

    The Better Government Association promotes reform through investigative journalism, civic engagement and advocacy. We're a watchdog, shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.