McHenry County Board member-elect shares some more thoughts on township government:
WHAT TO DO TOWNSHIPS DO?
With the deadlines for filing for township offices approaching, this may be a good time to review what exactly it is that townships do and see if that can be done more efficiently in some other way.
I will break this up into installments for those who have short attention spans.
HISTORY OF TOWNSHIPS
My family came into what would become McHenry County in 1835. They traveled by wagon and horseback. For the rest of the 19th century that was pretty much the only way to travel.
Railroads came in in the 1850’s and you could go to the county seat by train, but only if you lived near a station on that line.
Otherwise it took you all day to get to the county seat and back from many parts of the county on your horse or buckboard. Farmers couldn’t afford to be away from the farm work for a full day.
You couldn’t send them an email either.
Enter township government. Townships were established shortly after the Civil War and enabled people to get to and from a seat of government in an hour or so. This was a boon to the local residents. One of my ancestors was township supervisor in the 1870’s.
PARTS OF TOWNSHIP GOVERNMENT
Township Government, like Gaul in Caesar’s day, is divided into three parts, Supervisor, Assessor and Road Commissioner. There is also a Board to oversee all of the parts. Everyone is elected, including the Board, and there is also an elected Clerk. They are all paid, along with their staffs. (Contrast this to a Park District where the Board is not paid anything).
The Supervisor is like the CEO of the township. This was recently clarified by the litigation surrounding the attempt in Grafton Township to essentially replace the Supervisor with a Board appointed “administrator.” They weren’t allowed to do that.
The Supervisor has three main duties.
The first is to distribute what is called “interim public assistance.”
This has its origins in the days when we had no social safety net for people who had fallen on hard times. If Farmer Jones got run over by the team, Widow Jones would need help buying the seed for that year or hiring someone to help with the harvest, or she would become a drain on the local community. The Township Supervisor was therefore empowered to give her some
financial assistance out of the township coffers.
Today we have a myriad of other avenues for such assistance. To get state Public Aid, the individual has to drive to the county seat and apply in person at the state IDPA office. Numerous forms have to be filled out. Then the application is processed, but it takes about a month for the month for a check to be issued. In the meantime, the applicant is told to go to their local
township office to apply for interim assistance to tide them over.
They then drive to the township office, sit down and fill out more forms, and get a check right away. The time of an additional administrative staff person plus the Supervisor has to be expended on this process, not to mention the cost of the building they occupy. Why can’t this be done at the IDPA office while they are there using the same application forms they just completed?
Of course it could be done that way but that would eliminate the patronage jobs at the township, so the state workers are not allowed to do this.
There also aren’t a lot of these in McHenry County. Nunda Township typically processes about 2 cases per month. In Grafton it is about 18 per year.
The second function of the Supervisor is to manage the township cemeteries.
Public cemeteries came into use after the Civil War so people didn’t have to keep burying their loved ones on their own properties. When I was a child playing on my grandfather’s farm, where I now live, I ran into a tombstone which said “M.J. Walkup” on it. These happened to be my initials. You can imagine how shocked I was. I later found out that this had belonged to Mary J. Walkup, who had died in the late 1800s and been buried on the farm. She had since been re-interred in the township cemetery in Ridgefield but the original tombstone stayed at the farm under a woodpile.
In the 20th century, private cemeteries began to spring up and the old township cemeteries were closed down. Today they are mainly historical relics where the occasional pauper is buried.
The third function of the Supervisor is to issue checks for the Road Commissioner, Assessor, their staffs, and the Supervisor’s staff, and otherwise balance the books of the township. Today this can be done by outside payroll services and accountants. This also assumes that there is a Road District and Township Assessor in the first place.
Finally, the Supervisor prepares the agendas for the meetings of the Township Board and chairs those meetings. [However, as often seen in Grafton Township, the Board adopts its own agenda.] Again, this assumes that there is a Township Board. If there is no township, there is no Board.
For this the Supervisor is paid a salary. The salary is usually set based on the overall population of the township. In Algonquin Township the Supervisor makes over $70,000 per year. However, the above duties do not necessarily increase along with the population. If you are in a relatively affluent area, there are not going to be that many new public assistance applications just because the population has grown. In fact, most new growth is going to be in the form of new housing whereas the poor tend to move into existing older housing.
The accounting functions do increase as the Assessor’s duties and staff will go up in direct proportion to population growth, but, again, there are outside services that can be used for this.
The ancient township cemeteries are usually landlocked and don’t grow with population increases.
Any other duties the Supervisor performs are newer functions that were made up to justify the position, and were not authorized originally by the Township Code.
The Supervisor’s job is really part time, even in a large township like Algonquin. The Algonquin Supervisor in the 80’s reportedly used to live in Florida five months out of the year. In those months he would fly back to McHenry County the weekend before the monthly meeting and catch up on the work. He would return phone calls on Monday, chair the meeting on Tuesday, and go back to Florida for the rest of the month on Wednesday. The rest of the year he just worked mornings. For that he was paid $35,000, a lot of money back then. He was also able to retire on a pension based on that salary. Not bad work if you can get it.
Next installment: Other township offices