Comments on Township Abolition by Referendum Legislation – Part 2

More comments on State. Rep. David McSweeney’s bill allowing voters to abolish their township government by referendum:

From Steve Willson:

I’m going to offer my opinion here in the hope of trying to sort out some of the wheat from the chaff concerning this issue and to lower the level of invective.

Let me being by saying I’m somewhat agnostic on this issue.

I simply don’t have strong opinions in favor of or against townships, and that’s despite having served for four years on the Township Board in the People’s Soviet of Oak Park.

But, whatever my ultimate conclusion, I think the decision should be based on logic and evidence, and so I propose the following discussion points.

First, the argument that townships are a small part of the tax bill and therefore do not deserve attention is a non sequitur.

We should work on cutting the tax bill of all our local governments, and townships are not exempt because of their size.

Nor does it follow that we should wait to try to fix townships until other governments are fixed.

Second, there are three arguments for eliminating townships, only one of which has something to do with cutting taxes, and all of which should be addressed by those who favor townships.

Argument One is that there are too many governments, too many elected officials, for voters to follow.

I have 58 local and county elected officials I’m supposed to monitor.

It’s not possible for me to know all of them and if they’re doing a good job.

Eliminating positions reduces the burden on me.

(Having said that, the biggest problem isn’t the number of governments, it’s at large positions. For my five governments – two school districts, MCC, my Village and the park district, I have 35 elected officials to monitor. Just going to election by district would cut my burden by 30. Still, cutting the townships is a start.)

Argument Two is that specifically because townships are so small, voters rationally pay little attention to them, which gives townships unique opportunities for nepotism and other waste.

Having fewer governments to monitor empowers voters.

(The counter to this argument IS the cost saving argument. There are virtually no economies of scale in government. In fact, larger governments are generally less cost effective than medium size governments, and I say that having explicitly studied the costs of governmental services of cities in Illinois based on population size. And, frankly, in my 40 years of experience following local government finance, I would say that for every tax dollar lost to graft, ten dollars is lost to pure bureaucratic ineptitude and waste, not including purely stupid programs.)

Argument Three is that administrative/ministerial positions, such as Road Commissioner and Assessor, violate the basic principle of our government of checks and balances.

Assessors and Road Commissioners don’t report to the Township Board, and it’s not possible for the voters to know if a good job or a bad job is being done.

(This is not just true of townships, it’s true of ALL administrative positions, including positions such as Clerk, Assessor, etc. As an example, how would the voters ever know if the coroner was doing a bad job unless a story about moldering bodies showed up on the evening news? The voters lack the time and the access to the information needed to follow the performance of most administrative officials. I think the world of Joe Tirio. I think he’s doing a great job. He’s highly competent and scrupulously honest. But I don’t think the Clerk should be an elected office; it’s strictly administrative. And having said that, until it stops being an elective position, I’ll be supporting Joe Tirio.)

Third, there is an old saw: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

The bill may not be perfect, but the solution is not to do nothing until we have a perfect bill.

Sometimes an imperfect action is better than no action, and it often leads to an improved outcome as we learn more through experience.

So far the arguments I see against this bill are highly general and lack any proof that taxes would actually go up or that there would be serious disruption in services.

If there is strong evidence to support the pro-township position and I’ll be pro-township.

Fourth, I find it especially pernicious to argue that voters can’t be trusted to make good decisions.

I say let the voters have their say. They have that right, and who here would deny them?

If a referendum makes it to the ballot, pro-township forces will have their chance to argue that further study is needed, and the voters can decide if that’s sufficient reason to retain townships.

As always, I’m open to logical arguments, especially with evidence, that address my points.

But let’s decide this based on proof and logic, not name calling and platitudes.

One final comment: I think it is a tribute to the respect that Rep. McSweeney obviously commands from his peers that he was able to guide this legislation through the Illinois Legislature.

A less skilled or less respected legislator’s bill would have failed, especially when some of his regional and party colleagues opposed the bill.


Comments on Township Abolition by Referendum Legislation – Part 2 — 13 Comments

  1. Steve:

    I do have an opinion on townships and I think they are completely unnecessary. Many states do not have them and do perfectly fine. 17 mostly rural counties in Illinois also don’t have them but do have Road Districts. They also do just fine.


    (1) Assuming that townships might be needed for some reason (other than being “close to the people” which is spurious), once a township has had almost all of it’s formerly unincorporated area gobbled up by municipalities, it ought to cease to exist automatically. Say when 90% of it’s land or road mileage is inside of municipal boundaries.

    (2) There also ought to be provisions for periodic referenda on keeping any township when say, 50% of it has disappeared due to annexations. Every ten years, for example, there could be an automatic referendum placed on the ballot after the 50% figure is reached. This would continue until the 90% figure is reached, at which point the township would automatically dissolve.

    (3) All townships elections should be non partisan. By allowing partisan elections, whatever party is predominant in the area can just caucus in candidates who will usually win the general election. If a primary is held, the turn out is pathetic owing to the time of year it is held (4th Tuesday in February every four years in off years). Those elected then usually wind up winning the general election, and are often unopposed.

    (4) Interim public assistance ought to either be abolished, or done as part of the application process with the state for public aid benefits, which is almost always done by the applicants prior to seeking further assistance from whatever township they happen to have landed in. As it now stands, all of the paperwork, interviewing, and verification that is already being done by IDPA is just repeated by the township, which consumes time and resources.

    (5) Both the Assessor and Road Commissioner should be placed under direct control of the township board. Currently, the Township Supervisor does act as “treasurer” for the Road District, but that just means that they cut the payroll checks. The Supervisor has nothing to do, however, with the Assessor’s office.

    (6) Salaries of township officials should be predicated on the actual amount of work that they do, not the population of the township. Population does not correlate with the duties of either the Supervisor or Road Commissioner. Public aid applicants do not tend to go up that much with population growth as most new people are those moving into newly built homes who are not seeking public assistance. The township road mileage also goes down, not up, when municipalities annex land and incorporate the township roads into city streets. As it now stands, township officials routinely increase their salaries to match population growth. Only the Assessor’s office increases proportionately to population growth.

    I look forward to hearing from “the nob” on this one.

  2. Thanks for the write-up, Steve.

    I knew you posted a long comment one day, I skipped over it, and then couldn’t remember which article it was in.

    Thanks for reposting this in article form, Cal.

  3. Assessors’ salaries are set by township boards but their salaries have nothing to do with township population or township EAV (equalized assessed value).

  4. I’m in favor of storming the Bastille Saint-Antoine.

    Townships and Road Districts are run like little kingdoms.

    If we learned anything about the consequences from lack of oversight in algonquin township is that the inability to oversee a highway commissioner is disastrous to the American principal that we are the sovereign.

    When a highway commissioner uses his office to hand down power to his family he is acting as a king.

    This country was founded by the people under the basic idea that kingdoms were inherently corrupt able and inconsistent with fundamental principles of liberty and justice.

    What Illinois developed with the township and Road District Law was a series of mini kingdoms.

    This is evident in the agrument advanced by the Millers in words and conduct that it was their family business.

    When an elected official acts as though he owns a government and acts to pass it down to his offspring, the people ought to take notice concerning the decisions made which are not in the best interest of the people.

    We see in Marengo township the Road district commissioner assumed the position of his father held for many years.

    In reviewing the proponents of townships perhaps they can be heard in the town square heralding the words:

    “The Highway Commissioner is dead, long live the Highway Commissioner!”

  5. Correct Al, but the assessors’ salaries that are set by the boards do reflect the number of properties to be assessed which has some relationship to population.

    I have no problem with that.

    However, those same boards use the increased population to justify comparable raises for Supervisor and Road Commissioner, as well as board members’ per diems, which is not right.

    Supervisors salaries should reflect the number of public aid applications and the actual amount of time required to process them, considering the availability also of staff.

    When you factor in that the Supervisors in the more populated townships have a staff person, ,that Supervisor spends no more personal time on the applications than the Supervisors in the less populated townships that do it themselves.

    How much time does it really take to process one application?

    AL township has about 30 per year and Nunda about 24.

    Grafton has somewhere around 16 or 17.

    That’s one every other week, and there is a staff person who actually does the paperwork.

    They are usually also duplicating work that IDPA is also doing.

    How does that justify a salary of over $70K?

    Road District payrolls are automated so again, how much time does the Supervisor spend?

    Township cemeteries aren’t being added and the postage stamp sized ones that currently exist rarely see new burials.

    Landscape companies are used to keep them mowed.

    Road District budgets, including salaries for the Commissioner and employees should reflect the actual number of road miles in township roads after municipal annexations, factoring in additional wear and tear on the roads for more traffic.

    Most of the road mileage left in the Eastern townships consists of subdivision roads so the people in those areas are getting their roads taken care of with taxes paid mostly by others.

    Why shouldn’t they have to hire a private company to maintain what are essentially private roads that aren’t usable by through traffic?

    What we see instead is that the Supervisors and Road Districts in the more populated townships have several times the budgets and salaries of the less populated ones.

    When asked to justify it they tell you that their townships are “bigger”.

    There is some marginal size difference between the Eastern township tier and the rest of the townships, but it is not enough to justify a salary for the AL Supervisor that is ten times that of the Coral Township Supervisor.

    That’s why the townships have branched out to do recycling, food pantries, victory gardens, bingo and chair yoga.

    They need some way to justify their bloated salaries.

  6. As a taxpayer in survival mode, being forced by law to subsidize every TIF but having no voting rights in that process; my current political stance is forced to become (as Woodstock government has exhibited): every taxpayer for himself.

    Given certain townships’ tendencies to UNDER-assess (as proven by Equalization factors) at the expense of all other Townships which OVER-assess or FAIRLY-assess, the vote is no-brainer.

    Consolidation of Assessors will force the UNDER-assessment algorithm to be applied to the OVER-assessed (dissolved) Township formerly-exploited-properties.

    Academic theories about the future ‘common good’ and flowery predictions from politicians and private profiteers of such politicians’ policy decisions are of no interest to homeowners at 4% property tax rates who cannot get out…because what idiot in America would pay 4% of a fairly assessed home with all the more rational alternatives?

  7. As to Out of towner’s comment, I think the McHenry Road District consolidation effort failed because the Road District preservers led people to think that something bad was going to happen to their “roads” if the measure passed.

    Most people don’t know the difference between township, county, municipal, state, and federal roads or who is responsible for maintaining them.

    Any effort to abolish or consolidate townships is going to run up against a scare campaign where it will be suggested that ALL roads are somehow going to be affected adversely by any sort of changes.

    I believe this is the main reason why Bob Anderson’s multiple efforts to abolish townships failed.

    The Referendum Road is going to be a tough one, regardless of how easy it may be to get it on the ballot.

  8. There is only one guilty party in the over taxation of Illinois residents and it’s the residents themselves.

    We must take the steps needed to consolidate all areas of Government that we can.

    Then reduce or eliminate Pensions for ALL Government employees and then reduce their salaries as well.

    If we don’t take charge then we only have ourselves to blame.

  9. “… but the assessors’ salaries that are set by the boards do reflect the number of properties to be assessed which has some relationship to population.”

    “From your lips to God’s ears.” If only that were true.

    That should be the case until politics rears its ugly head; Grafton is a perfect example.

    Per the county’s 2017 Annual Report, it has the second highest EAV in the county behind Algonquin and the third highest number of parcels behind Algonquin and McHenry.

    Grafton: $1,538,185,527 and 21,308 parcels.

    Algonquin: $2,509,808,521 and 36,445 parcels.

    Nonetheless, the board set the assessor’s salary at $30K and no benefits which is less than half the other major townships’ salaries which also provide benefits.

    The assessor should definitely be apolitical because politics has absolutely no place in valuation.

    Assessors as employees of the Department of Revenue makes much more sense.

    As long as politics stays out of the picture…

    The same premise should apply to the county Supervisors of Assessments.

  10. (4) Interim public assistance:

    How about we look at costs of disbanding assistance at both the township and the State/Fed assistance programs?

    Perhaps if the State/Fed would get rid of most of their expensive help and just let the township employees deal with all the paper work it maybe more efficient and cheaper?

    (5) Both the Assessor and Road Commissioner should be placed under direct control of the township board:

    Yes, a tad more oversite works.

    The vote in McHenry twh relates directly to Bob Anderson saying there would be a savings yet not doing the homework to prove that change would save anything.

    Had he just stop talk savings and just said oversite it may have passed.

    (6) Salaries of township officials:

    Pay relates to what everybody else in the area is paying for comparable work with minor consideration for the $$$$ of taxation.

    The eastern townships are surrounded by union shop’s and that effects the entire pay scale all the way to the top.

    Cary has almost same mileage of streets as Alg twh has, their Assistant PW Director’s pay and responsibilities is comparable to Alg Twh’s Highway Comm.

    If the Drain the Swamp mentality takes over like it did in Alg twh, expect more township unionization.

  11. (3) All townships elections should be non partisan:

    The elections for County Board and below should all be non partisan and held in November with the general elections.

    (2) Township’s have lost roads to annexation, but they have also gain roads because of urbanization.

    Alg twh has housing areas just like Cary, Lake Killarney, Sliver Lakes sub, Northwood Acres, and etc.

    These roads require more maintenance than what uses to be the rural farm roads, because of curb, storm, width, and even some sidewalks.

    I do support the right of voters to be able to vote on any major changes in taxation or services, but a 2/3 vote should be required for any changes.

    Voting on tax levies every year or every other year would work also.

    (1) Are townships needed?

    Why not seriously study what we need to do on a local level to change road maintenance in our county, assistance, and assessments?

    I suggested a possible change for assistance already.

    Assessments Al has suggested a change, I’m wondering if they help is better off in Woodstock or stay where there already is office space and shorter driving times?

    Maybe we should have a radical change to all income taxes for local services instead of subjective assessment’s?

    I think a group of Public Works type employees bosses and operators from every unit of gov in the county should get together and figure out the cheapest way to maintain our roads.

    Moving State roads to the county like in Wisconsin has proven to be cheaper, and some county roads should be maintained by Village or township crews that don’t have to travel as far to maintain them.

    CL maintains 14 by contract for the State, all the other gov agencies could do the same and IDOT Woodstock shop could be closed.

    One last note, most people that live in unincorporated areas don’t want annexation overall.

    Mostly all ya get is slightly better police protection for another $200 or hire property tax bill.

    I’m open to change, lets just make sure that change actually saves, not like BOcare,

  12. Since I started in Public works back in the 70s I notices every gov agency has expanded on the services they supply.

    The residents see their property tax bill or income taxes they pay, whine, and then ask for more services to justify what they are paying.

    Most changes have been citizen driven, of course the elected want to retain their power and add what they think will get them reelected.

    Self sufficiency, is kind of a thing of the past sadly.

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