Jim Dey: Eliminating townships has worked before in Illinois

Jim Dey: Eliminating townships has worked before in Illinois

"It's absurd to think the city council can simply absorb the township."

So said a community member who expressed concerns about a suggestion by an Urbana City Council member that it might be time to eliminate a low-level branch of government — Cunningham Township — and fold its duties into the city with which it shares identical boundaries.

There's no such thing as a wrong opinion. But the facts don't bear out the speaker's assertion that consolidation is a failure waiting to happen. They do sustain the claim that both government and taxpayers can benefit from the abolition or consolidation of small units of government, including low-profile township governments.

Who says? The city of Evanston.

It abolished township government there in 2014 and reported savings of $779,000 in the first year. City officials there estimated the move will save taxpayers almost $20 million over a 20-year period with no diminution of services previously performed by the township supervisor's and assessor's offices.

"The initial results following the dissolution of Evanston Township indicate that the services previously provided by the township to residents are being enhanced while at the same time substantial tax dollars are being saved, reducing the tax burden on residents," the city reported.

DuPage County, west of Evanston, is ground zero for the proposition that the size and cost of local government can be reduced while efficiency is enhanced.

Former state Sen. Dan Cronin, now chairman of the county board there, has a religious zeal for cutting through the morass of government that is driving up property taxes around the state to unaffordable levels.

First, he took his campaign to reduce the size and cost of government to his home turf. Since then, he joined the effort being led by a group called Transform Illinois to do the same thing in Illinois' other 101 counties.

All told, Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government, by far the most of the 50 states. Some are new units, like park districts, created by taxpayers. Others, like townships, go back more than 100 years to a time when transportation was difficult and the country was more rural.

They cost too much, are so low-profile many voters do not know they exist and are proving grounds for corruption and hiring by nepotism. That's why Transform Illinois "promotes legislation and research aimed at enabling local governments to streamline services."

"The ultimate goal is to save taxpayers money while creating more efficient and accountable service delivery," according to the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based good government group.

But change has been well nigh impossible, at least it was before Cronin used his influence to persuade the Legislature to pass a law to allow DuPage County — no other county was included — to take a whack at consolidating its local units of government.

The Evanston consolidation case demonstrates just how hard established politicians have worked and will work to save a political arrangement that serves their interests and is squarely at odds with the public's interest.

Under pressure to consolidate the township, the Evanston City Council voted 5-4 in 2011 to put an advisory referendum on the ballot that asked voters if they favored dissolving Evanston Township and transferring its functions to the city of Evanston. Voters supported the measure by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin.

(Note how far the politicians on the city council were out of step with the public. That's because too many of them are looking out for the interests of other politicians, not the public they purport to serve.)

Getting the message, Chairman Cronin worked with his legislators, including Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, to persuade members of the Illinois House and Senate to approve legislation allowing voters there to conduct a meaningful referendum authorizing the consolidation.

In 2014, voters approved the consolidation — 63 percent in favor to 37 percent against.

Much of the nearly $800,000 in first-year savings were "due to a reduction in salary/benefit expenses and administrative expenses" and "elimination of positions" that were unnecessary or duplicative, the city reported.

Last year, the General Assembly, acting as a consequence of consolidation recommendations made by a commission appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, approved a package of bills that makes it easier to eliminate excessive, unneeded or duplicative branches of government.

Now the Urbana City Council, at the behest of Alderman Erik Jakobb-son, is considering consolidating the township, just one of the county's 30 township governments, with the city, following a hiring controversy in the township assessor's office.

Actually doing so will require political courage — a commodity in short supply — in the face of self-interested pols who benefit from the status quo and the kind of tenacity reformers in Evanston embraced.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@mnews-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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Local Yocal wrote on January 11, 2018 at 9:01 am
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There has never been a charge of corruption in the Township Assessors office here locally, though admittedly Wayne Williams is off to a shaky start with his hiring and firing practices thus far. More importantly is the vital service the other side of the township provides and that is needed emergency relief for Urbana residents. The City of Urbana government cannot be entrusted with this task and it takes a seperate agency to do what's needed. Calling for folding township is throwing the baby out with the bath water, and it is good that there is a seperate group of dedicated hardworkers filling the holes the safety net has. The City of Urbana needs the Township. 

CommonSenseless wrote on January 12, 2018 at 6:01 am

The City of Urbana government cannot be entrusted with this task and it takes a seperate agency to do what's needed.

Don't trust government to do it, so we need another unit of government?  Do you ever listen to yourself?


Citizen1 wrote on January 11, 2018 at 10:01 am

The examples you state are urban areas.  Of course there were savings and of course it worked.  Champaign County has city areas and farmland.  The townships here make sure the rural areas are represented and protected from city interests.  If nothing else roads get some maintenance and drainage is maintained. 

CommonSenseless wrote on January 12, 2018 at 6:01 am

Cunningham Township is coterminous with Urbana.  Go look that word up.

justthefacts wrote on January 11, 2018 at 10:01 am

Please explain why the Urbana city goverment is less able to administer social service programs than the township government.

Local Yocal wrote on January 11, 2018 at 1:01 pm
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For one thing, the township's budget is $3 million in tax revenues every year, and having City of Urbana absorb that into their everyday accounting is going to tempt Mayors and Council members into thinking that's money that can go to other things within the budget. It's possible having the city administer funds to the poor could take lessor priority if the need arises (such as hiring 3 more police officers) and thus, shortchange the poor. 

justthefacts wrote on January 11, 2018 at 5:01 pm

So you don't trust the mayor and town council. On the other hand, if you reduce salary and overhead expenses there might be more money to allocate to the general assistance fund. It appears that the only functions of Cunningham Township are to administer the general assistance program and assess property values. Seems like a lot of adminstratrive expense for so little responsibility.

IlliniwekMerica wrote on January 12, 2018 at 10:01 am

Safeguarding against this is as easy as updating the village by laws or resolutions, whatever they call them for the City of Urbana. Which they'd have to do if they assumed the duties of the township anyway.

Now if they do that and still co-mingle the funds, that's not an administration problem, it's an operations problem that can be fixed by voting out the dummies who didn't follow the rules.

bb wrote on January 11, 2018 at 1:01 pm


Not sure where you got the figure $3 million.  The total tax levy for Cunningham Township (Assessor, Supervisor, and General Assistance) has been $1,126,765 for each of the past 2 years.


pattsi wrote on January 11, 2018 at 7:01 pm

Had anyone checked where the township monies commingle with the city of Urbana general if there is a merger or does the money stay separated to be used on stature driven township activities.? Has anyone asked the question h “how do the western states handle business via counties only and how do the eastern states handle business via townships with no counties?”

pattsi wrote on January 11, 2018 at 7:01 pm






Citizen1 wrote on January 12, 2018 at 9:01 am

Urbana is not the center of the universe.  Many townships provide a necessary role in a gerrymandered, corrupt state.

justthefacts wrote on January 12, 2018 at 10:01 am

Urbana is not the center of the universe and many rural townships provide necessary services. The question is not whether those services are needed. The question is could those services be provided at less cost by county government for rural areas or by city government in developed areas.

AltoonaSue wrote on January 13, 2018 at 8:01 am

"The City of Urbana government cannot be entrusted with this task and it takes a seperate agency to do what's needed."

I'm sure you realize the Cunningham Town Board and the Urbana City Council are exactly the same people...

Cunningham Town Board 

Urbana City Council

BruckJr wrote on January 13, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Ouch, that  one had to leave a mark.