Townships forever?

Townships forever?

When elected leaders won't lead, the public loses.

In the aftermath of the firing fiasco in the Cunningham Township Assessor’s Office, common sense briefly reared its head.

Urbana Alderman Eric Jakobsson wondered why the city still has an elected township supervisor and assessor, and suggested it would be wise to ask voters if they’d like to abolish these unnecessary, outdated offices that rely on property taxes to operate.

Needless to say, township supporters pushed back quickly, and it appears this promising idea is, if not dead, at least on life support.

What happened? Well, as usual, those who would be affected by the elimination of the offices, either directly or by precedent, pushed back. The result was that members of the city council, who also comprise the township’s board, decided they’d rather protect their cronies’ political interests than the public’s best interests.

Well, what else is new? That’s why hundreds of township offices, 30 in Champaign County alone, continue to function. No one with any sense can credibly argue these throwbacks to 100-plus years ago are really necessary. But even allowing the public to vote on getting rid of them would create problems many elected officials would rather not face.

When asked recently, only two of the seven Urbana council members — Jakobsson and Bill Brown — suggested that putting township abolition to a vote was worth discussing.

Alderman Jared Miller said township government serves a “significant, unequaled and vital role” and chastised Jakobsson for raising the suggestion “hastily, improperly and incorrectly.”

Alderman Dennis Roberts said he’s “not interested in making that decision right now” — or probably ever.

Alderwoman Maryalice Wu said the township “does a lot of really good work.”

Alderman Dean Hazen said he’s “proceeding with caution” because the township plays “an important role.”

Even the normally sensible Mayor Diane Marlin, no doubt spooked by potential adverse political consequences, said she’s “just focused on city stuff right now.” In other words, she’s not interested in considering a political move that might blow up in her face.

One reason Illinois has one of the nation’s highest property-tax rates is because of the thousands of units of local government it maintains. Townships contribute to that toxic brew, and things will only get worse as long as state and local officials continue to defer to the self-interests of township officials who maintain these governmental dinosaurs.

As former Champaign Mayor Dan McCollum noted recently in a guest commentary on the subject, townships survive because of the inability of the General Assembly to “get with the times.”

For instance, he asks why township property assessors are elected when their work is purely administrative. The answer is they survive for the same reason that Champaign County voters elect a recorder of deeds, another purely administrative function that could be done at less expense if its duties were folded into the county clerk’s office.

But just as members of the county board were too frightened by the politics of getting rid of a needless elected recorder of deeds office, so, too, are members of the Urbana City Council afraid to do away with even one of the county’s 30 townships.

During last year’s legislative session, the General Assembly passed bills making it easier for local officials to downsize township government, either through elimination or consolidation.

Elimination doesn’t mean the functions of these offices would cease; it means they would be picked up by the absorbing entity, like a city.

A few communities throughout the state have taken advantage of this opportunity to reduce costs. But just the prospect of change has hundreds of township officials pleading for the continuation of their jobs and other officials, like the aldermen in Urbana, concluding that they’d rather not ruffle any feathers.

Some might ask, “Well, what about the taxpayers? Mightn’t they get angry, too?”

No way. Township government is invisible to most folks, making it the perfect place to get on the government dole.

In Urbana, the Democrats defend township government because the Democrats run it. In rural areas, Republicans defend it because Republicans run it. It’s a bipartisan conspiracy that serves their interests well and the public’s not at all.

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billbtri5 wrote on February 11, 2018 at 5:02 pm

..eliminating Townships sounds good on paper but I doubt Taxpayers would ever see any tax reductions...may even increase as "government professionals" take over those functions...

pattsi wrote on February 12, 2018 at 11:02 am

As a counter to this posting--I went to McLean county to study the effects of the voters supporting merging the county clerk and recorder on the same ballot as an individual running for the recorder position. Merging the offices trumped, so this occured. This totally eliminated the recorder, along with the salary and benefits, which totalled about $120,000. No additional staff was hired, but some staff in each office were cross trained because the busy cycles in each office did not coincide. In addition, the clerk's office is on the first floor of a multi story building and the recorder's on the second floor.

Bottomline do not presume anything related to merging andor eliminating any township or county-wide office until such time has been spent study the various situations and possibilities.

With the very tight financial times for many townships and definitely the county, efficiency may not reduce your tax bill, but just might these entities to more efficiently use your taxpayer dollars.