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SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed into law a bill giving voters in one Illinois county an option to more easily dissolve township governments that two state lawmakers say is the first step in easing property taxes around the state by reducing units of government.

Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said it’s the first step to providing that choice to voters throughout the state. Consolidation must first work well in McHenry, the sixth most populous county in Illinois, before the experiment can expand.

“We need to show that it works, but in the future, I plan to use this as a way to promote other types of consolidation — we need to look at school districts, park districts, municipalities,” said McSweeney, the law’s sponsor in the House. “I am going to continue to focus on this.”

There are more than 8,500 local government units in Illinois, according to the state comptroller — 1,428 of which are townships. These are essentially the closest level of government to residents, required to provide general assistance to the poor, administer property assessments and maintain roads.

Citizens already had the ability to dissolve their township, but the new statute cuts in half the threshold for a grassroots petition to get on a ballot.

A township board could also propose a dissolution. In McHenry County, a township’s operations, property and employees would transfer to the county government if it is dissolved.

The law additionally has a provision that property taxes used to cover services handled by the township would drop by at least 10 percent. Additionally, all money linked to a consolidated township must be used to benefit the geographic area of that eliminated level of government.

It takes effect immediately.

Pritzker: Wait and see

“Rising property taxes overburden homeowners across the state, and this administration is committed to exploring all options to provide communities with relief,” Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in marking the bill’s signing. “After hearing from local stakeholders on their desire for government consolidation, I ... look forward to seeing how this bill works for the taxpayers of McHenry County.”

The measure was contentious among local officials. In mid-April, when it successfully passed the House, county leaders expressed frustration McSweeney did not ask them if such an initiative was needed.

“No one actually asked the county board if we needed something like this. I’m not sure where it came from — we’re all blindsighted by it,” McHenry County Board member Carolyn Schofield said at the time.

But Jack Franks, county board chairman and a former state representative, said townships are an antiquated form of government. He was influential in drafting Illinois’ government consolidation laws, and said he thinks McHenry County can be the place to “think outside the box” to cut residents’ property taxes.

“This is how government is supposed to work,” Franks said. “It’s supposed to be a laboratory; it’s not supposed to be static.”

It is unclear whether re-ducing the levels of government will save taxpayers money because an inclusive analysis has never been conducted, said Kurt Thurmaier, chairman of the Department of Public Administration at Northern Illinois University.

Critics: Impact overblown

Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, is the only state legislator whose district falls completely within McHenry County. He did not respond to a request for comment on House Bill 348 becoming law, but when the measure passed his chamber, he said he did not believe it would achieve the goal outlined by McSweeney.

“I don’t know what David McSweeney’s agenda is, and I don’t care, but I hope he has the strength of character to stand in front of the same people he’s telling now their property taxes are going to go down, and explain why that hasn’t happened and, in fact, why they’ve probably gone up,” Reick told Capitol News Illinois in mid-April.

The new statute additionally applies, in small part, to Lake County. Even if the voters in McHenry opt to leave their townships intact, the law automatically eliminates at least five road districts in Lake County that maintain 15 miles of roads or less.

“This is going to affect a lot of people directly and indirectly. I am personally convinced it will cost my taxpayers more money,” said Lake County Board member Diane Hewitt. “My residents don’t care who plows their roads, and they don’t care who that road belongs to — they care how deep they have to dig into their pockets and that their roads are plowed.”