Under the Radar: Many townships, little scrutiny
Official: 'Word was that no one was paying attention'
Townships are used to being in the background.
Few people attend their board meetings. Reporters almost never go. And some politicians talk about doing away with townships altogether.
Every year, every township must turn in its budget to the county clerk.
Whiteside and Lee counties each have 22 townships. An employee in the Whiteside County clerk's office can't remember anyone ever asking to see the township budgets, with the recent exception of a Sauk Valley Media reporter.
Many of the budgets are handwritten. Some don't include the balances in their general and road funds. Still others are turned in months after the July deadline.
One township, Whiteside County's Portland, hadn't even turned in a budget as of late November.
Other levels of government sometimes have fierce debates over how to spend their money. The Lee County Board, for instance, split over its last budget.
But Sauk Valley Media couldn't find one instance in which a township trustee in Whiteside or Lee counties voted against a budget.
Each township has a supervisor, four trustees, a clerk, a highway commissioner and an assessor (often shared with other townships).
That dramatically increases the number of elected officials. Lee County, for instance, has 199 township and county elected officials. That compares to just 12 in Boone County, Ark., which has no township government. Both counties have populations of about 36,000.
How does Boone County do it?
In Arkansas, county governments handle township functions, as is the case in most states. That's also true in 18 of Illinois' 102 counties, mainly in the south.
Official sees duplication of equipment, staff
Illinois townships consume a small fraction of property tax bills, so little attention is paid to them. Over time, however, townships can build sizable budget surpluses.
In the past fiscal year, the combined surpluses for the road and general funds for Lee County's townships amounted to more than $3.2 million, or $90 a resident. That compares to Lee County's general fund, which has been running deficits year after year.
In Whiteside County, the townships' surpluses are more than $2.5 million, or $42 a person, and that's not including the four townships – Albany, Erie, Portland and Ustick – that didn't provide timely balance information to the county.
Townships have a few basic functions – taking care of roads, assessing the taxable value of properties, providing emergency assistance to the poor. They're allowed to spend their money on other things, though. This year, for instance, Sterling Township bought a building to house a youth club. And at least two Lee County townships, Willow Creek and Hamilton, have paid for attorneys to fight wind farms.
Few challenge the idea of townships; proposals to chip away at them die in the state Legislature.
Vern Gottel, the supervisor of Palmyra Towship (population 2,906) in western Lee County, agreed with the main argument for townships: They're closest to the people.
"Townships are quicker to respond to individual complaints such as potholes and snowplowing," he said.
But he said he can see the benefits of consolidating township functions.
"When you look at the big picture, there is duplication of equipment and staff," he said. "If you folded them together, you'd save money."
He also said township highway commissioners have a lot of power.
"The road commissioner is the second most powerful person in the state," Gottel said. "If you have a good commissioner, it's fine. If you don't, you're not getting anywhere."
'I'm getting too old for this'
Nachusa Township, population 493, which is east of Dixon, was months late in turning in its budget to the county clerk.
The longtime supervisor, Dick Appelquist, said the township struggles to get information to the state comptroller and the county clerk.
"The word was that no one was paying attention," Appelquist said. "I guess they are."
He provided the balance information over the phone to Sauk Valley Media.
Appelquist, 83, who has been supervisor for 30 years, said the township can't find anyone to take his place.
"I'm getting too old to do this," he said. "Everything is going on the Internet this year because of paperwork. I don't have a computer or the Internet. I grew up with a pencil eraser and books. I don't want to tell the boys I want to quit. I've got a good board."
So what about consolidating townships?
No way, he said.
"If you start combining these townships, someone will get left out," he said. "They've been trying to bust up townships. We're getting along fine. Why do we want to change?"
Whiteside County's Albany Township, population 1,076, hasn't provided information on its balances to the county.
Its supervisor, Dan Bitler, didn't explain why. But he is a fan of township government.
Without townships, rural areas may be ignored when it comes to road maintenance and snowplowing, he said.
"Albany is the wrong end of the county," Bitler said. "Sterling and Rock Falls get the majority of everything from Whiteside County."
To make his case, he looks to Iowa, which doesn't have separate township governments.
"Go look at the roads in their rural areas," Bitler said. "They're all gravel. We have a lot better road system. Wouldn't you rather live on a blacktop road?"
Snowplowing is a particular concern, he said.
"After the snow is done, our township road commissioner has all the roads plowed. How soon would the county be down here to get them plowed? If all the townships went countywide, people would have to wait for services."
Small townships, bigger surpluses
Newton Township, population 450, in western Whiteside County, has a combined surplus of the road and general funds of $96,633. That works out to $208 for every resident.
Supervisor Jerry Norman said townships need to build up surpluses for big purchases.
"A new maintainer may be a quarter million [dollars]," Norman said. "These surpluses don't get very far if we need a piece of equipment. We have to have these fund balances.
“The other thing is that we came off a winter without any snow. The road fund is drained when you have a lot of snow."
Many smaller townships have higher surpluses per resident. Lee County's Hamilton Township, population 205, is the smallest in both Whiteside and Lee counties. Its surplus of $140,819 is the largest per capita – $686 per resident, or $2,744 for a family of four.
Hamilton Supervisor Stacy Gonigam said the township needs the surplus.
"We're always saving for something, a truck or a piece of equipment," she said. "Roads are expensive."
'No one would miss townships ...'
Asked whether he supported keeping townships, author Richard Longworth responded with questions: "Do you know who your township officials are? What do townships do?"
Most people don't know the answers to those questions, he said.
"No one would miss the townships if they were gone, except for those who work for them," said Longworth, author of "Caught in the Middle," which argues for consolidating outdated forms of government. "We don't have any idea what townships do. It's wasted taxpayers' money."
When townships started more than two centuries ago, he said, they were useful.
"They're an example of Jeffersonian democracy, where government is close to the people," said Longworth, who also is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "When most people lived in small villages, townships amounted to something.
"When transportation in this part of the country was very difficult, getting to the county seat was an all-day chore," he said. "We've had 200 years and several thousand miles of interstates since then."
But getting rid of townships won't be easy, he said.
"A lot of people have jobs with townships who don't want to lose them," Longworth said. "These are people who are desperately holding on to jobs when their function has passed."
Tips on Townships?
Do you have information on townships that you would like to see us report? Give reporter David Giuliani a call at 800-798-4085, ext. 525, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.