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Need for townships questioned

Advocates offer conflicting data from studies on government entity

Cities and counties don’t send out mailers or commission studies to justify their existence.

Townships do.

Last year, the front page of a Sterling Township mailer presented arguments for why townships are needed.

And the townships’ lobbying group paid a firm to study townships in 2011. To no one’s surprise, the researchers found all pros and no cons to the idea of township government.

So far, townships are prevailing. Proposals in Springfield to do away with townships have gone nowhere.

In January 2011, Township Officials of Illinois released a 29-page study of townships conducted by Belleville-based Demographia.

Whiteside and Lee counties each have 22 townships.

The Demographia study, drafted by Wendell Cox, dismissed arguments that too many governments result in a duplication of services. Cox recommended against proposals to abolish some local government units and consolidate them into larger ones.

“Sometimes these proposals rely on academic studies or statistical models that predict savings from abolishment and consolidation,” Cox wrote. “However, these approaches miss the interplay between human factors such as people, organizational cultures and politics that invariably leads to higher costs and more debt.”

Cox contends that larger governments tend to spend and borrow more per capita.

Cox recommends that government entities, rather than consolidating, should enter cooperative agreements to allow them to work together. Elimination of entities is “effectively irrevocable,” while government entities can periodically evaluate cooperative arrangements, he said.

David Hamilton, a professor at Texas Tech University, disagreed with Cox’s analysis.

“He is not necessarily comparing townships to other small local governments. He is lumping all small local governments together and comparing them to larger governments like big cities, the state and federal government,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “This is like comparing apples and oranges. ... Also townships are duplicative of many services provided by other local governments.”

Roads are the most visible display of using township taxpayer dollars, but Hamilton said that function is inherently wasteful and cost-ineffective.

“Maintaining duplicative and costly road equipment in every township garage to plow and work on roads frequently crossed by municipal, county and state roads creates a tremendous overhead expense,” Hamilton said in a 2008 study of Illinois townships. “It requires an additional bureaucratic infrastructure to operate and maintain the equipment and supervise the function.”

Hamilton’s report cites a study that uses 1999 data to show that townships spent nearly $1 on salaries and administration for every $1 in services they delivered. That’s almost twice as much as other local governments spend.

Townships’ general administration expenses in 2006 were 35.7 percent of total spending, significantly higher than any other type of local government, Hamilton wrote in the report.

However, Cox said that a 1994 report conducted by McHenry County in northeast Illinois indicated that the elimination of township government would result in an increase of $9.4 million in annual operating costs and one-time transition costs of $6.6 million.

“The smaller local governments that typify local democracy are generally more efficient,” Cox wrote, “and they are better positioned to provide quality public services to their residents.”

Cox cited a 2001 survey in which 88 percent of residents gave a high rating for the performance of township officials, compared to 42 percent for state officials and 27 percent for federal officials.

Hamilton, however, said most residents don’t know what townships do.

“No one goes to township meetings,” he said. “They’re more connected to their cities or counties.”

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