Do we need townships?

A caller told me that our recent stories on townships ruffled some feathers. He was right.

Over the past week, I received a number of calls and emails about the coverage. The detractors were township officials; the supporters were their constituents.

Getting the information on townships' surpluses took me awhile. Some townships didn't meet the July 31 deadline to turn in budget information to their county clerks. A few took months to do so or never submitted them.

We figured readers deserved to know how much money townships had on hand, so we did a story on that. Another story featured a debate between experts about whether townships were even needed. That story, in particular, rubbed some township officials the wrong way.

A couple of officials asked me why I even wrote the stories. So I told them.

In late 2011, Sterling Township sent out a glossy newsletter to its constituents, as it does several times a year. In this one edition, its front page included arguments why townships should exist.

I thought such a piece was unusual. Why is a township spending hard-earned taxpayers' money to send out mailers justifying its existence? I've never received a mailer from a city or county government about why we need them. We already know.

I concluded that a government entity must be in tough shape when it has to tell its constituents why it's needed.

Probably the best argument for townships is that they handle roads. A township highway commissioner, supporters say, can better respond to road concerns than someone at the county level. But ,then again, in much of the rest of the country, county governments take care of all rural roads, except for state highways. Even in Illinois, counties often take care of some township functions, including the bidding process for road projects.

Townships have two other major duties – providing assistance to low-income residents and assessing properties for tax purposes.

At one time, the general assistance role was important. That was before the enactment of state and federal welfare programs and advancements in transportation and communications. Does it still make sense to have 44 agencies in Lee and Whiteside counties doling out assistance?

As for property assessments, Illinois has what are known as multi-township assessment districts, where two, three or even four townships combine forces to have a single assessor. Would the further step of consolidating all township assessment functions into counties make sense? Some say yes, arguing that doing so would provide more consistency in assessments.

So, readers, what do you say? Should we have townships?

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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