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Townships are fiscally responsible

Lower labor costs are key to efficiency

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Bryan E. Smith

The Feb. 2 SV Weekend editorial on townships [“Horse-and-buggy government needs greater public scrutiny”] misses the point completely. It is consistent with the increasingly discredited “bigger is better” theory that seeks to abolish smaller local governments and consolidate their functions with larger governments. The data indicates the opposite.

Wendell Cox of Demographia reviewed the financial performance of all city, town and township governments from the files of the state comptroller for the Township Officials of Illinois.

Overall, the data indicated that larger municipal governments spend much more per capita than smaller municipal governments. It also shows that smaller governments borrow less per capita than larger governments. The data also shows that many smaller governments avoid borrowing altogether, saving their taxpayers financing charges.

The same kind of fiscal responsibility is evidenced by the performance of township governments. As any local elected official knows, labor compensation is by far the largest expenditure category in public budgets. This includes not only the wages and salaries paid to local government employees but also the bill for fringe benefits, including pensions. Minimizing taxation and public expenditures requires effective stewardship over labor costs.

Townships have the lowest labor costs of any Illinois government sector. Townships have been careful to employ many part-time workers, which has shown considerably lower labor costs than county or municipal road departments. This cost-effectiveness of township road districts is one of the reasons that four of the state’s counties have contracted their road maintenance functions to the township road districts within their county.

Many townships accumulate reserves to pay for capital expenditures such as equipment or improvements, avoiding the accumulation of debt that has plagued the financial situations of other governments.

This kind of fiscal responsibility is a principal reason that the townships and township road districts experienced by far the lowest per capita increase in expenditures of any other government sector in the state since 1992. Other governments experienced expenditure increases per capita from two to three times that of townships.

In the 1990s, detailed studies in two Illinois counties showed that taxpayers would pay more if township responsibilities were transferred to counties. In Rock Island County, the additional annual taxpayer cost was estimated at $17 million (in today’s dollars).

Illinois confronts as difficult a financial challenge as any state. In this environment township, SVM focuses on alleged imperfections in townships. Of course, townships, cities and the state should perform their functions without flaw, and efforts should be redoubled toward that end. But human nature stands in the way.

Today’s challenges require the principle focus to be on the bigger picture – how much government requires taxpayers to perform its functions. The seductive “bigger is better” theory of government is disproved by the reality of the data, and its application in Illinois would likely make government more costly.

Note to readers – Bryan E. Smith
 is the executive director of 
Township Officials of Illinois.

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