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Under the Radar: Consolidation already happening in state

Townships sometimes join forces to save money

SVM SERIES: Under the Radar: Many townships, little scrutiny
SVM SERIES: Under the Radar: Many townships, little scrutiny

Township advocates defend their turf. They don’t want townships to consolidate with other agencies. They strongly reject calls to do away with their level of government entirely.

Yet, in some ways, townships already have consolidated some of their functions. And their lobbyists don’t seem to mind.

In Illinois, townships have three mandatory functions: Maintaining roads, assessing properties, and providing general assistance for the poor.

Here are ways in which townships have seen some consolidation:

• Maintaining roads: Townships, including many in Whiteside and Lee counties, often go through the county engineer to obtain bids for road projects. County highway departments have a well-oiled process for handling the legalities of competitive bidding, so townships rely on them to help out with that.

“It’s an efficient use of taxpayer dollars to get the job done,” said Jerry Crabtree, associate director of the Township Officials of Illinois, the main organization for townships.

• Assessing properties: Under state law, smaller townships must combine forces for the property assessment function. Many do in Whiteside and Lee counties.

At one time, each township had its own elected assessor, but it was hard to find qualified people to fill those positions because assessors must pass a test before taking office.

Even with multi-township assessment districts, it’s tough to attract candidates. Candidates are nearly always unopposed, especially in rural areas. In some cases, no one files for the office.

• General assistance for the poor: Townships have long provided emergency aid to the needy, but they must follow state procedures for doling out aid. A township supervisor cannot play favorites.

The state makes available an entire binder on regulations for general assistance.

While townships such as Sterling, Dixon and Coloma in Rock Falls routinely receive requests for assistance, their rural counterparts rarely are asked for aid – perhaps once a year in some cases.

In Whiteside County, 11 townships, including Erie, Hopkins, Mount Pleasant and Prophetstown, pay Coloma Township $12 an hour to handle their requests for general assistance. Coloma Supervisor Debra Burke is a teacher who specializes in general assistance, so she is considered an expert in the subject.

Burke also makes recommendations to other townships on whether they should approve requests.

“This is to help them do general assistance correctly,” said Burke, who has been a supervisor for 32 years. “No one wants to make a mistake.”

Crabtree, the township association official, said such consolidation takes places in a number of places, including Springfield-based Sangamon County.

“It’s very efficient,” he said. “It’s promoted and seen as an efficient application of taxpayer dollars.”

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