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Vision 2030: ‘Glittering’ past, future for townships

Their continuation an ongoing debate

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Harmon Township road commissioner Jim Jackson clears off a section of his township route after a February 2013 snowstorm. Jackson is an advocate of keeping townships.
(Philip Marruffo/pmarruffo@saukvalley.com)
Richard C. Longworth (left), author of "Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism," joins community members and business leaders in February 2012 at Jerry Mathis Theater on the campus of Sauk Valley Community College for a discussion of ways to move the region forward in a new economy.

No one is arguing to get rid of cities, or villages, or counties.

Townships are another story.

In its glossy newsletter a couple of years ago, Sterling Township reserved its front page to promote the need for townships.

Most states, including Iowa, have no townships. In southern Illinois, 18 counties have no township government, only road districts. Chicago did away with townships more than a century ago.

Townships have three major required functions – maintaining roads, assessing properties for tax purposes, and giving assistance to the poor. They also must take care of public cemeteries.

Roads – plowing and fixing – are probably townships’ highest-profile function, while assistance to the poor is more of a focus in bigger towns such as Sterling, Dixon and Rock Falls.

As for property assessment, many smaller townships have merged that function into what are known as multi-assessment township districts.

In most states, county governments maintain rural roads and handle assessments. In southern Illinois, the counties take care of assessments and assistance.

‘Who would have done these roads?’

Most township officials support keeping their level of government.

“We do some things that I have no idea who would do them if townships didn’t exist,” said Marlin Jensen, supervisor of Nelson Township in Lee County.

One example, he said, was cemeteries. Another is roads.

“Who would have done these roads this winter?,” he asked. “I can’t imagine what it would cost to have one entity trying to do all of the country roads in the county.”

Townships argue they are the government closest to the people, yet people seem little interested in them.

In East Grove Township, in rural Lee County, constituents have attended only one meeting in the past 16 years, John Cruise, the township’s longtime supervisor, said in an interview last year.

Every 4 years, hundreds of people run for township posts in Lee and Whiteside counties. Most have no opponents.

Each county has 22 townships.

Lee County has 163 township positions. In 2009, 190 people ran for the offices, with two multi-township assessor positions drawing no candidates.

In all, 77 percent of the township positions in Lee County, including all supervisors and clerks, drew no competition.

In Whiteside County, 167 township positions were on the ballot in 2009. The races drew 184 candidates.

In all, 88 percent of township races in Whiteside County had no competition.

‘No one pays attention to them’

Richard Longworth, a Chicago-based author who wrote “Caught in the Middle,” said he expects townships to remain, even though he opposes them.

“The future of townships is just as glittering as their past,” said Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Center on Global Affairs. “No one pays attention to them. That doesn’t mean they’ll go away. Getting rid of a government entity is tough. There are jobs involved. People have their political turf to protect.”

Even so, he said, people have little contact with their township officials.

“Quick, what is the name of your road commissioner?,” he said. “More of us know the name of our congressman than we do our road commissioner.”

At one time, townships made sense, he said, but not anymore.

“Being close counted a whole lot then because it took a whole lot of time to get somewhere,” Longworth said. “You couldn’t call your congressman and have a chat. You could send a letter, but it took a long time to get there.

“The township official was your local guy. He was the person you saw. But technology has improved our means of communication and transportation.”

Although Longworth supports the elimination of townships, he argues against having government too distant from the people.

Regional entities, Longworth said, would do the trick, citing the Sauk Valley as an example.

“You could have regional economic development cooperation, a regional fire department, a regional road department,” he said. “The functions of government ought to devolved upward or downward to the government body that can deliver the goods economically, socially and politically.”

‘An additional bureaucratic infrastructure’

In January 2011, Township Officials of Illinois, which lobbies for townships, released a 29-page study drafted by Wendell Cox of Belleville-based Demographia.

The study dismissed arguments that too many governments result in a duplication of services. It recommended proposals to abolish some local government units and consolidate them into larger ones.

“Sometimes these proposals rely on academic studies or statistical models,” Cox said. “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.”

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

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

For instance, he said, townships duplicate “costly” road equipment.

“It requires an additional bureaucratic infrastructure to operate and maintain the equipment and supervise the function,” he wrote.

Cox cited a 2001 survey in which 88 percent of residents gave a high rating for the performance of township officials, much more than for other levels of government.

Hamilton countered that it was because most people didn’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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