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Report: Townships don’t provide much for the money

Updated: December 9, 2011 8:07AM

A Better Government Association investigation into the financial records of the 20 largest Cook County suburban townships uncovers a web of government hamlets that are hoarding millions of dollars in property taxes and overpaying to fix and maintain a smattering of roads.

These 20 townships racked up nearly $264 million in assets primarily from property taxes, including $87 million in cash during the last fiscal year ending in early 2010, the BGA investigation reveals.

These cash reserves, however, are not a hallmark of the townships’ budgetary and management acumen, say critics. Instead, it’s an indicator that these townships are collecting too much from taxpayers while providing too little in return.

“Township officials will say: ‘We’re fine, fiscally.’ But that’s because their township doesn’t make any sense,” says U.S. Rep Michael Quigley (D-Chicago), a former Cook County commissioner and proponent of consolidating and reorganizing local governments. “That extra money should be in the pockets of someone else, like the taxpayers. And the few services they provide should be handled by another county or municipality at less cost to the public.”

Township leaders, who are elected to office, vehemently dispute this view and are fighting to rally support for the services they provide.

“Townships are important to the community,” says Robert Porter, coordinator and spokesman for the Township Officials of Cook County, which represents 26 townships. “It provides a quality of life [where people] can raise their kids and live in Happyville.”

The BGA’s suburban Cook County investigation is based on the latest township financial data submitted by the 20 suburban townships and released on the Illinois comptroller’s office. There are 30 suburban Cook County townships, but only 20 consistently submit their financials to the state. The BGA investigation found:

Millions of dollars in cash reserves

The majority of the 20 suburban Cook County townships carry large amounts of cash; 11 have more than 40 percent of their total assets in cash and cash equivalent assets, according to the townships’ balance sheets.

In fact, a couple of townships have enough cash to cover their expenses for an entire year without going to taxpayers for more money.

Leading the pack is Thornton with $14.6 million in cash (42 percent of assets); Lyons had $13 million (65 percent); Stickney had $9.2 million (45 percent); Hanover had $8.5 million (48 percent); and Wheeling had $5.8 million (51 percent). Such reserves are in excess of what municipal finance experts recommend as a “rainy day” fund — enough cash on hand to cover operating expenses for three to six months in case of a financial crisis.

When asked to explain why these townships hold so much cash, Cook County township spokesman Porter said its reflective of the townships’ “conservative management” philosophy that calls for keeping lots of money on hand to pay for major purchases such as trucks, snowplows or buildings.

High Road-Maintenance Costs

Under state law, townships are responsible for maintaining and repairing roads in unincorporated areas within the townships. Typically, unincorporated areas are not part of the federal, state or county they are located, nor part of a nearby suburb or municipality.

Compared to townships in six Chicago-area counties, Cook County townships collectively have the fewest miles of roads, but pay the highest maintenance costs, a BGA analysis of the IDOT figures determined.

In Cook County, the 20 townships have 280 miles of roads in unincorporated areas and the average “cost-per-mile” to maintain them is $80,509. In fiscal 2009, these Cook County townships spent $22.5 million to maintain their roads, a cost that includes personnel and benefits, equipment and facilities.

In comparison, the BGA analysis of state data found: Lake County’s 15 townships have 480 miles and a cost-per-mile of $63,164; DuPage County’s nine townships have 457 miles of road and a cost-per-mile of $42,515; Will’s 23 townships have 1104 miles and a cost-per-mile of $32,174; McHenry’s 17 townships have 776 miles and a cost-per-mile of $27,399; and Kane’s 16 townships have 541 miles and a cost-per-mile of $30,048.

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