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Editorial: Townships are one place taxpayers can cut costs

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Updated: December 9, 2011 8:11AM

Is a local government a good value if it spends twice as much per mile as other agencies to maintain roads?

How about if it spends $109,000 to give out $48,000 in temporary general assistance benefits?

Or what if it keeps levying taxes at the full rate though it has so much money saved up it could operate for a year without taking in another penny?

Those are among the questions being raised about township government, which have become largely redundant in urban areas.

Illinois authorized the creation of townships in 1849, and now has 1,433 of them in 85 of its 102 counties. Officials of those townships argue they are a good value, even in the Chicago area, where they largely overlap municipalities.

Among the advantages township officials cite:

† Small government units, such as townships, are more cost-effective than bigger ones.

† Townships expenditures from 1997 to 2007 grew at only a third the rate of municipalities and half the rate of school districts.

† Township assessors help property owners, many of them senior citizens, get corrected property tax bills from the county.

But don’t be swayed. Township government in urban areas, even acknowledging the services they do provide, remains a waste of your tax dollars.

As the Better Government Association reports in today’s Sun-Times, townships in Cook County are hoarding millions of tax dollars and overpaying to maintain scattered roads.

Townships get a share of property taxes paid by landowners in each township. But townships’ required responsibilities are few: allotting short-term general assistance funds to recipients who haven’t yet qualified for state aid, maintaining some of the roads and bridges in the dwindling unincorporated areas and — outside of Cook County — assessing property.

Because many voters don’t pay close attention to township government, lavish spending can continue even as governments at other levels cut back.

For example, as the BGA reported in Monday’s Sun-Times, the total 2011 compensation, excluding health care, for Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli will be $140,000 — on top of the $38,530 a year he makes sitting on the Cook County Employee Appeals Board.

In Evanston, one of five Cook County areas where municipal and township boundaries are the same, officials are exploring folding township government into municipal operations. State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) is researching legislation that could make that easier, if necessary.

By one estimate, Evanston alone could save $700,000 a year by consolidating, as Chicago voters decided to do way back in 1902. A 2008 report for the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs estimated that duplication of services by townships costs $57 million a year statewide.

In many townships, officials proudly point to the social services they provide, many of them geared toward senior citizens. But those same services could be provided by municipalities at less overall cost.

Townships may still have a role in those parts of Illinois still covered by cornfields. But around Chicago, they’re a logical target for taxpayers looking for savings.

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