BELLEVILLE – Joy Schreiber is the rare elected official who hopes voters get a chance to kick her out of office.
The Belleville Township trustee is among a group of local officials who want to shut down a unit of government that shares a name and exact boundaries with the southern Illinois city. Unlike most of Illinois’ other 1,429 townships, it doesn’t assess property taxes or handle road maintenance. Its role is to provide temporary financial assistance to several dozen needy families annually, and its costs typically exceed the amount of aid given.
“I am not anti-township,” Schreiber said. “I’m anti-waste.”
A governmental system with its roots in the pre-colonial Northeast continues to thrive in Illinois, where townships remain in 85 of 102 counties. But after decades of unsuccessful efforts to trim the entities, Schreiber and others hope to gain momentum from new Gov. Bruce Rauner’s repeated calls to shrink bureaucracy. Illinois ranks a clear first among all states in that category, with nearly 7,000 units of government, from school boards to mosquito abatement agencies.
This month, Rauner created a Local Government and Unfunded Mandates Task Force to help streamline services. Before that, DuPage County eliminated a sanitation district and a fire protection district, and Evanston paved the way for Belleville when it dissolved its township in May.
“The issue is hard to tackle, because you can’t just make vague, broad pronouncements (about townships’ usefulness),” said state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who sponsored his hometown’s move and is pushing for further dissolution initiatives. “You’ve got to really get on the ground and analyze what the consequences of specific change in that local context.
“It’s not a constituency that legislators are eager to go up against, unless there’s a good reason,” he added.
Township supporters invoke their role as “the people’s government,” a place where citizens get personalized attention. Bryan Smith, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois, cites a 2011 research study that found townships have less debt, lower per-capita expenditures and less reliance on state money than bigger cities and counties.
“Township governments are able to perform their functions and duties more efficiently and more effectively,” he said.
Consolidating Belleville’s township into city government or dissolving it completely won’t be easy.
State law says township reductions can only happen across an entire county. But Belleville’s anti-township forces are pushing for more narrowly written legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, that would allow voters to decide on dissolution of a township whose boundaries replicate another local government entity, in counties of at least 270,000 people and which are at least 23 square miles in size.
Should Belleville prevail, it would become only the fifth Illinois township to dissolve— and just the second since 1932. The Evanston township dissolution came only after voters twice endorsed it and legislators amended state law just for the suburb.
Critics describe townships as plagued by waste, inefficiency and political patronage.
A 2011 report by the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group, found that 20 of Cook County’s 30 suburban townships employ nearly 1,000 full- and part-time workers at a combined annual cost of more than $27 million. The group found that the county’s townships have the fewest miles of roads but pay the highest maintenance costs.
Dallas Cook, the clerk of both Belleville city and Belleville township and a leader of the dissolution effort, said the move would save the typical resident about $67 annually in taxes.
The township provided about $177,000 in welfare benefits in the most recent fiscal year but spent more than $288,000 on operating costs. Its cash reserves, meanwhile, sit at $694 million. In a township with 45,000 residents, 41 received assistance last year.
Should Hoffman’s bill pass in the Legislature, Cook hopes to put the question before Belleville voters in 2016, with an eye toward a 2017 dissolution.