Local Government

Effort spearheaded to consolidate McHenry County's townships

If he’s successful, Nunda Township Trustee Mike Shorten just might consolidate himself out of office, along with a large number of his fellow township elected officials.

He is chairman of McHenry County Citizens for Township Consolidation, a new group launching a grass-roots effort to pressure the County Board to put referendums before voters next March that would, if completely successful, more than halve the number of townships from 17 to eight.

The plan does not eliminate township government, long the cause of local anti-township activist Bob Anderson, but reduces the number and reduces cost, said Shorten, who was first elected in 2013 shortly after his appointment to finish an unexpired term. He said the push by new Gov. Bruce Rauner for government consolidation, plus efforts elsewhere in Illinois to eliminate particular townships, has given the cause momentum.

“We’re specifically trying to look at reducing the cost of township government. We’re not trying to take away services – we understand there are many who rely on those services and we don’t want to affect those at all. But does it make sense to keep [township] boundaries that were drawn up in the 1800s? Does it make sense to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, when we’re no longer driving horses and buggies?” Shorten said.

Illinois has far more units of local government than any other state at just under 7,000, and more than 1,400 of them are townships. To supporters, townships provide the necessary services of property assessment, road maintenance and general assistance for needy families, and are the most direct and responsive government that residents have.

“The value of the services that townships provide surpasses any proposal to reduce or eliminate them,” said Jerry Crabtree, assistant director of Township Officials of Illinois. “Besides our three mandated [functions], if you eliminated townships in the northern part of the state, you eliminate some valuable services – senior transportation, food banks, youth programs – and these communities would suffer because those services would go away.”

Opponents of township government in Illinois call it a nepotism-rife anachronism that has since come up with redundant or unneeded services to justify its continued existence. They argue that their functions could easily be absorbed by county and municipal governments.

State law provides a mechanism for voters to consolidate townships if they so choose.

A county board can adopt a consolidation plan to put to voters, as long as no township’s territory exceeds 126 square miles, which would be about one-fifth of McHenry County. The voters in each proposed new township would have to approve their consolidation by referendum – townships would consolidate where the referendums pass, and would stay separate where they fail. Successful consolidations would take effect after the next township election, which would be 2017, assuming the County Board puts the consolidation measures on the March 2016 ballot.

Abolishing a county’s townships under Illinois law requires the more extreme step of voters eliminating the county board form of government and putting power in the hands of three elected county commissioners. The 17 Illinois counties under that model are all downstate, sparsely populated and almost entirely agricultural.

But after years of fighting and resistance from township lobbying groups, momentum has been building in Springfield to create mechanisms to allow particular townships to disband themselves.

A bill crafted specifically for Evanston Township – which shared identical boundaries with the city of Evanston – allowed its residents last year to abolish it. It was the first time since 1932 that an Illinois township was eliminated. A bill awaiting a vote in the Illinois House would allow Belleville Township, which shares its borders with its namesake city and offers few services, to be eliminated with a majority vote of the township and city council.

Shorten said he expects resistance from a number of township officials, but also expects a few to be receptive to consolidation. Grafton Township Supervisor James Kearns won’t be among them – while he said he supports the idea of township governments consolidating some services, he opposes consolidating townships altogether.

“There is duplication of government services that are provided. I think we need to focus on that first,” Kearns said.

But Shorten said that time, and momentum, is on his side.

The group has started to reach out to members of the all-Republican County Board in hopes of securing the 13 needed votes to advance a consolidation plan to voters. Among the group’s listed supporters is State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, who holds significant sway over the county GOP – Shorten himself is chairman of the Nunda Township Republican Central Committee.

Rauner made trimming government bureaucracy and consolidating functions a core part of his campaign, citing the significant property-tax burden Illinois residents face. A consolidation task force he created by executive order met for the first time last week.

“I think the timing is just right. People are tired of the way things are, and there’s a mood afoot to make some changes. It’s going to be difficult. We understand that. But the alternative is to do nothing, and we see where that’s gotten us,” Shorten said.

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