WONDER LAKE – For decades, barber Bob Anderson has been waging what was at times a one-man war against the need for township government in Illinois.
Although he excelled at keeping the issue in the public eye – he became the statewide face of the movement to consolidate or eliminate them – success in terms of legislation or election was elusive.
But that cause has advanced in recent years, as voters and homeowners fed up with high property taxes and the state’s worsening economic fortunes have been looking to cut anything and anywhere they can. And on Tuesday, McHenry Township voters elected Anderson, who wants townships consolidated or eliminated altogether, as a township trustee.
Anderson calls the vote a mandate – the other three Republican trustee candidates who ran with him and also won support consolidation measures.
But some people apparently aren’t happy about his win. He filed a police report after finding nails scattered throughout the parking area of his barber shop.
“Without a question, this represents a shift in the people’s mindsets that we have too many governments, and people are asking why we have townships,” Anderson said.
The new trustees can’t simply vote their government out of existence upon taking their oath – state law, which isn’t amenable to consolidating or eliminating governments in general, doesn’t allow that. But Anderson said he and the trustees plan to use their offices as a bully pulpit to advance the cause with other lawmakers, while making what cuts they can now to provide some taxpayer relief.
Townships in Illinois have three statutory requirements under the law – provide general assistance to the needy, maintain township roads and assess property.
Although proponents call township government the most local and responsive form that residents have, opponents such as Anderson allege that townships are no longer necessary and are breeding grounds for waste, nepotism and patronage.
Illinois has almost 7,000 units of local government, far more than any other state.
Anderson and others have singled out the state’s 1,431 townships as a good place to whittle down that number.
After years of fighting from the outside, Anderson said he needed to actually get elected to the position to be effective.
His previous efforts, while tenacious, fell short.
In 1994, Anderson spearheaded an unsuccessful referendum to eliminate the county’s townships the only way that state law allowed – by switching from a county board to a three-member panel of county commissioners. He led an effort in 1998 to hold a referendum abolishing only McHenry Township, which failed as well.
Although state law allows townships to be consolidated, that’s much easier said than done in political reality, which McHenry County proved two years ago.
A group of officials, supported by high-ranking GOP officials, launched a 2015 initiative to ask the McHenry County Board to hold referendums to reduce the county’s 17 townships to eight. A slapdash plan assembled by a task force that barely reached any kind of consensus was killed by the County Board on a 13-9 vote.
Again, state law proved to be the biggest deal killer – if two townships vote to consolidate, property taxes would increase for the township with the lower of the two levies, meaning taxpayers with the larger levy would get relief at the expense of the other.
But state lawmakers in recent years, many of whom got their start in local government, have started overcoming some of their historical aversion to passing laws to make consolidation easier.
Lawmakers allowed voters in Evanston Township, which shares its exact boundaries with the city, to hold a referendum to eliminate it, which they did in 2014. It was only the third time in state history, and the first time in 82 years, that voters eliminated a township.
A bill that would allow other townships that are entirely or substantially coterminous with a municipality to be eliminated is making its way through the General Assembly.
Anderson said he intends to work with new County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who as a state lawmaker championed consolidation, to generate support for figuring out how to change the law, and he also intends to contact state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, and other state legislators.
“I think it’s time to move this forward more than a baby step, and I think the County Board has a tremendous influence when it comes to how to clarify these laws,” Anderson said.
He filed a report Thursday with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office about the nails, some of which he said were placed behind customers’ tires. But he said the nails are a sign that he’s succeeding.
“The nails tell me the system is threatened here, and they’re going to threaten me to not move forward,” he said. “I’m moving forward.”