JOHNSBURG – It’s a question that has haunted the consolidation debate for decades.
Would eliminating townships and road districts save taxpayers cash?
Illinois lawmakers are pushing harder than ever to consolidate smaller governments in a campaign they say will save taxpayers money – but a recent in-depth report paid for by a township lobbying group contradicts the argument that eliminating governments means lighter taxes.
“That’s a bunch of baloney,” said Wendell Cox, the principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, a consulting firm based in Belleville. “The smaller the government, the less it will tend to spend.”
Cox prepared a study in 2016 for Township Officials of Illinois called “Local Government Efficiency and Size in Illinois: Counting Tax Revenues, Not Governments.” The report for the advocacy and educational organization that represents nearly all of the state’s 1,431 townships plumbed state data to show that smaller units of government – including townships – are more efficient than bigger ones.
The report shows that township spending grew 17 percent from 1992 to 2012. Over the same period, state spending grew more than 50 percent, and school district spending grew
70 percent, according to the study.
Township spending is lower, the study said, because there are fewer employees a person, and smaller governments use more part-time workers.
The average yearly salary of a township employee is $49,100, according to the study, while the average county salary is $59,700. On the state level, the average salary is about $68,400 a year – 40 percent higher than townships.
While opponents of township government contend consolidation is the first step in lowering the astounding property taxes burying McHenry County residents, proponents have been shouting something else:
Show me the money.
State Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, and some officials in McHenry Township – where trustees are trying to give voters the power to eliminate the road district at the polls in November – have called for township governments to pay for a cost study to determine whether consolidation would save taxpayers some money.
To date, however, townships in McHenry County have not funded an independent study to explore that question – an unknown at the center of a controversy that includes a state legislator who filed a bill in Springfield that could give voters the power to eliminate entire townships with a majority vote.
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, filed a bill in January that would give voters an opportunity to eliminate township government with a majority vote. The move would shift the services provided by townships to local municipalities and the county government.
His legislation would allow voters to trigger a referendum with a petition signed by 5 percent of the voters within township boundaries.
If 50 percent of voters support elimination at the polls, the township would be dissolved within 90 days after the election.
All property, personnel, contractual obligations and liabilities inside the township then would transfer to McHenry County.
A provision in the bill allows municipalities to make bids to assume the responsibilities of the dissolving township and its road district. If no municipality makes an offer, those powers and duties are retained by McHenry County.
“It’s an ideological position,” said Cox, who has studied the fiscal effects of smaller governments in larger states and countries, including Pennsylvania, New York, Australia and New South Wales, “but they have never done a study.”
McHenry Township Supervisor Craig Adams has been sitting front row at a fight that could see the road district consolidated into his office – and he wants to see the numbers.
“If you’re going to make any decisions, you do a financial study,” Adams said. “I have to see the numbers to prove to me that it will save money over time. My gut feeling is that it won’t.”
Less than one month after trustees voted down a referendum that would allow residents to eliminate the road district with a majority vote in November, the board will take another vote Feb. 8.
McHenry Township Road Commissioner Jim Condon has clashed several times in recent years with Trustee Bob Anderson, the Wonder Lake barber who began his campaign to eliminate township government more than three decades ago and sparked debate inside McHenry Township.
As a career engineer, Condon manages 100 miles of road. If the county took over responsibility of those roads, he said, maintenance residents depend on would take longer to get done.
“We’re an affordable form of government,” Condon said. “We are closer to the locations than the county’s building in Woodstock. Our facilities are more local to areas we serve. We ought to be taking over some of the roads for the county.”
If a referendum goes to McHenry Township voters in November, all it would take is a majority vote to swing into motion a termination of the road district under House Bill 607. The road district would be eliminated at the end of the current highway commissioner’s term.
“They talk about eliminating the road district and tasks being taken over by the township,” Condon said. “OK, eliminate my position. Work is still going to get done, but you will be employing someone to do what I do, and probably at a higher rate than what this elected official costs. So what did you gain?”
Road districts have been eliminated in other parts of the state, but the scope of responsibilities vary from township to township.
In Cook County, Wheeling Township officials put a referendum to voters last year asking whether they wanted to eliminate the road district, where the road manager was responsible for 5.4 miles of road.
Residents voted to eliminate the road district, and those responsibilities fell to Josephine Stellato, the township’s director of finance and administration, and a part-time deputy highway commissioner.
To date, the transition has run smoothly, Stellato said. All the work has been contracted out – the township sold all of its own equipment more than three decades ago – and service hasn’t changed, Stellato said.
The idea of managing 100 miles of road in a place such as McHenry Township?
No thanks, Stellato said.
“I wouldn’t want that to come on my desk,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d want to be responsible for that.”