Pros and Cons of Township Government
As we evaluate our policy relative to the large number of local units of government in Illinois, consider the questions, “How much is too much?” and “What are the benefits and drawbacks of so much government?”
Township government is a general-purpose unit that is often in the spotlight when these types of questions are raised. As we consider our own policy, using township government as an example, take a look at some of the pros and cons of layering units of government and services.
|While townships are empowered under Illinois statutes to provide a wide range of services, few downstate townships exercise many of those authorities. For the most part, particularly in rural areas, townships’ major functions are providing roads and administering General Assistance funding. The 1,429 townships in Illinois contribute to the confusion voters have about which of our 6,800-plus local governmental units provides what services. Keeping track of another layer of overlapping government adds to that confusion.
In government in general, individuals elected to office are generally more dedicated to fulfilling their responsibilities than would be an employee hired to complete the same task. The vast majority of township officials are part-time officials and work for relatively low salaries or per diems.
The vast majority of township officials are part-time, which does not allow them the opportunity to dedicate time to thoroughly learn the laws and business of government. There is rarely professional staff available on a day-to-day basis to provide that knowledge. Townships generally lack adequate revenue to hire professionals to assist in evaluating, engineering, and managing the issues they deal with.
Few downstate rural townships have full-time staff. The bulk of the work is done through volunteer efforts or the efforts of elected officials- helping to keep costs down. Voters can generally “see” where their township dollars are going and can readily form an informed opinion on those expenditures. Voters have opportunities to review proposed budgets at township budget hearings. Voters have the opportunity to conduct official business of the township at the Annual Town Meeting.
Townships are funded primarily by property taxes, placing a tax burden on farmland owners. Township budgeting often goes on without public scrutiny. Some tax rate changes may be made at the Annual Town Meeting, which traditionally very few voters attend. This means a small handful of people (often only the elected township officials) set tax rates for the entire township.