For 50 years, this page has called for the abolishment of township government in the Chicago area, so far with no takers.
Now something may be happening.
This week, Evanston officials told the city’s staff to draw up a referendum for next March on abolishing their township government. Although Evanston isn’t yet committed to moving forward — and it’s not clear if there’s a legal mechanism for it to do so — it’s an idea that’s long overdue in suburban Cook and the collar counties.
Townships date back to 1636, when America was largely rural and in many areas had no other form of local government. In Illinois, though, there is no shortage of local governmental units busily taxing their residents. In fact, there are roughly 7,000 of them, more than in any other state.
It has long been clear that taxpayers could save money by consolidating some of those governments, and townships are the logical place to start. Chicago has no independent township governments within its borders, but suburban Cook County has 30 of them. North suburban Lake County has 18 and west suburban DuPage has nine. Most of the functions those townships carry out easily could be accomplished — at much less expense — by municipalities or counties.
Getting rid of a township’s duplicative bureaucracies isn’t easy; it has been almost 80 years since it last happened in Illinois. The League of Women Voters made it a priority in the 1970s with little effect. Referendums to abolish townships in the collar counties failed in the 1990s. Politically, potential savings for taxpayers haven’t been a match for township officials fighting to protect their fiefdoms.
“It’s very hard to do because people don’t really understand the concept of what you are trying to do,” said Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe, who led an unsuccessful effort half a century ago to close Niles Township offices.
Townships are not completely inert. They allocate general assistance funds, a job that would have to be assumed by a different government agency. Outside of Cook County, township assessors do property assessments. Townships also maintain some roads and bridges and perform other tasks that would have to be handed off.
But the state’s 1,400-plus townships are a long way from their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when they acted as mini-Ford Foundations disbursing federal revenue-sharing funds for everything from new fire trucks to free bus rides for seniors to spacious new township headquarters.
If Evanston officials are correct, the potential savings make the abolition effort worth pursuing. By one estimate, Evanston — one of five Cook County areas where township and municipal borders are the same — could save $700,000 a year by consolidating.
On the state level, trends appear to be moving in the right direction. In August, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a Better Government Association-backed law that allows township residents to eliminate the office of highway commissioner. State Sen. Jeff M. Schoenberg (D-Evanston) has asked Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office to research the rules for dissolving township government, and he is preparing legislation that could provide a remedy if it is necessary.
Seventeen Illinois counties haven’t had township governments since 1850, so it’s clearly possible to do without them. Voters in Evanston — and other suburban townships — should give it a try.