Should DuPage end Townships?

The village council approved putting three advisory questions on the ballot this November.  One advisory question asks, in essence, whether Townships could be eliminated.

Good idea or not?

Townships where they exist are required by the state to perform three functions: maintain Township roads and bridges, provide temporary aid to the needy, and provide property assessments.

Eliminating Townships, by state statute, can only be accomplished by a binding voter referendum within a county.  It cannot be done via state-wide referendum.  So the question might be posed instead: “Should Townships in DuPage County cease to exist?”

DISCLOSURES:  I’m a republican precinct committeeman.  I am related to a former Naperville Township Assessor (Mom).

I’ve sat on this post since May, not quite sure what to do with it.  What follows is some background information that can serve as a jumping off point for further investigation and discussion.  No claims to completeness, and no conclusions.  I didn’t find what I expected.  Right up front, any public officials want to comment please do.  Any emails sent on this one will be published in full.

History

40% of states (20 of 50) have state-wide or partial township layers of government.  In Illinois 85 of 102 counties are subdivided into 1,432 Townships.  LaSalle County has the most (37).  The City of Chicago opted out of Townships yet the balance of the county has Townships (30).  Putnam County has the fewest Townships (4).  DuPage is at the lower end of the scale with nine Townships.

Most of the 102 counties in Illinois are largely rural farm land except Cook and the 8 collar counties.  Counties that voted to create Townships starting in 1849 (authorized by the Township Act of 1847) were carved up into roughly 36 square mile areas to more efficiently provide a local level of service, typically performed by the resident farmers themselves, and similar to what settlers were used to as a form of government.  The services that non-Chicago Cook and collar county Townships provide (to residents not in a municipality) can include trash collection, recycling, public ROW tree maintenance, brush collection, fire protection, schools, temporary aid for the poor, and ditch, road and bridge maintenance.  Police protection is sometimes provided by state or county, sometimes by a municipality (particularly in non-Chicago Cook County).

In farm based Townships the needs for government are few.  Duties are in many cases still taken up by the resident farmers themselves, such as volunteer Township Fire Departments, clearing and maintaining drainage ditches, and re-graveling roads.  Some heavy farm counties have very small staffs and budgets.  For perspective, Downers Grove has more people and a significantly larger budget than 50 counties in Illinois.

In Cook and the collar counties, endless farms and an elevator every sixteen miles are not the norm.  County governments are strong and provide many of the services farm-based Townships perform.  Additionally, in DuPage much of the County is under the jurisdiction of municipalities.  Schools, policing, fire protection, trash, water and sewer, are all offered either by the county or by municipalities.

Illinois has a history of creating separate taxing districts rather than expanding budgets within existing units.

Example: Within some of the 1,433 Townships exist 1,397 Road & Bridge Districts as separate taxing bodies.

Example: There are 850 Drainage Districts that exist within municipalities, Townships or Counties and 111 Housing Authorities, none of which are required to file Annual Financial Reports with the State Comptrollers Office.

We have taxing districts that, at least at the surface, defy logic:

Example: DuPage County taxpayers pay taxes for a County Airport Authority that runs a conference center, a golf course, and commercial real estate development.

Example: Taxpayers in various parts of Illinois pay for nine different Port Districts.

Example: River Forest Township exists completely within the municipal borders of River Forest the Village.  It has zero miles of roads, no unincorporated area, no unincorporated population, and the Cook County Assessor does assessments.  Ditto for Oak Park Township, Berwyn Township, and Evanston Township.

Example: Illinois has 329 Multi-Township Assessment Districts as overlays on Townships, already sharing one of the biggest functions (assessing and keeping property tax records) of Townships.

Roads and Bridges

Roads appear to be a significant cost function of Townships, including DuPage County Townships.  Historically that has entailed maintaining a system of gravel farm roads based closely on the grid system of the Township itself, so farmers can get crops to market.

A drill-down of some municipal budgets shows while roads are a significant cost factor, most municipalities do not fund road maintenance and construction at a level that would match townships on a per mile basis.

  • In Downers Grove Township there are 74 miles of roads, mostly curbless with ditch drainage.  In 2008 the township budgeted $2,163,125 for roads, or about $29,231/mile.
  • The village claims roughly 160 miles of roads.  Roads under Village jurisdiction vary in load capability.  Most of the miles are residential streets, but the Village also is responsible for streets in Ellsworth Business Park for example, designed for heavier traffic and loads, that can be more expensive to build and maintain.  The 2008 AFR filed with the state indicates General Fund Streets and Highway expenditures totaled $6,471,737, or $40,448/mile.
  • The county Division of Transportation maintains approximately 220 miles of arterial highways and 92 miles of multi-purpose trails in DuPage County.  County roads here in DuPage tend to be arterial roads designed for higher traffic levels and heavier loads.  There are no General Fund expenditures listed for county, rather there are Special Revenue budget expenditure for Streets and Highways listed in the 2008 AFR filed with the state as $21,188,877.  Ignoring the county bike and walking trails that works out to $96,313/mile.

Temporary aid for the needy

Providing temporary assistance for the needy appears to be a minor function for several Townships including DG Township; $65K represents a small fraction of their total budget.  Some Townships on the north side of DuPage County spend much higher dollar amounts, but all combined are dwarfed by the county budget, which is fairly labyrinthine.  Many social services are administered by the County; housing assistance, food and clothing vouchers, medical, dental and vision care, and services to the elderly (a significant part of a county budget).

Assistance provided at the Township level is designed as temporary, until the state or county can properly be brought into the assistance process, so a low dollar figure does not necessarily mean few people receive help.

Township assistance, partly due to its temporary nature, initiates very fast but does not last very long; it’s mainly there to keep people in need going until they can apply to county and enroll in public aid at that level.  County aid at its fastest takes two weeks to begin because of state requirements for interviews and evaluations prior to acceptance into any aid program.

In Downers Grove Township there is a food pantry, housed within the Township building, that can provide immediate food for those in need.

Property Assessment

In many of the farm counties outside notable population centers like Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, etc., the fabric of government itself is the Township and the Farm Bureau.  In these areas, Townships often either adopted similar assessment systems, or consolidated assessment functions, usually combining six or more townships under one Assessor’s Office.  In some areas, those unified systems later became de facto County Assessor functions, and that in turn was the primary county government function, providing assessment service to the townships.  In these farm counties, parcel sizes are most commonly chunks of acreage: 160 acres, 80 acres, 40 acres, and 5 acres (homestead carve-outs).  There are 640 acres in a square mile.

In Cook County and the City of Chicago governments dominate the political landscape and have a strong single County Assessor.  And plenty of documented corruption.  Sparsely populated farm Counties where Townships follow closely similar rules and regulations for records keeping and assessment tend to be small and efficient.

DuPage County is highly populated, and highly fragmented.  It includes, but is not limited to the following independent taxing bodies:

  • 39 municipalities in whole or in part
  • 37 school districts
  • 24 Park Districts
  • 18 Fire Protection Districts
  • 9 townships
  • 1 airport

128 taxing bodies, and that’s not counting them all.

DuPage County has a high number of taxed property parcels, a less centralized government, and Townships that have evolved differently and independent from each other.  DuPage County Townships are unlike most (but not all) other Counties, in that they do not have a unified assessment system that is the same from Township to Township.

Nor does it have a County Assessor.  DuPage County has a central Supervisor of Assessments office.   The SoA was created by state law to provide statistical assessment performance data to the Illinois Department of Revenue.  They also provide statistical analysis of assessment data to the Township Assessors and the DuPage County Board of Review.  They keep the records of Exemptions, and are probably best known (and function misunderstood) for publishing assessment change notices in newspapers, and mailing property tax notices to taxpayers.

In DuPage County, each of the Township Assessors specifies and maintains their own computer based valuation system in addition to physical records that detail the history of the Township for property taxes.  The type and specification of the physical property data, as well as how that information is classified, updated, stored and maintained by these systems varies from township to township.  There are common components to some of these systems, but no two of them are identical.  Software consolidation/migration of nine separate systems into one universal application, ending with a unified system, currently do not have an estimated cost or time frame.

This distinction places DuPage County in a unique situation compared to counties that provide a centralized valuation system for their respective townships.  Developing a “one-size fits all” valuation system that would produce acceptable results in a diverse 330,000-parcel jurisdiction would be a major undertaking.  It would take several years to recover the additional costs associated creating a new countywide valuation system.  There would also be operation trade-offs for such a consolidation such as lack of flexibility of a centralized system to timely respond to local issues.

Another cost factor would occur in acquiring and/or converting existing property characteristics data needed to produce reliable assessments.  This software/conversion process is typically many more times expensive than the system/hardware acquisition costs.   The cost of acquiring the total hardware/software solutions required would be only one part of the overall true cost to the taxpayers for undergoing such a conversion project.

Staff and physical office space is another budgetary issue that would impact centralization of assessment method and process.  Currently, county offices are filled to capacity, so the assessment/appeal function would require either additional space near the County complex, or more realistically satellite offices, preferably located near where the property exists.  Adding space near the county complex or splitting the Supervisor of Assessments Office into multiple locations introduces its own inefficiencies and costs.

The strong central government in Cook County has created its own problems, and those spread throughout the Cook County Assessors office.

Corruption in Cook County: Anti-Corruption Report Number 3, published February 18, 2010 by the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Political Science and the Better Government Association, is only the latest of a series of reports documenting problems of a County-wide Assessor function within the report.  During the 1950’s Cook County Assessor Frank Keenan and his two brothers were convicted on corruption charges, and in the 1970’s P.J. Cullerton became the poster boy for all that is wrong with county-wide corruption in centralized assessment.

By separating assessment functions to independent Township entities here in DuPage, and then coordinating the results with the Supervisor of Assessments, DuPage County has, by design or accident, avoided the corruption of process and people that are associated with centralized government assessment functions in Cook County.

Annual costs per employee

When Annual Financial Reports filed with the State Comptroller office are examined for number and total cost of employees including benefits, Downers Grove Township had lower per employee payroll costs than DuPage County.  Both the Township and the County had lower per employee payroll costs than the Village.

2006 represents a shortened budget year, when the village switched to a calendar year.  Village personnel have a $20,000 to $26,000 benefit cost attached to each salary, highest of the three levels of local government.  The municipality provides the most services to the taxpayers.

At all three levels, personnel costs appear to be near the middle of the pack-Downers Grove costs are average for a municipality, Downers Grove Township costs are average for a Township, and DuPage County costs are average for a county per employee.  Verifying that in exact detail is outside the scope of this post.

Any local, township, or county official who may have comments on this post, or can provide additional information, are invited to either post them here as a comment or send them as an email.  Any responses will be considered public responses for publication here as a comment.

Sources:

(60 ILCS 1/) Township Code, Illinois Compiled Statutes

Township Officials of Illinois

DuPage County’s Official Website

The Case Against Houlihan

DuPage County Supervisor of Assessments Office, Craig V. Doval,  County  Supervisor of Assessments

Illinois State Office of the Comptroller, Local Government Division

Corruption in Cook County: Anti-Corruption Report Number 3, published February 18, 2010

Township Government: Essential or Expendable? The Case of Illinois and Cook County, 2008,  David K. Hamilton

Streamlining Local Government, 2007, Indiana Commission for Local Government Reform.

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RIP John Wooden

John Robert Wooden

October 14, 1910–June 4, 2010.

The greatest of them all.