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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 01:14 pm

Consolidating townships may not save money

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According to a report released this month for the Township Officials of Illinois, consolidating local governments such as townships could lead to more financial problems than it would solve.

Bryan Smith, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois, with offices at 3217 Northfield Drive in Springfield, said that the common misconception about consolidating townships or smaller forms of government is that it saves money.

“It’s always easy to say that when you eliminate or consolidate smaller forms of government, that money is going to be saved. But somebody’s gotta pick up the slack,” Smith said.

Wendell Cox, who prepared the report for TOI, said that aside from the financial aspects of consolidating townships or other forms of local government, another misconception about consolidating townships is that “familiarity is not important.”

“If you are an elected official in a jurisdiction with 5,000 or 500 people, you are going to have a tendency to listen to the voters in your area a whole lot more than if you were in a lot bigger jurisdiction,” Cox said.

“One of the great advantages of smaller governments is the closeness of the elected officials or administrators to the people. Democracy just works best when local communities have control of it,” he said.

Cox is the principal for the international public policy consulting firm Demographia, of St. Louis, Mo. He said his report shows that the bigger the government, the more expenses there are.

According to the report, which uses 2009 data from the Illinois comptroller’s local government database, expenditures per capita were the lowest ($162) for smaller units of government with less than 1,000 residents when compared with units of government with larger populations. This data suggests that with fewer employees working for townships there will be less money being paid to each employee than with a larger governing body, such as the city of Chicago, where median expenditures per capita in 2009 were $892.

Also, township road department wages for full-time employees were at least one-third below road department wages at the county and municipal level and less than one-half that of wages paid to state highway workers. However, township road departments are typically not responsible for maintaining as many miles of roadways as highway departments.

Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that a “balancing act” between creating more efficient governments and keeping people connected to their governing officials is required when discussing consolidating townships.  

 “Some might say that abolishing local governments and letting the state run it would be a way to maximize efficiency of services, but it’s likely that it could also lead to a lost sense of representation for people of particular areas,” Redfield said.

 Additionally, the report examines how smaller government entities have lower debt rates than larger government entities because larger government bodies borrow more money. The report also describes how, when compared against one another on the maintenance of roads between townships, municipalities, and the state, township wages per employee are the lowest.

Illinois townships’ responsibilities include maintaining township roads and bridges, providing a general assistance program and assessing property values for the township’s residents.

Cox said that at this time he has not heard of any specific legislation regarding consolidating townships around Sangamon county or downstate Illinois.    

The topic of consolidating governing bodies in Illinois as an attempt to save money is not a new concept. Just last month an Illinois State Board of Education analysis showed that it would cost $3.7 billion over four years to merge all Illinois’ high school-only and elementary-only school districts.

Cox said that with smaller governments, not only will the costs for employees be lower, mainly due to employees working on a part-time basis, but smaller governments also allow for elected officials to take a hands-on approach for dealing with issues in their area, such as the maintenance of local buildings or other township facilities.

“Losing local control and not being able to contact their local representatives about local issues and needing a quick response about them would be a big loss for those citizens,” Smith said.

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoistimes.com
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