Stop bad-mouthing township government

Townships provide an array of services, and are not a waste of taxpayer money. In a township setting, officials and the people they serve engage in-person, side by side.

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Workers help to distribute food to those in need at the ICNA Relief Food Pantry after on April 11, 2020 in Glendale Heights, Illinois

Workers help to distribute food during the pandemic at a suburban food pantry in April 2020. Food pantries are a common service provided by township government.

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The Illinois General Assembly is gearing up for its spring session and like clockwork, one issue is likely to emerge from so-called fiscal conservatives: legislation to eliminate township government. Just as predictably, those efforts will be wildly unsuccessful. Why? Because taxpayers experience first-hand the value and low cost of township services.

Contrary to the rhetoric that blames townships for high property taxes, the people who actually use and rely upon township services know better. The tax levy apportioned to property tax bills from townships is a fraction of the overall tax bill. More importantly, townships embody a hands-on, grassroots government that taxpayers can see and feel.

Consider:

Niles Township operates a food pantry that allows families to shop for food up to three times a month. The township also helped create a Community Respite Center so those who are housing insecure have a place to go during the day to shower, wash their clothes, rest and speak with social service professionals.

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Rich Township operates a robust food pantry and a senior center that provides programming and outings, luncheons, games, day trips and other activities at either no or a nominal cost. The township also provides transportation services to help car-less residents travel to medical appointments, grocery stores or other essential stops.

Northfield Township offers a food pantry, scholarship opportunities with a local community college and a “dial-a-ride” program. Like other Cook County townships, they provide residents with property tax appeal resources without having to hire a private attorney.

Riverside Township, while serving a smaller area, also operates a food pantry, serving 120 households in the past two years. The township also created a “nurse’s closet” where residents may obtain expensive medical equipment on a short-term loan for no cost. All this for less than 1.5% of the typical property tax bill.

Worth Township operates a very busy food pantry, a senior service center and senior transportation services as well as a Youth Services Bureau that provides confidential support and counseling for anxiety, depression, aggression, strained relationships, self-esteem and issues dealing with family, divorce, adoption and other challenges.

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This is only a highlight of a few of the programs and services that these townships provide above and beyond those mandated by law. Township government is one of the oldest forms of government in Illinois, and the only form of government explicitly created to provide services to the most vulnerable. They are also the most direct form of democracy — the electors, as a collective, are the ones empowered to make many of the ultimate decisions. In fact, the Township Code requires the electors to meet every year at their annual town meeting, where the elected board members have the same power as their other neighbors.

Destroying public trust?

Arguments favoring the elimination of township government often stir misconceptions about corruption, fraud, dysfunction and waste. To be sure, dysfunctional government can destroy the public trust.

But those issues are not special to townships. The possibility of wrongdoing and waste exists at every level of government, from the smallest special district up to the federal government. I would argue problems are less likely to occur in a township setting, where officials and the people they serve engage in-person, side by side.

Township government is not some esoteric layer of bureaucracy that operates in darkness. It is real, tangible, visible and accountable. And the danger of these recurring tropes is that more residents may be hesitant to use vital township services.

So, can we finally drop the false narratives claiming the opposite? Can we accept what is real and true — that taxpayers want and appreciate their townships? It’s time.

Ross Secler is an associate attorney with Odelson, Sterk, Murphey, Frazier, & McGrath, Ltd., which is counsel to eight townships and other municipalities and units of local government.

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