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Horse-and-buggy government needs greater public scrutiny

Townships have been around since Illinois’ horse-and-buggy days, when transportation was difficult and hyper-local government was a necessity. Transportation has long since improved. It’s time to scrutinize townships to consider whether counties could take over their duties.

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

The first township governments in Illinois appeared in 1850. For vast rural stretches, some barely settled, townships aided pioneers in the process of transforming prairies and woodlands into farms.

Townships created an organizational system; most were 6 miles wide by 6 miles deep, divided into 1-square-mile sections. Township roads built along section lines helped farmers journey to market.

Townships served other local needs during those horse-and-buggy days, when travel was slow or sometimes impossible because of mud, snow or ice.

Illinois has long since become settled. Some rural areas became bustling cities. Transportation has greatly improved. Driving modern vehicles on modern roads, people in rural areas can reach town or the county seat within minutes.

Yet, Illinois’ 1,432 townships still exist, in rural and city areas alike. They continue to take in tax dollars. The public continues to elect supervisors, clerks, road commissioners, assessors and trustees, all of whom receive pay for their services. A township’s main responsibilities are threefold: maintain township roads and bridges, assess real estate so it can be taxed fairly, and provide emergency assistance to the poor.

In the 21st century, when every tax dollar must be spent as efficiently as possible, are townships still needed? Could their duties be absorbed by counties or other entities?

Townships are the subject of an ongoing series by Sauk Valley Media titled “Under the radar: Many townships, little scrutiny.”

The series began a week ago and has brought to light some interesting facts.

The series points out that Lee County’s 22 townships and Whiteside County’s 22 townships are forgotten governments. It is rare that members of the public attend township meetings or pay much attention to township activities. Township elections seldom have contested races.

Some township officials fail to submit financial reports to the county, as they are required by law to do. In Lee County, only six of 22 townships submitted reports last year. In Whiteside County, compliance was better: 15 out of 22.

Townships in urban areas have expanded their services but also their expenses. Sterling Township, for example, spent $19,586 on travel last year. Dixon Township, a similar sized entity, budgeted only $3,000 for travel this year.

As the series unfolds, more information about townships will be presented.

Township officials describe townships as close to the people, accountable to the people, and therefore more responsive to the people’s needs. Townships have evolved over the years and remain relevant today, they say.

Those who call for the consolidation or elimination of townships point to the 17 counties in Illinois that exist without them. They believe counties could perform the functions of townships, reducing duplication of services and increasing efficiency.

Other horse-and-buggy governmental relics have not stood the test of time.

A century ago, one-room schoolhouses were scattered across the countryside, every 3 or 4 miles, each operated by its own tiny school district. They were relevant when agriculture required more farmers, farmers had bigger families, and transportation was poor.

As time passed, however, many of those schoolhouses came to be seen as outdated and inefficient. They were closed in the 1940s and 1950s, and school buses transported rural students to schools in town.

No one questions the wisdom of that decision today.

In the 21st century, the public should put townships to the same test. If deemed outdated and inefficient, townships should also go the way of the horse and buggy.

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