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Admiration for official; frustration with system

A local drainage district that has only one functioning board member is an extreme example of what can happen when government units established many years ago are not reassessed, updated, or consolidated. The question must be asked, Is there a better way?

Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

People who read Sauk Valley Media’s recent story about a local drainage district likely came away with two reactions.

The first reaction: Admiration for Denise Doss, the only active member of the three-member Montmorency and Coloma Drainage District 5 board. Doss, working about 20 hours a month as an unpaid commissioner, has shouldered the responsibility for spending tax dollars to hire contractors to keep the drainage ditch clear.

Doss’ selflessness and dedication ensure that owners of more than 500 properties have proper drainage, a service that proved vital when heavy rains fell in April.

The second reaction: Frustration that Illinois continues to unnecessarily disperse the responsibility for providing necessary services among 6,994 local taxing districts – the most in the nation. Many of those taxing bodies, such as drainage districts, operate under the radar with little public scrutiny and have trouble getting local citizens to serve.

The case of the Montmorency and Coloma Drainage District 5 is extreme. Doss became involved because her father was a longtime board member, but he’s ill now. The second board member has stepped aside. So this local unit of government and the drainage services it provides are basically left up to one person.

As Doss remarked, “There are supposed to be three people on the ditch commission. Now, it’s kind of me.”

Hers is a thankless job, indeed.

Think of it. An entire unit of government operated by one person.

Only in Illinois – the local government capital of the nation – would such a situation be tolerated as acceptable.

Isn’t there a better way to ensure that people in Montmorency and Coloma townships have proper drainage for farm fields and during heavy rains?

We’ve asked a similar question regarding township government in our continuing series, “Townships: Under the Radar.” Townships make up 1,432 of the 6,994 local units of government in Illinois; 85 counties have township government, but 17 don’t.

When they were created in the 1850s, townships made sense. It was a time when travel was slow and difficult, much of the state was not developed, and government services had to be brought out to the people.

But in the 21st century, those circumstances no longer apply. Mechanized agriculture reduced farm jobs in rural areas; many families moved elsewhere. Transportation is much better. While townships continue to maintain roads, assess property, and provide assistance to the poor, some have trouble getting people to serve, except for positions that pay well.

Our reaction to townships is similar to our reaction to the drainage district that serves Montmorency and Coloma.

We admire people who dedicate themselves to providing the services.

We are frustrated that a modern system to provide those services has not been adopted.

A better way, we believe, would be to examine how Illinois’ non-township counties provide the basic services of townships (through a mixture of county offices and road districts), and consider adopting those efficiencies.

When times change, the effectiveness and efficiency of government should be reviewed, and the question should be asked, Is there a better way?

For drainage districts and townships, there must be.

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