Taking action: What should be done about townships? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Taking action: What should be done about townships?

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Evanston Township in "coterminous"—meaning it has the same boundaries as the City of Evanston.

Across the country, governments are investing in efficiency. Motivated by budget crunches, scarce resources, service duplication and the desire to spur economic development, public officials are exploring consolidation, collaboration and other means to better serve their constituents. In this series, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) will highlight efforts to improve government efficiency. Our third installment, written by Ill. Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), focuses on Evanston Township.

Perhaps you've heard that Illinois has more units of local government than any other state—by a margin of thousands.

I'll bet you're not aware that it's actually quite hard to figure out how many units of government that is. The 2012 U.S. Census of Governments says we have 6,963, whereas the Illinois Comptroller, who collects financial reports from units of local government and posts information about them on this excellent website, will tell you we have 8,466. One can find a variety of numbers in between those two from all sorts of other sources, but you get the basic idea: There are lots of these things and they're hard to keep track of.

This is the story of one of those units of local government: Evanston Township.

To many people, townships are among the most mysterious of the units of local government. According to the Illinois Comptroller, we have 1,431 of them, and in some parts of the state they serve extremely important functions. Under the Illinois Constitution of 1848, each county has had the option to adopt the township form of government. Of Illinois' 102 counties, 85 have done so—and each of those is divided into townships.

Townships are responsible for providing general assistance for the indigent, certain property tax assessment functions and the maintenance of roads that don't fall under the purview of the federal, state, county or municipal government. The 17 counties where townships don't exist provide these services themselves without the participation of an intermediate layer of government.

Evanston Township is one of 20 townships in the state that are "coterminous"—that is, they occupy the same geographic footprint as a city (in this case, the City of Evanston). These 20 townships have no responsibility to maintain roads, since all of their roads are contained in a municipality and are thus under municipal control. Moreover, it would be administratively quite easy to dissolve these townships; after all, there's a city right there covering exactly the same area and ready to take over the township's responsibilities!

With these facts in mind, Evanston's City Council put an advisory referendum on the ballot in the March 2012 primary, asking residents whether they wanted municipal leaders to pursue the possibility of dissolving the Township. The voters responded overwhelmingly, approving the referendum by a margin of more than two to one.

Now, here's the interesting thing: An entire county can, by the simultaneous passage of many township-wide referenda, dissolve all its townships. However, there's no method for one township at a time to dissolve and hand its assets, powers and responsibilities over to the county.

This seemed strange to me. If the residents of a single township wanted it dissolved, why did their neighbors in the next township over hold any sway over that decision? So on March 14, 2013, I filed SB1585, allowing any township to dissolve by a referendum of its voters. A township that dissolved would have its powers and responsibilities assumed by the county.

It seemed sensible that the voters of a district should have the right to self-determination about the future of their township, yet we immediately ran into some opposition. The Township Officials of Illinois is a well-organized association that represents township governments and their elected leaders. They strongly opposed the bill, and given their statewide network of active members, it didn't take me long to figure out that the bill wasn't going to pass.

No problem! I filed Amendment 1 to SB1585, which narrowed the bill so it only applied to five of the 20 coterminous townships. (Specifically, it only applied to the coterminous townships where a city-elected official serves as an officer of the township.) Not only did it change the bill so it applied to five townships instead of 1,431, but it also carefully selected the townships where the transition would be simplest—the city would assume the powers and responsibilities of the township. Since the two governments already shared at least one elected official, the handover would be as smooth as possible. Surely, everyone could agree on this bill, right?

No dice. It still went too far and it was still pretty clear that I wouldn't be able to pass it. Knowing how important it was to my constituents that I at least address Evanston's concern, I filed Amendment 2, narrowing the bill one more time. This amendment added two criteria: that the township be located in a county with at least 3 million residents, and that the township have at least 7 square miles of land. All of this is an oddly convoluted way of saying that the bill now only applied to Evanston.

Finally, I had a bill I could pass. I represent most of Evanston in the Senate, and Ill. Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who represents the rest of the town, was a chief co-sponsor of the bill. The voters of the city had shown in a referendum they wanted this to pass, and none of my Senate colleagues disagreed. It passed unanimously. The House sponsor was Ill. Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), who represents most of the town; Ill. Rep. Laura Fine (D-Glenview) and Ill. Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who represent the rest, were chief co-sponsors. The bill had a rockier time in the House, but it eventually passed by a vote of 70-44, and was signed into law on Aug. 2, 2013.

Empowered with this new law, the Evanston City Council has decided to put a dissolution referendum on the March 18 primary ballot. If the referendum passes, Evanston Township will dissolve, and its powers and responsibilities will be transferred to the City of Evanston.

Having gone to so much trouble to enable this referendum, you may wonder how I intend to vote on it. I'm going to vote yes—in other words, I'm going to vote to dissolve the township. Let me explain why.

Evanston does a nice job of posting its town budgets online in readable formats—you can see all kinds of information about the Township here and the budget document can be downloaded here. The various years all tell different versions of the same story, but let's focus on the most recent complete information, the "FY2013 Estimated Actual" column.

The most important function the Township provides is its General Assistance program, which assists families in true need. It's important and valuable, and, frankly, I wish we did more of it. So let's unpack the General Assistance portion of the Township budget.

Three parts of the budget, totaling $520,078—$424,284 for client expenses, $65,516 for client medical and $30,278 for emergency assistance—go to direct service provision. Two parts, totaling $256,096—$91,071 for payroll and $165, 025 for administrative costs—fund the administration of the program. In other words, fully one third of the budget for the most meaningful program the Township runs goes to administrative overhead.

This doesn't mean that the Township’s operations are inefficient. It's run by people of integrity, and I have every reason to believe they're doing as good a job as they can. But the administrative overhead associated with running a whole branch of government is just inherently significant—one needs office space and supplies, and various accounting and compliance functions, and before long hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent without providing any residents with any services. It seems clear to me that the City could absorb the General Assistance function without incurring the same administrative costs; therefore, I support dissolving Evanston Township and handing its powers and responsibilities over to the City of Evanston.

I think this story has a lot of useful lessons as we think about what to do with Illinois' many units of local government. When people hear these statistics, I suspect they assume there's massive widespread corruption, nepotism and the like. While there may be some of that, I think it's the exception rather than the rule. By and large, we have good people doing their best to provide government services to their constituents, but too often they're laboring under structural conditions that simply make it impossible to deliver services as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If you're a progressive like me, you believe that the services governments provide are pretty important. Education, health care, human services, infrastructure—these things matter in peoples' lives, and they matter deeply to the vibrancy of our society. If you believe that, then you'll agree we can't afford to structure our government in a way that hampers our ability to provide these services.

That goal, of maximizing what government delivers because doing so will improve the quality of life across our community, is what animates my work on this subject. A massive struggle to hopefully do something about $256,096 of possibly unnecessary administrative costs in Evanston Township may not sound worth it, until you realize what could be accomplished with all the savings achieved by optimally structuring local governments across our state. Now, that would truly be an outcome worth fighting for. We just need to replicate the analysis that makes up this blog post 6,963 times.

Or is it 8,466?

Senator Biss is a full-time legislator and former University of Chicago math professor. He holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, and resides in Evanston with his wife, Karin, and their children, Elliot and Theodore.

Curious about other initiatives around the Chicago region and beyond? Take a look at the rest of the Taking Action series.


  1. 1. Rob Rion on February 25, 2014

    Townships provide nothing that can't be taken care of by either the county or city government. It is just an intermediate branch of government that made sense 100 years ago but in this day is no longer usefull.

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