What do townships do for you?
Kathleen O'Connor, LibertyvilleTownship supervisor bags food items Saturday at the Libertyville Township Office. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 18, 2013 1:16AM
The state of Illinois has 8,486 units of government, the most of any U.S. state.
Of those, 1,432 are townships. What do townships do and are they an essential government unit?
Libertyville Township Supervisor Kathleen O’Connor admitted that most citizens probably have no idea how to answer those questions.
According to the website of the Township Officials of Illinois, township government was established in Providence, R.I., in 1636 and is the oldest existing unit of government continuing to serve North America.
Townships are considered the most grass roots form of government because they are the only government citizens have if they live in an unincorporated area. That’s obviously not the case for the majority of those living within Libertyville township, which encompasses all of Libertyville and Green Oaks and parts of Mundelein, Grayslake, Waukegan, Vernon Hills and other towns.
If you have a town government at your disposal, the township might seem irrelevant or unneeded. Still, Libertyville Township, like many others in the area, provides an array of services to residents.
There is a food pantry for those who are struggling to make ends meet, voter registration services, a notary public, energy assistance and more. There are also 1,500 acres of open lands to manage.
The primary, mandated by law services a township must provide are general assistance for the indigent and assessments of property values. Emergency assistance is not required by law, but like many others, Libertyville Township provides it.
In 2011, 124 applications for assistance were received by the township. Five individuals were found to be eligible for general assistance and 50 households got emergency assistance. More than 9,000 people benefitted from the food pantry.
Critics of townships say that other layers of government provide similar services, but O’Connor said it isn’t that simple.
“For example, we can do emergency assistance very quickly,” she said. “At the state level, the case loads of the social workers is huge.”
O’Connor has a Master’s degree in social work and about 15 years of experience in the field. She has been the township supervisor since May 2009, and she plans to run for re-election in 2013.
“I think it’s a healthy discussion to have,” O’Connor said about whether township governments are needed. “If townships were abolished, though, there has to be a transition plan.”
O’Connor spoke frankly about the fact that elected officials can easily forget that they are receiving taxpayer funds to run their governments.
“In the public sector, you sometimes forget it’s the public’s money,” she said. “The money just comes in. The forgetting is not intentional.”
In 2011, Libertyville Township’s tax levy was $1,750,226 and the levy for roads was $1,561,926.
That makes up about 2 percent of a resident’s property taxes, O’Connor said.
While some may view the percentage as small, what isn’t small is the salary some township officials are paid.
The supervisor position of Libertyville Township is among the most highly paid among Lake County townships, earning $85,733 per year.
O’Connor was frank about the salary levels.
“We are very well compensated,” she said.
Shields Township, a neighboring township, recently cut their elected officials’ salaries and made all offices part-time positions. The supervisor’s salary in Shields, for instance, was taken down to $30,000 from $70,000.
Though there was no discussion about lowering them, O’Connor said nothing is off the table. She said that her, the assessor and the highway commissioner all work full-time and do not hold any other jobs.
In total, the township has 11 full-time employees, one roads employee and two seasonal employees who work for the open lands district.
The very existence of township government is now on the table in Illinois’ capital.
An Illinois Senate bill in 2011 established a Local Government Consolidation Commission, which is tasked with determining whether townships and other units of government should be abolished. The commission was to issue a report this month, but the date has been pushed back to September.
Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, does not serve on the commission, but expressed interest in seeing the outcome of the study.
“I’d like to see where there is duplication [of services],” she said.
Although cutting government services may be viewed as a Republican endeavor, Cris Nolan, a Democratic committeeman, said that isn’t the case.
“I can’t speak for all Democrats in the area, but can say with confidence that we as a party are just as interested in eliminating wasteful government spending as any other group, whether it be at the federal, state, or local level,” Nolan said.
Nolan noted, however, that because township government is so close to its citizens, it may be more responsive than those who are further removed and that people may not know what they are losing if townships were to go away.
“Before we tell the people of the state of Illinois that we should eliminate township governments, the people need to know exactly what services their townships provide,” he said.