Swansea leaders would like to “secede” from St. Clair Township because they say village residents and businesses pay about $517,000 in property taxes to the St. Clair Township Road District for roadwork but none of that money is used in Swansea.
Instead, the money is used to repair roads in the unincorporated portions of St. Clair Township.
“We’re not going to quit on this until we get some justice,” said Brian Wells, a Swansea Village Board trustee who is spearheading Swansea’s effort to break away from St. Clair Township. “They don’t do anything for us so why are we paying?”
St. Clair Township Supervisor Dave Barnes referred questions about the road money to St. Clair Township Highway Commissioner Jim Hursey, who oversees five employees and has an annual budget of $1.8 million for roadwork. Hursey said his roadwork crews do not do any work in Swansea unless there would be a disaster and he received a mutual aid request.
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Hursey, who was elected in April, said if state officials were to change the method of funding the road district, he would follow their directive, even if it meant a lower budget for his department.
We’re not going to quit on this until we get some justice.
Brian Wells, a Swansea Village Board trustee
“As the township road commissioner, I have limited authority, I can’t simply say let’s dissolve it and make it go away,” Hursey said. “It’s not even my call at all.
“We all pay taxes on roads we don’t use,” Hursey said. “I don’t go to Chicago hardly at all but I still pay taxes for things going on up there.”
Wells disagrees with this reasoning.
“The argument I hear from the township about us paying for their roads is they say Swansea residents use their roads,” Wells said.
However, Wells said St. Clair Township uses road money to fix subdivision streets where Swansea residents don’t travel.
Wells said people are always “flying back and forth” on Swansea streets such as Morgan Street, Smelting Works Road and Caseyville Avenue.
“That would be like us taxing the Belleville citizens and Fairview citizens saying, ‘Hey, you’re using our roads, we’re going to tax you.’ I mean it makes no sense,” Wells said.
We all pay taxes on roads we don’t use. I don’t go to Chicago hardly at all but I still pay taxes for things going on up there.
St. Clair Township Highway Commissioner Jim Hursey
All six Swansea Village Board members and Mayor Mike Leopold on Tuesday agreed to send a letter titled “Excessive and Unfair Township Taxation” to area public officials to air their grievance about the township and how the road money is spent.
“The issue … which riles our residents the most is the excessive taxation by our local township, St. Clair Township and its Township Road District,” the letter states. “These township taxations result in Village of Swansea residents subsidizing the maintenance and construction of roads and bridges in unincorporated areas of St. Clair Township through the Township Road District.
The letter asks lawmakers to sponsor legislation that would either permit the dissolution of townships like St. Clair or “allow a municipality to secede from a township.” If that doesn’t happen, the Swansea board members ask that the village “at least have some relief by being removed from the Township Road District.”
A Swansea resident who claims a $6,000 owner-occupied exemption on a home worth $100,000 had to pay about $67 in property taxes this year for the St. Clair Township Road District.
Shutting down townships
All of Swansea is located within St. Clair Township, which also covers unincorporated areas of St. Clair County east of Swansea and south of Belleville.
In 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill that paved the way for the dissolution of Belleville Township. The bill said if both the Belleville City Council and the Belleville Township board agreed to shut down the township, the township could be dissolved. Both Belleville boards agreed and the township was shut down in May with the city taking over the state-mandated responsibilities of giving financial aid to needy individuals.
This legislation involved a “coterminous” township in which Belleville Township had virtually the same boundaries as the city of Belleville.
In Swansea’s case, the village is part of what’s known as a “non-coterminous” township because the township includes an incorporated village and unincorporated parts of St. Clair County.
Bryan Smith, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois, said he previously had not heard of a municipality such as Swansea wanting to break free from a non-coterminous township like St. Clair.
Smith said county boards can redraw township boundary lines but he’s never heard of a county board removing an entire town from a township. He also said he’s never seen a case where state lawmakers passed a bill that would allow a municipality to leave a township.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said he did not know if the St. Clair County Board could pass an ordinance that would take Swansea out of the St. Clair Township but he would research the issue if the County Board asked him.
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, sponsored the Belleville Township dissolution bill, which received bipartisan support in Springfield.
Hoffman couldn’t be reached for comment about Swansea’s request to separate from St. Clair Township.
Where the money goes
Swansea leaders gave this breakdown on how the roadwork money is divvied up:
▪ Swansea property owners contribute about $617,000 annually to two road funds operated by the St. Clair Township Road District.
▪ Swansea taxpayers send about $200,000 annually to the St. Clair Township’s road and bridge fund. State law requires that Swansea gets to keep half of this amount, or about $100,000, for roadwork in Swansea.
▪ Swansea residents and businesses also pay about $417,000 annually in property taxes to the St. Clair Township permanent road fund. Village leaders say they don’t get any of that money back.
▪ By combining Swansea’s contribution of $100,000 to the road and bridge fund and the $417,000 to the permanent road fund, village leaders estimate Swansea taxpayers contribute $517,000 annually to maintain roads outside of Swansea.
Wells said that $517,000 could be put to use for worthwhile projects in Swansea.
“If we had this extra money, well not extra money, it’s our money. If we had our money, we could actually be fixing some of these roads up and really making them look nice, which would help us in the long term, help us attract new businesses,” Wells said.
Along with Wells and Leopold, Swansea Village Board Trustees Matt Lanter, Richard “Rocky” McDonald, Brian McGuire, Marilyn Neumeyer and Stephen Pulley agreed to sign the letter.
The letter states the township form of government and their road districts “are anachronisms, plain and simple.”
Townships were formed in Illinois in the 1800s when most of the unincorporated areas of counties were mostly rural, according to the letter.
“I’d love to get out of the township completely,” Wells said. “I mean it is a waste. But if we could at least get out of that road part. And I think that would be a simpler thing right now in the meantime.”
Wells said the services provided by the St. Clair Township could be handled by other governments.
Townships are required to give aid to needy individuals who do not qualify for any other form of governmental aid. St. Clair Township assists eight to 10 people a month with some of those persons getting aid for several months, according to Sue Gruberman, the accountant for the township.
St. Clair Township also operates a sewer system.
Wells said St. Clair Township could be dissolved because other governments could take over the township’s duties. For example, he said Swansea also operates a sewer system and could manage the St. Clair sewer system.
“They don’t even really acknowledge that we exist, that we’re part of the township,” Wells said. “All they want is our money.”