Townships may be a threatened species in the metro-east.
In May, Belleville Township dissolved, and in September, Swansea Village Board trustee Brian Wells said he’d like to see the village secede from St. Clair Township because he said it’s being overly subsidized by Swansea residents.
Now, Godfrey has announced it’s open to combining with the township after the village board voted to direct its attorney to review the process of consolidation.
“This is all new territory for me,” Godfrey Mayor Michael McCormick said, but he was “quite sure it will be on the ballot” sometime in the future.
Townships have come under fire in recent years by critics who say it’s an unnecessary layer of government dating back to an earlier time. Townships largely were responsible for maintaining roads in rural and unincorporated areas. Today, most townships exist to do assessments and distribute government assistance to the poor.
Godfrey Township, which shares the same border as the village, performs assessments and assists the poor, and those duties would have to continue if the two jurisdictions combined, McCormick said.
Consolidation would save taxpayers money, McCormick said, although he didn’t know how much.
The township assessor, who has a staff of one and works seven hours a day, and the person in charge of public assistance, who works only in the mornings, are already based in the village hall and wouldn’t have to move, McCormick said.
The only person who would be out of a job is the township supervisor, and he doesn’t think the township’s time is up.
“Godfrey Township has been here for over 160 years,” Supervisor Terry Seymour said, “and I feel it’s still valid.”
Seymour, who’s been on the job since May, understands when villages and towns say consolidation is cost-effective, but there still must be someone to provide aid and assessments, he said.
The Godfrey Township budget is about $280,000, Seymour said. About $120,000 goes to the assessor’s office, and about $90,000 goes to general assistance, which includes things like utility and rent assistance for the poor. Seymour also employs a part-time secretary.
Roadwork is another function that some townships provide, but in Godfrey Township the village takes care of that.
It appears trustees support consolidation — they sit on both the township and village councils. Still, even if they were to combine, everyone with an official role in the township would have to continue their activities until the end of their terms in 2020, McCormick said.
A ‘crazy-quilt patchwork’
Townships get a bad rap in Illinois as one of the main contributors to the state’s numerous and overlapping layers of government, and in 2013, there were more than 1,400 of them, according to the Illinois comptroller’s office.
“Most Illinois communities are governed by a crazy-quilt patchwork of local governments, many of which are almost invisible to local voters,” a report from Northern Illinois University said.
They didn’t start that way, however. Ironically, townships grew out of a distrust for government, the researchers said.
“Historically, Illinois residents have been reluctant to give broad powers of taxation to any government,” according to the report. “When the public demand for government services in a community exceeded the community’s taxing capacity, residents typically found it preferable to create new governments, with new but also very limited taxing powers, to provide the needed specific service.”
That tradition encouraged about 25 percent of cities and villages to create special districts. Today, though, many people believe those districts escape scrutiny, just like the governments they were designed to transcend.
There are fewer than two dozen townships with coterminous boundaries, according to NIU.
Alton Township also shares borders with another municipality, but it is unclear whether there are talks to consolidate with the city. Don Huber, the township supervisor, had no comment, and Brant Walker, the city’s mayor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Belleville finds cost savings
For those thinking about township consolidation, though, they need look no farther than Belleville for a model.
“I have since had conversation and phone calls from a number of mayors that are currently looking to do this,” said Belleville mayor Mark Eckert, after the city absorbed the township in May.
The two municipalities first spoke about the transition in 2012, and so far, Belleville is only the second city with coterminous boundaries to absorb a township, after Evanston, near Chicago, completed the process a couple years ago, Eckert said.
The process led to a few changes in how authorities handle poverty assistance.
What we’re doing is small steps.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert
Led by Joe Hubbard and Bill Kreeb, whom Eckert appointed to guide the transition, Belleville replaced the township supervisor position and two full-time workers with two part-time case managers who work directly with people in need, the mayor said.
The case workers network with various agencies to make sure people are directed to the right places to get help.
“People who are hurting — obviously frustration is at the top of their daily menu,” Eckert said. “(Now) we are working much more effectively (with other organizations).”
“We’re taking things to a new level of trying to coach these people and guide them,” he said.
Since taking over the township’s duties, the city of Belleville has cut back on payroll. Before, the township paid about $220,000 a year in salaries, taxes and retirement, according to Jamie Maitret, the city’s financial officer. Now, the city pays $82,500 for the two part-time workers.
Other annual savings include $3,000, which the township spent on a separate audit process; $5,000, which paid for utilities and phones,and about $15,000 a year in rent for the township office.
The city also took over a $500,000 reserve fund that is now used only for general assistance.
“What we’re doing is small steps,” Eckert said.