The Fate Of Township Governments

March 16, 2020
 

Andrew Bequette from the University of Illinois College of Law

University of Illinois College of Law

According to the Illinois Comptroller, as of April of 2018, the State of Illinois had 8,529 units of local government including townships, road and bridge districts, drainage districts, school districts, fire protection districts, villages, cities, counties, park districts, library districts, and many other governmental entities.

Illinois has significantly more units of government than any other state including California, Texas, and New York State.

The Champaign County Clerk website lists over 100 governmental bodies in Champaign County alone.

Illinois has 102 Counties and 1,428 Townships.

While people often are familiar with counties, cities, or villages, many may be unaware of a township’s function.  Illinois townships have three functions: assistance to the poor; the assessment of property taxes; and maintenance of all roads and bridges outside federal, state, and other local jurisdiction.  According to the organization Township Officials of Illinois, Township Governments maintain over 71,000 miles of roads in Illinois - 53 percent of all roads in the state.

Both Republican and Democratic governors in Illinois have worked to consolidate or eliminate governmental bodies.

In 2017, Governor Rauner signed legislation which allowed townships to consolidate with municipalities with which they share borders if voters decided to do so in a referendum.  This law excluded Cook County, which already has the ability to abolish road districts.

Governor Rauner also signed a bill allowing DuPage County to merge its county clerk's office with a separate county election commission.

Both chambers of the Illinois legislature had widely approved a law which would have allowed the McHenry County Board or its citizens through a petition process, to vote on whether to abolish any or all of its seventeen townships.  Governor Rauner vetoed the law because he thought it should have been statewide, not just McHenry County. 

Last August, Governor Pritzker signed revived legislation to allow voters to determine if McHenry County’s townships would be abolished. The responsibilities of the townships would be assumed by the county.  Governor Pritzker stated the intent of the consolidation would be to lower taxes. 

Presumably efficiencies could be found in having fewer governmental bodies; however, it is unclear how prepared and equipped most counties would be to assume responsibility for maintaining most of the roads in the state.

A lawsuit has been brought against both McHenry County and Governor Pritzker, arguing the new law is unconstitutional.  Opponents of the law argue that it violates the State of Illinois Constitution’s provisions banning special legislation, laws that focus only on a specific person, class, or place where it could apply more generally to everyone.  In other words, the statute did not allow for townships throughout the state to be abolished by voters, only in McHenry County.  Opponents assert this violates the Illinois Constitution.

The fate of the Townships in McHenry County will be left to litigation in the courts and the voters of McHenry County, but legislators and citizens in Illinois will continue to grapple with the question - at what point is there too much government?