Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Critics Label Township Government Outdated Supporters Believe in Grassroots Approach

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Critics Label Township Government Outdated Supporters Believe in Grassroots Approach

Article excerpt

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- One Illinois township paid $7,500 for two employees to pass out $500 in welfare to five people. Another has nine workers to care for 10 miles of roads. And one chipped in more than $100,000 for a snowmobile warming shelter for workers.

They weren't alone. Township governments throughout Illinois last year collected almost half a billion dollars from taxpayers, although many did not need the money and hundreds wound up spending as much on bureaucracy as on services, an Associated Press analysis found.

An often overlooked form of government dating to colonial times, townships continue today in 20 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, despite efforts in some states to do away with them.

Critics call townships outdated vestiges that waste millions providing services already offered by county, municipal and state governments.

"This is a form of government we don't need," said Michael Richardson, of Rock Island, whose losing battle to reform or abolish townships went to the Illinois Supreme Court. "It's a breeding ground for fraud and corruption."

But supporters say township government is efficient, grassroots democracy.

"We like to call it the people's government," said Monica Dwyer Abress, a Minnesota township official who has written a book on the subject. "Generally, the town board officials are going to seriously listen."

Opposition to townships has gathered steam in Illinois, where 85 of 102 counties have township governments. Townships cost the typical Illinoisan $115 last year -- more in many places -- on top of city, county and school property taxes.

Townships are geographic subdivisions of counties, in some states overlapping city and county governments and in others serving in place of municipalities. Their powers vary widely.

In Illinois, state law says townships must do three jobs: maintain rural roads, assess property and hand out welfare to people not eligible for other public assistance.

With the blessing of state lawmakers, they branched into other services -- from health care to pest control. They built parks and senior citizen centers. They hold bingo nights and soup dinners and have taken on public transit and day care.

Donna Schaefer, the supervisor in McHenry Township, said townships' administrative costs include dozens of programs to meet local needs.

"We're certainly not spending it on fancy buildings and furniture," she said.

Welfare recipient Mark Partee says he is relieved he doesn't have to drive 14 miles to the county seat for help. Instead, he goes to the Six Mile Township office in his southern Illinois hometown of Zeigler.

"It's better to have someone familiar to deal with than having to deal with a stranger who you may or may not be able to trust," Partee said.

The personal touch is evident even in tasks as cold as road maintenance. …

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