These questions were sent to participants in the League of Women Voters Forum on Townships held at the Municipal Center on September 21, 2016. I represented the position of the City of Naperville, in favor of the referenda on the November ballot.
Why does Illinois have townships? What is a brief history of Illinois townships?
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, when the Northwest Territory was surveyed, [after the American Revolution] it was divided “into townships ordinarily of 36 square miles (each square mile identified as a ‘section.’) So we’re talking about 1787. Illinois became a state in 1818. These survey townships eventually became political entities: as a result of a new state constitution, in 1850 counties in the metropolitan area organized townships, which became responsible for basic governmental functions such as roads and taxes” (Ann Durking Keating, “Townships,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, also author of Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis, 2002.)
So they were initially measures used for surveying the Northwest Territory before that area developed into states, including Illinois. The other states that were part of the Northwest Territory were Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (When the country was much smaller, North Central College used to be North Western College, since it was established in 1861 and what we now think of as the Midwest was considered the Northwest.) Illinois has 84 townships and 102 counties. Seventeen counties (all in central or southern Illinois) do not have townships but do have precincts. DuPage County has 9, four of which have portions represented in Naperville. Will County has 24, two of which are represented in Naperville.
Why does the City of Naperville include six different townships?
Since townships are still squares that measure six miles by six miles, incorporated cities as they developed overlaid the older, rural structure. They don’t take into account highways, which of course came later, or natural features like rivers or lakes that often create city and county boundaries. The state of Illinois allows the two to coexist, as it allows school districts to develop separately from city or township boundaries. Since Lisle and Naperville Townships are divided by Washington Street, Naperville has had two for a long time. As the city has moved north, south, east, and west, Milton and Winfield (in the north) and Will and DuPage (in the south, and also in Will County) have also emerged as townships that are partially in Naperville.
What are essential services provided by townships and how are they different from services provided by other government entities?
Townships by law can use their budgets for public safety, environmental protection, public transportation, health, recreation, libraries, social services for the poor and aged, and development and retention of business, industrial, manufacturing, and tourist facilities. That’s from 60 ILCS 1. There are a few smaller categories, and they can also provide water, sewer, and waste collection services if approved by a referendum.
Some townships have taken it upon themselves to provide useful, if not essential, services, like notarizing or assisting with passport applications. But those are conveniences for residents and are not burdensome for their employees. I am in favor of maintaining an assessor (Naperville Township Assessor Warren Dixon does a fantastic job) who is knowledgeable about the Naperville portion of DuPage County, which not only includes a substantial portion of our residences, but a sizeable percentage of our commercial and retail areas. The tax return from those areas is essential to support the residential areas’ needs.
Do taxpayers have duplication of services from different government entities? If so, what are they?
In the case of townships, in some cases, we have duplication of taxes without duplication of services. In other words, if you are paying tax dollars to a township for brush collection that you don’t get, that’s a duplication of taxes. Everyone in Naperville Township (incorporated or unincorporated) pays for road services (including snow removal) for the 900 homes that are unincorporated, but only City of Naperville real estate taxpayers pay for City of Naperville services.
When it comes to townships – in the case of Naperville Township – Do the residents need two public works buildings, especially when one handles less than 15 miles of roadway? Do they need an additional staff to handle so few miles of roads?
How does this affect my tax bill?
For Naperville Township, for example, it means that incorporated residents are both paying for a brush collection they do get from the City, and for one they don’t get, from the Township. This is true for both City of Aurora and City of Naperville residents. Incorporated residents, since they pay for the road department for Naperville Township, also help pay for free mulch delivered to the homes of unincorporated residents. It is not a lot for the individual homeowner, perhaps, but that’s not a sufficient reason to keep a separate road department.
What, if anything, will be decided about townships with this November’s elections?
Both referendum questions are non-binding. The city (mayor and council) are looking to see whether this is something the city should pursue or not. The mayor and council are unanimous in having voted for the IGA with Naperville Township: that’s a very specific question. The other one is broader; we are sending a signal to our state representatives that we hope they support us in our desire to work toward consolidation when it can produce efficiencies.
Has Illinois or any other state taken steps to eliminate or consolidate townships? What were the results?
The City of Chicago eliminated them in 1902 as they urbanized. Recently Evanston eliminated its coterminous township – coterminous meaning the city and township shared exactly the same borders. It’s only logical that as we suburbanize, townships will provide fewer services. We have common sense tools to do that.
What does the City of Naperville’s Master Plan say regarding townships and other unincorporated parcels of land?
Areas that are still unincorporated are within the planning boundaries of the city. For instance, during my years on Plan Commission, we looked at many acres of land that were likely to annex into the city in the future, including much of what used to be called Sector G (in Will County and Wheatland Township) but was formally the Southwest Sector of Naperville in planning documents. The Master Plan does not address townships specifically, although the townships were and are always encouraged to participate in the process when annexation is requested, along with all stakeholders. The city does not force annex property unless there is a compelling reason to do so. I cannot recall a recent example of involuntary annexation. Most of the annexation in Naperville occurred when farmers sold their land to developers and the developers wanted city sidewalks, roads, sewer, water, and electric service for the homes and businesses they would plan. Over the years the city has grown around existing pockets of unincorporated development, much of which predated incorporation of areas around it. At some point it becomes impossible to efficiently service the roads for small neighborhoods that are not contiguous.
Who can provide services at a better cost than taxpayers – the city or the township?
In the case of Naperville Township, the city has done an extensive study quite recently to determine the kinds of savings that could be realized by caring for Naperville Township Roads -- and it’s $800,000 a year. That’s a figure large enough to pay attention to. We have also taken a look at Wheatland Township, which has three times the road miles of Naperville Township (45 miles). Its road district operates efficiently and at this time the City of Naperville could not do it much more cheaply, so there are no plans to do so. In general, the less rural a township becomes, the more it makes sense to consolidate services. Every year more landowners in unincorporated areas apply for annexation to the City. Despite the Cox Report’s assertion that defends townships as “small government,” the larger units the authors compare townships to are states and the federal government – not municipalities. It’s a marketing device, a boilerplate document that is promoted by a national organization of townships. Townships make sense in rural or semi-rural areas, but much less sense in almost completely suburban ones.