One of the more unique forms of government in Illinois is townships. They provide some services beyond those of a city but, in this frugal budget climate, some see township functions as redundant.
Back in 2010, the city of Peru was emerging from the national financial crisis. To cut back on expenses, Mayor Scott Harl met with his counterparts from LaSalle and Oglesby.
“We were looking at consolidation of our safety services, our dispatch for police, fire and 911," he said. "That took effect after six years. September of 2016.”
Despite the delay in implementation, Harl says Peru, LaSalle, Oglesby, and Mendota ended up saving about one and half million dollars. Seeking to further trim the fat, his administration set its eyes on Peru Township. City Ald. David Pothoff claims a significant percentage of the township’s funds go toward its own board, rather than carrying out government functions.
“When you’re spending that greater percentage on wages and perks from a township board, that needs to be looked at," Pothoff says, "and there has to be a better way to do it for the taxpayers of Peru.”
To remedy this, Harl’s administration wants to dissolve the township and consolidate its duties with those of the city. But what exactly are townships?
They’re a government body that’s between city and county, and they are common across northern Illinois. NIU Professor Norman Walzer says that’s because there was a regional desire for local control.
“The part of the state that was settled from the South was used to more of a plantation, broader form of government, so they didn’t really have the local control as much," he said. "The part of the state that formed from the northeast was more familiar with a town form of government, and we have townships there.”
Originally, townships were responsible for three different services: general assistance, which is a last-resort type of public aid; property assessment for tax purposes; and maintaining roads and bridges. However, Walzer says townships' powers expanded greatly during the Reagan years.
“In order to get federal revenue sharing, they had to be able to spend more on other things," Walzer explained. "So, in that period, their powers were expanded.”
These include such measures as youth services and senior citizen programs. However, some observers believe the services offered by these townships could be managed better by a municipality -- and for less money. Prof. Walzer says it’s possible, but it depends on the situation.
“Usually it comes down to if the township or other unit of government is maintaining a separate building, a chief administrator, clerical staff, all these things and maintaining equipment," he said. "Then you can probably maintain some cost savings.”
Hence Harl’s thoughts of consolidation. The mayor says the idea came from a meeting with several of his counterparts.
“I’m on the Illinois Municipal League Board with some mayors that have recently done this," he explains. "One is the City of Belleville, Mark Eckhart, and that will take effect in May of this year, 2017.”
Harl claims that consolidating the City of Peru and Peru Township is an “outside the box” way to reduce taxes. To that end, his administration put a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot, asking whether the township should be dissolved and its duties assumed by the city.
The vote was 60 percent in favor, but the idea of dissolution isn’t without controversy. However, Peru Township Trustee Art Rigby says the biggest obstacle to that plan is the borders of the city and township.
“It is not legal to go ahead with the process that the City of Peru wants because of the ... non-coterminous area,” he said.
Rigby says state law allows townships to dissolve only if the borders of the city and township match up. That was the case in Belleville, but Peru Township extends beyond the city limits. Thus, any formal dissolution would require legislation by the General Assembly.
Rigby also is concerned about the transfer of services, particularly since the township assessor has a good rapport with his counterpart in LaSalle County.
“If we lost the township assessor, then they would take over, which they don’t want to do," Rigby said. "(It) would be 4,500 parcels at $180 per parcel, and I believe that has to be done every four years.”
This, according to Rigby, might lead to a greater tax burden.
Mayor Harl says the assessor isn’t his primary concern.
"We’re concerned about what we’re going to do about the assistance portion of it and the supervisor and the trustees," he said.
Harl claims Peru Township paid $4,800 worth of claims between mid-2013 to part of 2016, out of an approximately $250,000 levy. He cites a FOIA request from the township for this information. The township’s 2015 annual report says general assistance expenses that year were $26,270.29.
Regardless of the numbers, Rigby counters that township officials have reduced salaries and benefits across the board, from lower-level staff to trustees like himself.
“Overall, we’ve reduced our budget and our levy by 13 percent," Rigby said. "The City of Peru, from what I’ve seen in the newspaper, has increased their budget by just a tad less than 5 percent. So they went up, we went down.”
So far, the city has held only one meeting about plans for consolidation. The Dec. 21 event didn’t include details on how the City of Peru would take over property tax assessment, general assistance, and road maintenance.
Professor Walzer says the important factor is whether such services can be offered more efficiently.
“You want to get at least as good a quality of road or at least as good a quality of service, and you want to get it at a lower cost; but it may or may not happen in terms of taxes, because that’s a political decision.”
The township and city will hold another meeting next Wednesday, but Mayor Harl says full plans for consolidation are still a way off.
“We’ll go through discovery. We’ll see if it is better and, if it is, we’ll try to implement it through legislation in Springfield," he said. "If it doesn’t look like it’s worth it, we tried. It’s not worth it, it’s good enough the way it is. But we don’t know that at this time.”