County Group Moves to Halve Township Government in Illinois

Published April 17, 2015

A citizen group trying to consolidate township governments in McHenry County, Illinois, says the change could save as much as $40 million over 10 years.

If successful, the McHenry County Citizens for Township Consolidation would bring the number of townships down from 17 to as few as eight.

Mike Shorten, chairman of the group, says the goal is not to reduce services but to restructure to make delivery of services cost-effective.

“There are lot of people in townships who value the services and we’re honestly not focused on trying to impact those services, just changing the structure with the intent of decreasing costs,” he said.

If the number of townships were reduced from 17 to eight, there would be 72 fewer elected officials, Shorten said. Other savings are expected in better use of facilities, equipment and personnel.

The group says it has nothing against township government a whole and is not calling for abolition, either locally or statewide, Shorten said.

“Abolition is a whole different animal,” he said.

But, in McHenry County, township government can be run more efficiently, the group believes.

“You have boundaries that were drawn back in the 1800s and the boundaries … were based on the distance that a horse and a buggy could travel in a day. So, we’re saying ‘does that model make sense any longer in terms of the services the townships are required to perform?'”

The county board can put a township consolidation plan on the ballot and Shorten said the members of the group think it can be done in McHenry County. It’s aiming to get the question onto the March 2016 ballot. The plan, if approved, would not go into effect until new township officials are elected in 2017.

The consolidation measure would have to pass in each township that would be affected. If a township rejects consolidation, it would stay separate. So, even if the question is placed on the spring ballot, there’s no guarantee the new number of townships would be eight; it could be somewhere between eight and 17.

The group began forming around November and did take notice of then-candidate Bruce Rauner’s call for Illinois to reduce its nation-leading number of units of government — about 7,000. It’s efforts, though, are not directly tied to the governor’s task force on consolidation.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, a member of the task force, said he’s aware of the McHenry group’s effort, has seen some of its numbers and believes the idea has some merit. But the effort will face some opposition, Franks said.

“You wouldn’t believe the fiefdoms and kingmakers we have in this state,” Franks said.

“The last bastion of patronage in a lot of these places is the local township or whatever small (unit of) government that they have and they like to hold onto it because of whatever power or money they get out of it.”

Shorten said he expects some elected officials will oppose consolidation, as would the Township Officials of Illinois.

Thursday afternoon calls to Township Officials of Illinois were not immediately returned, but Assistant Director Jerry Crabtree told the Northwest Herald in March: “The value of the services that townships provide surpasses any proposal to reduce or eliminate them.”

Franks said no one should assume efforts to make government smaller will be a wash just because Republicans dominate in McHenry County. Patronage mentalities aren’t the hallmark of any one party, he said.

“It’s oftentimes about the people who have the jobs instead of the taxpayers who are paying for these jobs,” Franks said.

Trying to cut government is “very frustrating, very slow and very incremental,” he added.

Townships in Illinois have three mandatory duties: maintaining roads, assessing property and distributing certain funds to the disadvantaged. There are about 1,400 townships in Illinois.

Critics often deride township government as duplicative, nepotistic and outdated. But supporters, particularly in rural areas, warn about painting with a broad brush.

When Rauner announced his consolidation task force, state Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, lauded the goal but advised caution.

In some areas, he said, “the state representative, the senator, the governor are not their government. Their government is the road commissioner… the township supervisor. That’s really the seat of government in rural areas.”

Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, concurred. “Where I live, I need the services a township provides,” he said.

Mark Fitton ([email protected]) is a reporter for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. An earlier version of this article first appeared at

Reprinted with permission.