Commentary: Don’t eliminate townships, school districts

By Paul Gorski 

Gov. Bruce Rauner and Rauner-ites like County Board Chairman candidate Frank Haney think they gain votes by telling residents that we need to eliminate layers of local government.

That false argument is based on the false idea that many local Illinois governments offer duplicative services, that is, one government offers the same service that others do. If you look at our local Illinois governments, many of them offer services that: 1) offer services no other local government offers; and 2) were demanded by and voted on by taxpayers.

Two types of government usually under attack by Rauner-ites are townships and school districts. Taxpayers might gripe about school district taxes, but they are protective of their school districts. Most residents like the idea of having a dedicated school board managing a local school district, a board the residents can vote in and out of office. A local school board is focused one topic: the education of their children in that community.

Yes, we might complain about school district taxes, but you’ll have a better chance of getting those taxes changed if you have school board members dedicated to the schools and accountable to local taxpayers; not part of one huge school district or other local government.

Imagine a Rauner-like proposition that would suggest the schools in Rockton, Roscoe, Winnebago and Pecatonica merge with the Rockford school district. I can’t imagine that idea would be very popular with any of the residents in any of those affected communities.

Townships have long been under attack by people who do not understand the services that townships provide. Township government is one the oldest and leanest forms of government in Illinois. By default, township government has very basic responsibilities, the maintenance of roads being the most costly. If you were to suggest to many Burritt, Winnebago, and other township residents that the county might take over all their roads, I am certain there would be an outcry.

Any service a township provides outside basic township services has to be requested by and voted on by township residents. Township residents often request special services – services not provided by their other local governments. Township voters have demanded a variety of services over the years. Below is list of voter-initiated and approved township services and the number of Illinois townships providing these services: Parks – 110; Recycling – 138; Food Pantry – 121; Senior Center – 101; Youth Services – 92; Senior Center – 101; Literacy Program – 4; Community Center – 532; Mental Illness Program – 19; Cemeteries/Graveyards – 554; Refuse collection and or disposal – 69.

Township voters asked for these services and voted for these services.

John Nelson, candidate for County Board Chairman, has served as an attorney for Harlem Township for many years and knows the importance of township government. He is familiar with lean, conservatively run township governments. Not only that, Nelson has experience with the county and city of Rockford. He probably has ideas for government consolidation too based on his experience, but he is not going to force his wishes on other local units of government. He is a coalition builder.

Most township officials in Winnebago County are Republicans. Would fiscally conservative Republicans like Owen Bach and the late, great township officials Pat O’Donnell and Pete MacKay have made township government such a big part of their lives if they did not appreciate the value of townships? I think not. Nelson and these Republicans have chosen to associate themselves with the government nicknamed “the government closest to the people.”

As a Cherry Valley Township Trustee, I am familiar with smaller, more responsive governments. I have also served as a county board member and as a library district trustee. Voters requested the creation of that library district too, many years ago, and Cherry Valley residents are very proud of their local library.

Having served on the county board, the county has its hands full now. If any candidate for county board chairman or board member is suggesting that the county assume more services from other local governments, I suggest that the candidate does not have a clue about what services the county provides now. Sounds like big government wanting to get bigger. I am sure voters do not want that.

Being a Libertarian-leaning Democrat I suggest that those people wishing to streamline governments look at the services the governments provide, not the governments themselves. If you find that a service is not required, eliminate that service. Eliminate or consolidate enough services and you might be able to eliminate some units of government. But don’t start eliminating bodies of government until you can show they’re no longer needed.

Paul Gorski is a Cherry Valley Township resident and serves as a Cherry Valley Township Trustee.

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