Would Cook County operate more effectively without townships?
Cook County Commissioner Michael Quigley, D-Chicago, thinks so. And, not surprisingly, township officials don't agree.
In a recently published 70-page report entitled "Reinventing County Government," Quigley proposes big changes for the county, including the elimination of township government and transfers of power to local municipalities and other governmental units. The report was written by Quigley with help from nine university professors.
"Township government has a limited function these days," Quigley says. "The bottom line is, township government is the poorest in terms of cost effectiveness."
In his report, Quigley calls townships "outdated and unnecessary. A transfer of their duties to other units of government would simplify the overall organization of government in the county and most likely save taxpayers money."
Townships provide services that include welfare assistance, road maintenance and property assessments. But Cook County and other units of government offer the same services, Quigley says.
Niles Township Supervisor Thomas McElligott remembers a referendum vote more than 20 years ago asking Niles Township residents whether they wanted to see township government abolished. The answer was no by nearly 3-to-2, McElligott said.
"There are certain situations where township government is more efficient than the county or individual municipalities," McElligott said. "Niles Township has subsidized community-wide organizations, and I'm just not sure how that would work if you divide that up among individual municipalities."
McElligott said Niles Township has helped fund many worthwhile services from a mental health institution to a symphony orchestra. It has a food pantry that helps needy people every year, and it helps subsidize a program that assists people in finding low-cost medical care.
"I just don't know how you could split all these services up?" he said. "Do I say it couldn't be done? I'm not saying that, but I think the programs we support are run more efficiently than they would under (the jurisdiction) of villages or the county."
McElligott believes that township governments differ from township to township.
"When I started here, there was an agreement there would be no patronage and we would fund only nonprofit organizations," McElligott said. "That has always been my approach. We have fewer employees today than when I first took over. I have always (striven) not to create a bureaucracy here."
McElligott said that he does not automatically rule out the idea of eliminating township government, but he would have to see a proposal that details exactly how it would be done.
"The devil is in the details," he said. "I don't know how you'd run things more efficiently than what we have now -- at least not in a way that doesn't smack of politics."
Townships also govern unincorporated areas of the county.
Quigley says it is time to push for the annexation of these areas by surrounding municipalities because it is too costly for the county to provide Sheriff's Police patrols and other services to such a limited area (there are only 60 square miles of unincorporated land left in Cook County, Quigley said).
Quigley's plan for "reinventing" Cook County also includes a proposal to dissolve the Sheriff's Police Department and transfer patrol duties in unincorporated areas to adjacent municipalities, saving the county millions of dollars.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners does not have the authority to abolish townships. Such a proposal would have to be voted on through a referendum.