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Rep. David McSweeney files bill to allow voters to abolish townships

Illinois Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, argues pension legislation while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is working on a bill that would give voters an opportunity to eliminate township government with a majority vote – a move that would shift the services provided by townships to local municipalities and the county government. His legislation would allow voters to trigger a referendum with a petition signed by 5 percent of the voters within township boundaries.(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Illinois Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, argues pension legislation while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is working on a bill that would give voters an opportunity to eliminate township government with a majority vote – a move that would shift the services provided by townships to local municipalities and the county government. His legislation would allow voters to trigger a referendum with a petition signed by 5 percent of the voters within township boundaries.(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

CRYSTAL LAKE – State Rep. David McSweeney has filed a bill that could allow voters to eliminate townships and transfer their responsibilities and assets to McHenry County officials.

On Friday, the Barrington Hills Republican filed House Bill 4244, a proposed law that applies only to the 17 townships in McHenry County and puts abolishing townships at the top of McSweeney’s legislative priorities.

McSweeney’s bill follows on the heels of the in-house lawsuits, budget-busting legal fees and corruption allegations that have engulfed Algonquin Township.

“[Algonquin Township] is the best example of bad government,” McSweeney said. “It is a great example of a government that will hopefully be eliminated.”

The unruly political battleground pushed the legislator to draft the law he hopes will save money for residents overburdened with property taxes.

“I am going to fight for the tax payers to get lower property taxes,” McSweeney said.

If signed into law, HB 4244 would create an opportunity for voters to force a referendum onto an election ballot with a petition packed with the signatures of at least 5 percent of voters from a previous comparable election.

For example, if 5,000 people voted in Algonquin Township in the last election, a petition carrying 250 signatures would put a question on the ballot asking voters whether they want to eliminate the township.

The petition must include the name of the township, the date it would be dissolved and accompanying signatures.

If a valid petition is filed, the McHenry County Clerk must publish a notice of the petition to dissolve townships in an area newspaper at least 90 days before the election.

If 50 percent of voters support elimination at the polls, the township would be dissolved within 90 days after the election. All property, personnel, contractual obligations and liabilities inside the township would then transfer over to McHenry County.

A provision in the bill allows municipalities to make bids to assume the responsibilities of the dissolving township and its road district. If no municipality makes an offer, those powers and duties are retained by McHenry County.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks is championing McSweeney’s bill.

“We want to be a laboratory for the state,” Franks said.

Franks also pointed to Algonquin Township infighting as an example of why townships should be eliminated.

“What’s going on in Algonquin and other townships is an obscene violation of the public trust,” Franks said. “We pay our taxes to make sure we have good roads and that our kids go to good schools. We don’t pay taxes for elected officials to squander them and settle political scores. Right now, I wouldn’t trust these guys to wield a pair of scissors.”

Proponents call township government the most local and responsive form of government residents have. They have said the dysfunction inside Algonquin Township is not representative of townships as a whole.

“Who is going to maintain the services that Illinois residents are already receiving at the same level if you’re going to be eliminating the level of government that provides that?” said Jerry Crabtree, associate director of Township Officials of Illinois, an advocacy and educational organization that represents nearly all of the state’s 1,431 townships. “In counties like this, I think they’re not looking at the complete fiscal picture.”

Consolidation could cost taxpayers more money to replace services of dissolving townships, and there should be cost studies completed to show whether consolidation would actually save tax payers money, Crabtree said.

“We are confident that most of the time, the answer to that question is, ‘No, it does not,’ ” Crabtree said.

The attack on townships has intensified in recent years. Voters and homeowners tired of high property taxes and the state’s worsening economic climate have been looking to cut anything from anywhere they can.

McSweeney has taken a particular interest in Algonquin Township’s ballooning legal costs – more than $300,000 through December – and failure of elected officials to communicate or govern.

He also has taken issue with Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser’s publication of documents on his website. Gasser has said that he is posting documents regarding township spending to his website to improve transparency and highlight questionable practices by his predecessor.

McSweeney said allegations of improper spending and official misconduct during the tenure of former Highway Commissioner Bob Miller should be investigated by authorities rather than political rivals and the attorneys they’ve hired using public money. 

Miller, who served as highway commissioner for 24 years, now is the subject of a grand jury investigation into official misconduct related to road district spending over the past decade. He has not been charged with a crime.

McSweeney said road commissioners have little financial oversight, which can lead to problems such as those that have cropped up in the township.

Gasser is a friend of McSweeney’s who helped him on the campaign trail in past elections. McSweeney donated $6,300 to the political efforts of Gasser, according to campaign finance records. Gasser previously supported township consolidation when he served on the McHenry County Board.

Gasser could not be reached Friday for comment.

McSweeney’s road to pass his new bill could be difficult. Lawmakers wrote statutes protecting townships and make it difficult for anyone to abolish the form of government.

The fight against townships has a long, rich history in McHenry County, where two decades ago, voters got the opportunity to choose how they are governed.

In 1994, Wonder Lake barber Bob Anderson spearheaded a referendum to eliminate the county’s townships the only way that state law allowed – by switching from a county board to a three-member panel of county commissioners. 

By a 3-1 margin, voters defeated Anderson’s referendum to abolish townships in the November 1994 election. On Thursday, McHenry Township officials voted down a referendum that would have allowed voters to consolidate the road district under HB 607.

Although state law allows townships to be consolidated, that’s much easier said than done in political reality.

McHenry County proved that two years ago.

A group of officials, supported by high-ranking GOP officials, launched a 2015 initiative to ask the McHenry County Board to hold referendums to reduce the county’s 17 townships to eight. A slapdash plan assembled by a task force that barely reached any kind of consensus was killed by the county board on a 13-9 vote.

State law proved to be the biggest deal killer – if two townships vote to consolidate, property taxes would increase for the township with the lower of the two levies, meaning taxpayers with the larger levy would get relief at the expense of the other.

In recent years, legislators started passing laws to make consolidation easier.

Lawmakers allowed voters in Evanston Township, which shares its exact boundaries with the city of Evanston, to hold a referendum to eliminate it, which they did in 2014.

It was only the third time in state history, and the first time in 82 years, that voters eliminated a township.

To McSweeney, consolidation is the most efficient way of lightening the crushing property tax burden in McHenry County.

“People in McHenry County are the biggest victims of high property taxes,” he said. “Consolidation is the key.”

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