When household budgets are stretched to the breaking point, a common way to cut down on expenses is looking for services to cancel in hopes of saving a few dollars.
That is the opportunity presented by an upcoming March referendum in McHenry Township, where voters will consider whether to abolish township government.
In advance of this vote, there’s an effort to organize a study about the cost-effectiveness of eliminating the township. We’re skeptical about the value of such a study, however.
For one, the process already is hopelessly politicized, as township Highway Commissioner Jim Condon pointed out at a meeting this week. There already has been maneuvering by township advocates to place the question on the more lightly voted March primary ballot than the November 2020 ballot, and we have full faith that township advocates will continue to try to gain an edge through this study any way they can.
For another, if government – or those who study it – take a “blank check” approach to determining cost, the figures will always be eye-popping.
McHenry County’s 1994 report on the cost to eliminate township government, which found it would cost the county at least $9 million more a year, is full of “blank-check” assumptions – really, outright speculation – about costs.
For example, the County Highway Department estimated that taking over maintenance and responsibility for township roads around the county would cost $18 million (in 1994 dollars) to start up, along with $6.5 million in recurring costs from added personnel. The report assumed there would be no value in township equipment or assets (a faulty assumption), anticipated a major hiring spree and no increased efficiency. County departments seemed to assume that township services would have to be duplicated exactly, with buildings constructed all over the county. No expense was expected to be less than $1,000.
But consider what happened more recently in McHenry County government. County Board Chairman Jack Franks announced in 2018 that he would push to reduce the county’s property tax levy through both a reduced tax collection and a variety of tax rebates.
Some at the time were skeptical, but this was accomplished.
It was possible because there is now broad agreement that property taxes are simply too high. Property owners are fed up. They want a government they can afford, but too many local leaders are intent on keeping them on the “government deluxe” plan.
In McHenry County, the deluxe package comes with townships, which are largely redundant with other governments and rarely needed by most of the public. As a consequence, no one watches what they do all that closely – hardly a model for good government.
As a result, the model is expensive. In McHenry Township, the owner of a $250,000 home in McHenry who claimed the homestead exemption paid $9,480 in property tax for 2018. That’s $790 a month.
Of that, about $313 – 3.3% of the total – went to the township and its road and bridge fund. That’s a little more than went to the city library.
We’d bet McHenry property owners would love to pay 3.3% less on their tax bills next year, or even 1% less – and so would other homeowners around the county.
Taxpayers can’t afford the cost of local government any longer. They want a government they can afford. If township government is abolished, politicians who use it as a smokescreen to hike taxes will not be returned to office.
The March township referendum will give McHenry Township voters the rare opportunity to exercise the same control over their property taxes as they do over their other household bills: They’ll be able to actually cancel a service and stop paying for it.