Township government is sort of a different breed from other forms of government. It's generally
not as high profile or as politically oriented. Most township officials are just average folks who
want to have a leadership role in their community and make a difference. And most of the
services we provide aren't headline grabbers either-just fundamental services like road
maintenance and human service programs that help improve the quality of community life, one
person at a time.
We like to think that this is a good thing. But there is a down side, and that is that township government is so low profile, many people just don't know much about who we are and most importantly, what we can do for them. There are two reasons for this. One is that township government is like any other form of government in that it works best when people get involved. Your opinion and your vote are important so it's critical that people be informed.
The second reason is that townships provide a lot of services that can really help people-but only if they know to take advantage of them.
Historically speaking, township government is the oldest existing form of government on the North American continent. It was established in 1636 by early American settlers. Back then, township government basically meant self-government. The basis for this was the Annual Town Meeting, which brought people together from neighboring areas to discuss important issues and establish their own laws.
Over the years, township government has changed considerably, of course. But one thing that hasn't changed is that townships are still required to hold Town Meetings annually on the second Tuesday in April. This is really a unique feature of townships, and it is the only forum that allows people to have a direct voice and vote in their local government. You can actually come to your local town meeting and offer your opinions, even vote directly on issues affecting your community.
Today, there are 1,432 townships in Illinois, serving more than 8 million people. What confuses many people about this is where townships fall into the big picture in relation to city, county and state government.
As you may know, townships are not subsets of cities or counties, but individual geographical designations. So a large city may contain several townships. At the same time, one township may include several small towns. Townships also may cover many rural, unincorporated areas. This is important because certain services in these areas may not fall under the direct jurisdiction of any other unit of government. And even if they do, townships are often able to deliver those services more effectively, at a lower cost, and with less red tape.
So what do townships do?
There are two answers to that question because townships have certain mandated functions, but may provide a number of additional services. Every township in the state of Illinois is mandated to provide three things:
• The first is road and bridge maintenance. Townships maintain about 71,000 miles of Illinois roads - that's more than half of the total road miles in the state. In large cities, the city typically oversees this function. So if you've ever driven in Chicago - that mess is not our fault!
• The second mandatory function of township government is property assessment. To keep assessments local and ensure fair market value, the township assessor oversees the appraisal process for every property within their township.
• The third mandatory function is "general assistance" to the needy. That can mean a lot of different things, but typically, it means providing temporary relief for people in need perhaps due to a recent crisis or natural disaster - until those individuals can either become self-supporting or qualify for other forms of assistance.
So those are the three things townships MUST provide-road and bridge maintenance, property assessment and general assistance to the needy.
However, townships often do a lot more than that. Again, because townships are close to the community, most have taken steps to pinpoint specific needs within their communities and design creative programs to help fill those needs. These "optional" services, as we'll call them, really run the gamut, and can include everything from parks and recreation programs to running hospitals and cemeteries.
Townships are also widely known for engineering creative ways to deliver these services very inexpensively. We have limited budgets, so these "optional" services often have to pay for themselves, or be administered with the help of volunteer efforts or grant funds. And this has led to some really great partnerships.
As you may have gathered, one of the nice things about township government is that there is a real human element. Many of the programs and services we provide are "people programs" that address quality of life issues and really have a direct impact on the folks in our communities. There are a number of other advantages that townships offer in comparison to county or state government.
One of these is the local aspect. As mentioned before, being localized helps townships better respond to the unique needs of their communities because they are more in touch with what is going on outside their doorstep. More importantly, local government makes for much more efficient government.