When it comes to eliminating unnecessary layers of local government, voters in Illinois’ Metro East region have taken the lead. With the city of Belleville having absorbed Belleville Township in May 2016, and the village of Godfrey abolishing redundant Godfrey Township the following year, taxpayers in the region have seemed determined to minimize government costs.
The latest opportunity to find savings by consolidating redundant local governments will fall into the hands of Alton-area taxpayers. Alton City Council voted July 11 to include a referendum question to eliminate Alton Township on November’s ballot, according to the Alton Daily News. In the event that voters approve the elimination of the township, all duties, services and responsibilities would be transferred to the city.
The choice to put the referendum in front of Alton voters followed a June 27 city council meeting where officials opened the floor for public comment on the matter.
It makes sense that taxpayers in the region should find interest in shedding needless and costly government layers. Each of these government units enjoy the authority to levy property taxes to fund their operations. And to many, the cost of Alton’s duplicative administrative bodies outweighs the benefits of services they administer. By eliminating the duplicative township and delegating its duties to the city, taxpayers could generate savings while boosting efficiency. A reduction in public costs could also provide a path toward property tax relief.
For residents in Madison County, where Alton and its coterminous township are located, average property tax bills are higher than the national average. Countywide, the average effective property tax rate was 2.05 percent in 2017, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, compared to the nation’s 1.17 percent average. Unfortunately, Alton residents’ daunting property tax bills are in keeping with the burden Illinoisans are enduring statewide.
One major driver behind Illinoisans’ outsized property tax burden is the state’s sheer volume of local governments – from counties and cities to highway departments and mosquito abatement districts. With nearly 7,000 of these units, including 1,400 townships, Illinoisans shoulder more governing bodies than any other state in the nation – and have the property tax bills to prove it.
As was the case with Belleville Township and Godfrey Township, Alton Township’s geographical borders are identical to the city’s borders. Because of this overlap, according to the Alton Telegraph, Alton city aldermen perform double-duty as Alton Township trustees. While this aspect might control costs to some extent, the offices of township supervisor and township assessor, complete with their own personnel, perform services that might be more efficiently handled at the city or county level.
For the current fiscal year, according to the Alton Telegraph, the township assessor’s office and supervisor’s office were budgeted $383,339 and $159,395, respectively, while $154,564 was appropriated for general assistance. In the event that voters approve dissolution of the township, the assessor and supervisor, both elected by voters, would be required to complete the duration of their terms before their offices could be consolidated. The share of city aldermen’s income derived from their role as township trustees would be eliminated in the event that the township was discontinued, according to the Telegraph.
As Alton Ald. Carolyn MacAfee explained in April, “We’re spending more money in administration fees – for personnel – than the money going out to help people.”
And the people have taken the hint: The city of Alton saw its population decline by 4.2 percent between 2010 and 2017. County-level data suggest this decline has been largely driven by outmigration from Madison County. By failing to restrain taxpayer costs and control rising property tax bills, municipalities risk becoming increasingly dependent on a shrinking tax base.
When Belleville dissolved Belleville Township and absorbed its functions, the city expected to generate $260,000 in annual taxpayer savings. Overtaxed Alton taxpayers should follow this lead and carry the torch for the Metro East region’s continued push for local government consolidation.