But the ABC7 I-Team and the Better Government Association have discovered that Cook County townships have stashed away a fortune in tax money. They are sitting on more than $100 million in taxpayer funds - collected but unspent.
For more than a century in Illinois they have been the core of government as local as Main Street; providing services for people who lived far from major cities. But that description no longer applies to townships in Cook County where multi-taxed residents often don't even know what a township does.
"Once these units of government are created, they're like Frankenstein, they never go away," said Tony Peraica, Cook County commissioner.
And like Dracula, say critics, townships drain the tax blood for their own existence.
Cook County townships spend more than $100 million a year, according to current records filed with the Illinois comptroller.
"It never occurred to me in a million years that these townships were capable of wasting so many tax dollars," said Andy Shaw, Better Government Association.
"I understand there have been a number of people who say it's another layer of government, that it's really a waste of money and I couldn't disagree with that more. We have become advocates for the people," said Frank Zuccarelli, Thornton Township supervisor.
But being advocates isn't what the state directed them to do. The law mandates only that Cook County townships: provide temporary aid for the poor and maintain roads in unincorporated areas.
But the I-Team and the BGA found that Cook County townships spend only a third of tax payer dollars on mandated functions. About a third goes to employee salaries and the last third is spent on programs the townships come up with on their own.
Consider southeast suburban Rich Township: only five percent of it's tax money is spent on state-mandated help for the poor. Rich Township spends almost 45 percent of it's budget on salaries. At the same time, according to state records, Rich lives up to it's name by socking away almost $4 million in taxpayer money.
But the township supervisor says its dangerous to depend on statistics.
"There are a lot of fallacies that can come out when one just looks at numbers just off the top of their head," said Al Riley, Rich Township supervisor.Consider southwest suburban Stickney Township that spends a little more than 2 percent on general assistance for the poor, according to state records, while paying out 39 percent of it's budget for employee salaries. At the same time, Stickney has almost $8.5 dollars of taxpayer money in the bank or invested.
"You've got to remember, we do it the old Bohemian way, we don't spend what we don't have and we don't add a lot of unnecessary payroll," said Louis Viverito, Stickney Township supervisor.
And consider south suburban Thornton Township where a better than average 18 percent of tax dollars go to temporary aid to the poor with 25 percent paid out for employee salaries.
But Thornton Township has amassed almost $14 million in tax money - more than twice what is recommended for a reserve fund.
"This is the largest surplus we've ever had but we're being more conservative because of the current economic climate...We've given tax rebates seven times over the last nine years...they're not large rebates, but they may be $35 - $40 per homeowner who applies," said Zuccarelli.
"This is truly outrageous to have money sitting in a bank that we've paid in taxes at a time when homes are being foreclosed on, people are out of work, they can't pay their bills, they can't send their kids to school, they can't buy clothes for their children and yet tax dollars that they work hard for are sitting in accounts and not being used," said Shaw.
The other mandated responsibility of township government in Illinois is to maintain unincorporated roads. These roads make up less than three percent of all roads in Cook County and the townships spent a total of $13.5 million on these roads this year.
"There is no need for a highway department and the superintendent of highways, in some cases they're only having supervision over 5 or 10 miles of roadway," said Peraica.
In Stickney Township there are only nine miles of unincorporated roads, barely visible on the map. But it takes eight employees, countless contract workers, and $1.2 million tax dollars to maintain them.
The I-Team spotted three workers to run a single sweeper that cleaned only one side of a street.
"I am hoping this will be a catalyst for change...that people will recognize there is money being wasted, not spent and the best thing they could do is send it back to the taxpayers who really need it," said Rep. Mike Quigley, (D) Chicago.It is a layer of government that operates outside the usual checks and balances, with no oversight.
Every township is required to provide an annual financial audit to the state. But those are audits paid for and prepared by the townships.
Learn more about township government and how they are spending your money:
Township Officials of Cook County: www.toi.org/TOCC
Township Officials of Illinois Web site: www.toi.org
See the Cook County's Township payroll database on Chicago's Better Government Association: www.bettergov.org