Abundance of governments is one driver of collar county property taxes
Consolidating governments in the collar counties could help lower residents’ high property taxes.
Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government, the most of any state in the country, can be expensive for taxpayers. And residents in Chicago’s collar counties know this well.
Of the five collar counties, Lake County leads the way with 184 units of government, followed by DuPage (174), Will (159), Kane (113) and McHenry (104), according to data collected by The Civic Federation.
Lake has 10 more governments than DuPage despite having roughly 25 percent fewer residents. Of its 184 governments, Lake has 45 municipalities and 18 townships, both more than any other collar county.
With so many units of government, it’s not much of a surprise the collar counties pay the highest property taxes in the state and among the highest property taxes in the country. At a median rate of $6,881, Lake County taxpayers pay the highest property taxes in the state and the 21st highest in the nation. DuPage, at a median rate of $6,274, is second in the state and 27th in the nation. The collar counties account for five of the top six most expensive counties in the state for property taxes.
But there are many places to consolidate and cut local governments, if politicians are willing. School district consolidation would be an obvious area – Illinois has 859 local school districts, the fifth most in the nation, with many of these districts serving few students but carrying high administrative costs. By just cutting the number of school districts in half, Illinois could save nearly $130 million to $170 million annually in operating costs and could conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years. If savings here could be found in collar county school districts, it would be a boon for taxpayers.
Municipal government is not immune to possible consolidation either. In Lake County, for example, Round Lake, Round Lake Beach, Round Lake Park and Round Lake Heights – all of similar makeup and between 2,000 and 30,000 in population – share a fire department and park district, but each maintain separate police departments, elected officials and village administrators making as much as $180,000 per year. Just by consolidating duplicative service between Round Lake and Round Lake Beach alone, taxpayers could save up to $3 million each year.
A bill in Springfield in 2016 would have expanded local governments’ ability to consolidate. But state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, proposed an amendment that would prevent any reduction in personnel or in compensation or benefits for union-represented government employees if a unit of local government were to dissolve. That bill did not become law, but Yingling added similar language to a consolidation effort – Public Act 100-107 – that did become law in 2017, significantly hobbling cost savings.
The law also allows for consolidation of road townships, and other lawmakers have taken small, incremental steps to allow for consolidating services. But with the nation’s highest total of governments – and the nation’s highest property taxes – more significant steps are needed. To its credit, DuPage County has led the way, creating an initiative in 2012 to look for ways to consolidate local government. Residents have responded positively: Voters in the DuPage city of Naperville in 2016 overwhelmingly said they support consolidation efforts at the local level.
However under PA 100-107, DuPage, McHenry and Lake counties will not enjoy the same consolidation powers they had before. Previously, all three of those collar counties were allowed to pursue more aggressive reforms that cut duplicative local governments and the high cost of the government workers they employed. But starting in January 2018, DuPage, McHenry and Lake county voters will not be able terminate the government-worker contracts of the offices they’ve voted to get rid of.
This severely limits the public’s abilities to save costs, which will pose significant hurdles for residents seeking to ease the collar counties’ massive property tax burden.
Taxpayers in the collar counties are clamoring for tax relief, and they’re protesting with their feet: More than 9,000 people left DuPage County and more than 5,000 people left Lake County from July 2015 – July 2016, causing both county populations to drop. Kane, McHenry and Will counties also all saw domestic out-migration in that timeframe. A September 2016 poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute shows taxes as the No. 1 reason to leave.
If lawmakers and local elected officials want to reverse these trends, government consolidation would be a positive step. For collar county taxpayers, that can’t come soon enough.