Illinois’ layers and layers of government ripe for consolidation

Illinois’ layers and layers of government ripe for consolidation

Mergers are a no-brainer for communities across the state, but state policy makes it nearly impossible.

Illinois has just 102 counties and 1,299 cities, but nearly 7,000 local government bodies, 2,129 more government agencies than Pennsylvania, the state with the next highest tally. These layers leave Illinoisans with the second-highest property taxes in the nation. But how?

In much of the U.S., local property taxes go toward the school district, city hall and the county courthouse.

In Illinois, it’s more complicated. Many communities have separate taxing districts for fire protection, libraries and parks, as well as those for sanitation and mosquito abatement, among other purposes. To this day, 85 of Illinois’ 102 counties still have townships.

For example, suburban DuPage County alone, with nearly a million people, has 203 governmental entities. The state of Nevada, which has three times more people, has just 198.

How much money would consolidation save taxpayers? No comprehensive study has answered this question, but in the past, mergers have saved on such things as technology, human resources, procurement and finance. These are the types of things every agency needs, no matter its core service.

DuPage County, which has some of the highest property taxes in the Midwest, counts 39 municipalities and 40 park districts among its units of government. Many of these park districts have roughly the same boundaries as their corresponding municipalities.

One DuPage County village government, Downers Grove, spends a combined $200,000 on its top two finance officials, while the local park district forks out $125,000 for the same. The village also pays $110,000 for a communications director, and the park district spends $54,000 for an official with a similar job title.

In the private sector, consolidation of services happens all the time as businesses find ways to save money and stay competitive.

In government, though, consolidation rarely happens. That’s because entities live on without any real threats to their existence, thanks to a practically guaranteed stream of taxpayer dollars. And those in charge have little incentive to give up their positions.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, introduced a bill that would give voters power by referendum to dissolve units of local government and transfer their responsibilities to other entities. Unfortunately, the bill has stalled in the Rules Committee.

Abolishing units of government is never easy. In 2014, voters in Cook County’s Evanston Township voted to disband the entity, merging its limited functions into the village of Evanston, which had the same borders. It was the first time since 1932 that a township had been eliminated.

In Evanston’s case, the Illinois General Assembly passed specific legislation letting the township’s voters decide. Existing state law includes no procedure to eliminate just one township. Voters can only get rid of all of a county’s townships at one time. To do that, a petition must have the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in each of the county’s townships. Then a binding referendum question can go on the ballot. All of this must be done in 90 days.

As a practical matter, these hurdles are nearly impossible to clear. In fact, they are tougher than those for amending the state constitution, which requires the signatures of about 4 percent of registered voters over 540 days to get an amendment on the ballot.

Oddly enough, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that Illinois has far too many units of government.

In 2011, the Illinois General Assembly created a commission to study consolidation of governmental entities. Then-Gov. Pat Quinn called for cutting the number of school districts by nearly two-thirds.

Shortly after taking office in January, Gov. Bruce Rauner formed a task force to examine the same issue.

Illinois’ elected leaders need to change state laws that place roadblocks to consolidation. With an eye toward saving money, they should give voters power to merge local units of government as they see fit.

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