Springfield taxpayers could see savings through township consolidation

Springfield taxpayers could see savings through township consolidation

A ballot question asking voters whether to eliminate Capital Township could bring savings to Springfield taxpayers – but that would just be one of many steps worth taking to lower Springfield’s high property taxes.

In an encouraging move for area taxpayers, the city of Springfield may give residents the opportunity to find savings by eliminating an unneeded layer of government.

While a proposal to put an advisory question on the November ballot to dissolve Capital Township originally died in City Council, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder informed council members Aug. 7 that he is collecting signatures in an effort to put that same question on the April 2019 ballot.

“It’s really about providing property tax relief,” Langfelder said. “That’s what it’s all about. [With property tax relief] people have more money and then it helps the economy.”

The proposal would appear as an advisory referendum, meaning that while it requires a smaller number of signatures to land a spot on the ballot, the result would be nonbinding. That advisory question would follow a similar referendum set to appear on the coming November ballot, asking voters whether to consolidate the same township with Sangamon County. Since neither question is binding, both could pass independent of each other. But Langfelder says it makes more sense to consolidate with the city, as its borders are coterminous with the township.

“Any townships that have boundaries within a municipality, it should be easier to abolish those,” Langfelder said.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, local government consolidation is often an uphill climb. As it stands now, to get a binding consolidation referendum onto a ballot, voters need a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters from each township in the county. It’s an unnecessarily burdensome task – but a worthwhile one, especially for overburdened Springfield taxpayers.

The typical Springfield homeowner’s property tax dollars flow to 10 different units of local government. The property tax bill for a house in Springfield selling at about $127,000 – near the median home value – was more than $2,600 in 2017. While the amount flowing to Capital Township is relatively low – 1.1 percent of the bill – those savings would bring welcome change to a tax bill that’s far too high. It would also set a precedent for consolidating Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government – the highest count of any state in the nation. But whether or not the effort to consolidate the township is successful, plenty of additional work is still needed to bring down Springfield’s high property tax bills.

More than 60 percent of the typical Springfield homeowner’s property tax bill flowed to Springfield Public School District 186 in 2017. In December 2017, District 186 voted to raise its 2018 property tax levy by 3.3 percent. Moreover, nearly 18 percent of that homeowner’s property tax bill went to government workers’ pension funds in 2017, amounting to $467. And 100 percent of the amount flowing to the city that year went toward pensions.

The city of Springfield’s 1,155 retired employees enrolled in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund have received more than $326 million in benefits. Among that group, more than 50 retirees have each collected more than $1 million in total pension payouts, and eight currently receive annual payouts larger than $100,000.

Former government employees are not at fault for pension benefits surpassing what taxpayers can afford. Lawmakers set the rules. And it is those lawmakers who need to reform the system, as overpromised pension benefits continue to drive Springfield residents’ property taxes higher.

Springfield officials know the positive effects pension reform can have: The city saved $1.5 million in just one year after eliminating the practice of “pension spiking.” State lawmakers should follow suit and enact broader reforms that further alleviate Springfield taxpayers’ pension burden. In the short term, lawmakers should enroll all new government employees into 401(k)-style retirement plans, which would offer a better future for taxpayers and government workers alike. But in the long term, lawmakers will need to change the state’s constitution to allow for adjustments to future, unearned benefits for government workers.

In the meantime, taxpayers can support efforts to cut costs at the local level by consolidating unnecessary layers of government – as Springfield may soon have the opportunity to do.

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