Some Illinois government officials are facing tough budgets and flat revenues, and they know turning to taxpayers for more won’t work. So what do they do? In many counties, the answer has been: Consolidation.
Somewhat under the radar, 87 out of 102 counties in Illinois have merged the recorder of deeds office with the county clerk’s office. Another three are working toward it, including Cook County, Winnebago County and McHenry County. Adams County did it in 2004. Tazewell in 2012. McLean in 2013 and Peoria in 2016. In all of those counties, the move was preceded by voters approving the mergers.
Both clerk and recorder offices fulfill record-keeping functions, and the recorder’s office is one of two county offices not mandated by the state constitution. The other is county auditor.
Still, when DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin recently floated the merger idea, it wasn’t embraced. He said opponents suggested he was trying to consolidate his power. Merger battles have flared up among McHenry and Winnebago officials, too.
Winnebago’s study estimated the county could save $100,000 a year by combining the offices. In Cook County, retiring Clerk David Orr and Recorder Karen Yarbrough reported to commissioners earlier this year on a study that found a merger could produce savings conservatively estimated at just below $2 million.
That’s nothing to overlook, and all these efforts ought to be applauded.
Indeed, with Illinoisans feeling squeezed by property taxes and another recession bound to hit again at some point, Cronin believes more government bodies will have to embrace smart streamlining, sooner rather than later.
“What we’re experiencing now, with tight revenues and tough budgets, isn’t going to change. It’s the new normal,” he said. “I don’t see boatloads of money coming from Springfield. The recorder’s office is ripe. They do a fine job. It’s nothing personal, but really, the whole notion of a recorder’s office hearkens back to a bygone era.”
Cronin is a founding member of the Transform Illinois coalition that advocates for government consolidation. (The Better Government Association also is a coalition member.) Cronin has begun merger talks and hopes the 24 positions in the recorder’s office can be eliminated through attrition. He said he’s eyeing putting the question to voters in April before candidates start lining up to seek the office again.
“Our costs never go down. It’s tough to make ends meet,” he said. “Every year we’ve cut and consolidated and I’m proud of all of that, but it’s more and more difficult.”
It’s going to get increasingly tough for rural counties downstate, too. Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar at the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University, said projections show many downstate counties will lose population, while the elderly population increases and the number of elementary-aged children decreases. Senior citizens qualify for property tax breaks. That, combined with population decreases, will cause a dip in tax dollars to cover government costs.
Walzer and a colleague have created a tool that allows counties to compare local government spending, and they’re encouraging counties to create efficiency assessment teams with community members. “They ought to at least look at the options for mergers or collaborations,” Walzer said.
In DuPage County, another type of pressure exists. The county competes with affluent suburbs on things like law enforcement hiring, but it now doesn’t pay as well as some of them, Cronin noted. And new challenges always surface, like the opioid crisis.
“You want to be nimble enough to shift when needed,” Cronin said, “but there’s not much room for error.”
With property taxes, home sales and taxpayer frustration all rising, Cronin predicted requests for more tax revenue will be rejected on the November ballot. He sees a time coming when politicians won’t have a choice but to start streamlining.
“The revenues will continue to be less and less, and they’re going to have to figure out how to make ends meet. We’re not going to be able to afford 7,000 units of government. Maybe starving the beast of government is the way to force consolidation,” he said.
Forcing consolidation isn’t the preferred method. Planning for it is. Somehow, 87 percent of the counties in Illinois have seen fit to figure out how to merge recorder and clerk offices. And that’s a very good thing. It also will be good and important for Cook, McHenry and Winnebago to document their work and demonstrate whether the projected savings materialize.
“We’ve taken these baby steps to try to create some momentum to show it can be done,” Cronin said. “We’re going to have to take a bold step at some point.”
Sooner or later, taxpayers will expect consolidation. They’ve long understood less really is more.
Madeleine Doubek is the Better Government Association’s vice president of policy.
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