Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of government, more than any other state and about 1,800 more than Texas, which is much more populous.
“That’s a lot of hands in the pockets of our taxpayers and our taxpayers need relief, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti said last week.
Good news! Democrats and Republicans have worked together to take a few steps toward encouraging consolidation and streamlining of some of those governments.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law last week Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 607. Senate Bill 3 gives county officials the ability to dissolve or merge county-appointed government units. It also allows townships to consolidate with bordering municipalities with voter approval.
House Bill 607, now Public Act 100-0106, allows township trustees in counties with fewer than 3 million people to let voters decide whether to abolish road districts. Township officials in Cook County already have the power to let voters determine whether to abolish road districts.
While the power to initiate consolidation or abolition of these government bodies still lies in the hands of elected officials, some of the officials who have been pushing the consolidation movement note there are things citizens can do to start asking for smart streamlining.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, a Republican, suggests citizens look at their property tax bills and the governments listed there and start asking questions about whether they’re needed.
Citizens “need to understand there’s a direct correlation between the high property taxes they pay and the sheer number of the units of local governments here,” he said in an interview. “We need people to get a little more engaged in the local government.”
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who sponsored SB 3, now Public Act 100-0107, said while citizens can’t yet demand the demise of their mosquito abatement districts, their drainage districts or unmanned fire districts, these new laws, which take effect next year, are one step on a path toward more efficient, less expensive government.
“The first thing was to get county boards the ability to do this,” Cullerton said. Now, local governments can begin to look at how they might better provide services. “In Villa Park, our finance director for the village actually helps do the finances for the library district, so that reduces the cost for the library district and reduces the cost for the library overall. Shared services is a big part of this process.”
At the bill signing, Cronin noted DuPage County, which launched a pilot program, was able to consolidate four units of government, is working on two more and can point to $100 million in savings from its efforts. “If local government leaders across this state embrace this tool, I believe they could realize similar types of savings and with 102 counties,” Cronin said, “you’re talking about a substantial amount of money.”
A previously passed law requires counties to report information about boards, commissions and other entities they appoint. While only 70 of 102 counties have submitted reports so far, a total of more than 1,900 entities have been catalogued and more than 780 of them have the ability to tax, according to a report prepared by Transform Illinois, a collaborative effort to push streamlined government comprised of public officials, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Better Government Association, Civic Federation, League of Women Voters and many more. Those entities are prime targets for potential consolidation.
Cullerton notes Illinois’ 850 school districts also ought to be examined. “We need to look at some of these school districts that may only have 80 kids or 100 kids and how we can go forward there,” he said.
In signing the bill into law, Rauner noted citizens need more consolidation power themselves. “While today is a step in the right direction,” he said in a release, “we must continue to fight to give every resident the right to choose how their local government operates.”
Rauner is right about that, but he was wrong to veto HB 3649, a bill that would provide more frequent and accurate information about state debt. The bill would require agencies under the governor’s control to report monthly to the comptroller the amount of bills not yet turned in, as well as the amount of interest penalties on those overdue bills.
Rauner said the bill, supported by Democrat Comptroller Susana Mendoza, amounted to “micromanaging,” but any effort that provides a more accurate and frequent accounting of state debts ought to be embraced. The Illinois House is expected to try to override Rauner’s veto of the debt transparency bill Wednesday. Here’s hoping it succeeds.
Madeleine Doubek is policy and civic engagement director for the Better Government Association.
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