'Smart streamline' Illinois out of financial hole

SHARE 'Smart streamline' Illinois out of financial hole

The University of Illinois just released another depressing report on the state’s fiscal health, including a prediction that it’s going to get “dramatically worse” without strong remedial medicine.



Seriously, the study echoes the “gloom and doom” scenario Gov. Bruce Rauner’s been depicting in advance of this week’s “State of the State” address.

It pegs the fiscal 2016 budget deficit at $9 billion, and predicts the red ink figure could balloon to $14 billion over the next decade.

Those numbers are daunting, and they underscore the importance of accelerating a downsizing initiative known as “smart streamlining.”

That means taking a hard look at Illinois’ nearly 7,000 public agencies — most in the country by far — to identify unnecessary and overlapping services, and empower local voters to gradually eliminate many of them.

The result would eventually be a more efficient government that spends fewer of our hard-earned tax dollars.

North suburban Evanston is a good example: Its residents voted last year to dissolve their co-terminus township, which provided assistance to the needy, guidance on property tax issues, and road maintenance — services the city also provides.

Illinois has 1,400 townships — relics of the horse-and-buggy era and symbols of bureaucratic bloat — but this was the first time since 1932 that voters chose to eliminate one.

The decision was a “slam dunk” — the township’s duties were redundant, and the same is true of hundreds if not thousands of other taxing bodies — but getting rid of them is harder than a half-court shot.

In Evanston, it required streamlining authority from the state legislature, which has been reluctant to empower communities to downsize, and voter approval in two local referendums.

But Evanston’s leaders hung in and got it done, with help from Springfield, and now we’ll see how it plays out on another promising downsizing front — south suburban Riverdale.

Compared to Evanston — an affluent, predominantly white community of 75,000 — Riverdale is mostly African American and low-income, with 13,000 residents.

The mayor, Lawrence Jackson, has numerous challenges, including high crime and dire municipal finances.

He’s made streamlining a priority and advocates government consolidation, starting with a grade school district that has only one school with a student enrollment that’s declined to about 300.

The administration includes a superintendent, principal, assistant principal, business manager, directors of special education, technology and building services, and several assistants.

That’s absurd — an army of bureaucrats to oversee one small school — and the mayor wants to dissolve the district, or fold it into another one nearby, potentially saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Jackson is also floating a proposal to merge the park district into the village.

Time will tell if he can match his successful counterparts in Evanston, but one thing is certain: He’ll face vigorous pushback from local officials more interested in protecting their own fiefdoms than safeguarding the needs and tax dollars of the community, and those officials frequently have strong allies in Springfield.

But government’s massive financial problems and excesses are undeniable, and “smart streamlining” is a good way to tackle the issue head on.

So it’s encouraging that Rauner calls this a top priority, and his transition team is recommending the appointment of a “czar” to oversee a statewide effort.

Rauner can count on the help of a few state lawmakers, including Rep. Jack Franks of McHenry County, who leads the consolidation campaign in the House, and Sen. Daniel Biss, of Evanston, who convinced the Legislature to empower officials in that suburb to tackle the township issue.

Franks and Biss understand that “smart streamlining” is complicated and challenging, but also an essential component of any long-range plan to restore Illinois’ fiscal health.

We’ve only taken baby steps so far.

This is the year for a giant leap.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.gov

Twitter: @andyshawbga

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