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Bills to trim Illinois taxing bodies move forward

Published: Sunday, March 30, 2014 11:20 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, March 30, 2014 11:37 p.m. CDT

Two bills in the General Assembly aimed at helping pare down the state’s 7,000 units of government are moving forward ahead of a report on how to consolidate them.

One bill, House Bill 5785, would give the boards of some of the state’s more obscure taxing districts a legal mechanism by which they could be consolidated or dissolved outright. Another, House Bill 3251, would slap a four-year moratorium on the ability of the General Assembly to pass laws creating any new unit of local government or allowing an existing government to split in two.

Both bills are sponsored by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who is soon expected to release a report, commissioned by another bill, that examines ways to consolidate the state’s myriad units of local government that have become a strain on taxpayers and are difficult to keep accountable.

He calls the bills a step forward in creating a legal means by which certain governments can be eliminated if they choose to do so. Forcing consolidation or elimination of governments is a tough sell in Springfield for several reasons – a Franks bill to give all 102 counties the power that DuPage County has been given on a test basis to eliminate certain units of government failed in committee Thursday.

“Right now there’s no authority to absorb other units of government or even to discontinue their own operations. This allows people and our local officials to discontinue superfluous bureaucracy,” Franks said.

HB 5785 would allow the bodies of certain governments, including cemetery, civic center, museum, port, solid waste disposal, street light, water authority, and other districts to vote to dissolve and either be consolidated into a similar neighboring district or be absorbed into a municipal or county government. An amendment filed by Franks would give the absorbing government a vote to approve the idea, given that they would be assuming that district’s responsibilities.

McHenry County, which has about 145 taxing bodies, has only two that would be able to eliminate themselves under the law – the Nunda Township and the Richmond cemetery districts.

Illinois has far more units of government than any other state – it has 40 percent more than the runner-up, Pennsylvania, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The main reason for this has its roots in the state’s previous constitution.

The 1870 Illinois Constitution limited the amount of debt that local governments could incur. Municipalities that reached their limits and wanted to add services asked lawmakers to create special districts that flourish today, from common ones like fire districts to obscure ones like the Century Hill Street Lighting District, whose sole purpose is to maintain 77 streetlights in a Naperville subdivision.

The streetlight district and a handful of others are on the chopping block of the DuPage County Board, which last year was empowered by state lawmakers to ax small units of government if they met specific criteria. Thirteen of the county’s 400 units of government can be axed under the guidelines.

It was a talk with County Board Chairman Dan Cronin that prompted Franks to file HB 3251 to make sure that governments that get dissolved, or supporters of said governments, can’t just create new ones to replace them.

House Bill 5786, which would give the DuPage County government elimination program to all Illinois counties, failed on a 2-3 vote in the House Counties and Townships Committee. Franks said he will try to get it through the House by amending another bill.

A Northwest Herald analysis last year concluded that only four McHenry County taxing bodies – a sanitary district, a rural fire district and two drainage districts – could face elimination if the DuPage County law was applied to McHenry County.

On the Net

You can read the texts of House Bills 5785, 5786 and 3251, which are aimed at helping shrink the state’s almost 7,000 units of government, at www.ilga.gov.

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