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Report: Illinois should make government consolidation easier

Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014 11:20 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, April 6, 2014 8:53 a.m. CDT

Eliminating barriers to consolidation will be the best way to pare down the state’s almost 7,000 units of local government, a commission created by a local lawmaker has concluded.

The 90-page report by the Local Government Consolidation Commission advises that successful efforts to eliminate layers of government must be locally-driven and not mandated by the state. The report submitted to state lawmakers last week also advises that in many cases, consolidation may not guarantee tax relief as much as governments sharing resources.

But the best thing Springfield can do is to review its laws to make sure that, at the very least, every type of taxing body in the state has a legal mechanism to dissolve or consolidate that does not contain illogical barriers, the report concludes.

“While the Commission recognizes the potential to achieve greater economies of scale and to realize a reduction in costs if local governments work to cooperate and consolidate on a case-by-case basis, this report’s recommendations mainly aim to eliminate barriers to consolidation and resolve certain discrepancies in the Illinois statutes governing local governments and special districts,” the report states.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, filed the 2011 bill that created the 15-member commission and was its chairman. He said the committee’s research and testimony dispelled what he called his preconceived notions about the ease of eliminating the number of governments.

“I think that consolidation is terrific, and it’s something I encourage, but I also know it’s something that can’t be mandated by Springfield,” Franks said Friday. “The consensus of the commission was that sometimes, it makes more sense to cooperate and work together instead of consolidation.”

Illinois has the most units of government of any state at 6,968, according to a U.S. Census report – the first runner-up, Pennsylvania, has about 4,900. They include eclectic bodies that govern things like drainage, mosquito abatement, cemetery maintenance and county historical museums. McHenry County alone has 30 municipalities, 19 school districts, 17 townships, 17 fire protection districts, 13 library districts, four park districts, two sanitary districts, and two cemetery districts.

While supporters maintain that local government means local control, opponents argue that they are breeding grounds for waste and corruption because the sheer number makes it almost impossible for watchdog groups – or county governments charged in many cases with appointing board members – to keep an eye on them.

The commission concluded that, in many cases, state statutes that create taxing bodies do not contain mechanisms that allow them to consolidate or dissolve. Others, according to the report, contain unusual restrictions – under the law, two contiguous library districts cannot merge unless they have the exact same limits on their tax levies.

“Many of these government creations, even if they wanted to annex or consolidate, have no mechanism with which to do it. Nothing is as permanent as a government institution. It never goes away,” Franks said.

The state should also take steps to make it easier for governments to share resources to increase efficiency, the report concludes. In DuPage County, for example, there are 45 different government entities that provide for mosquito abatement services – 36 of them have different contracts with the same provider.

The commission’s report also recommends that the state be much more cautious about imposing mandates on local governments. Taxing bodies have complained for years that many of their cost increases stem from having to comply with unfunded edicts from state lawmakers.

Commission members advised in the report against imposing consolidation, concluding that it should be up to local taxpayers. But left unwritten was the fact that proposals attempting to take a heavy-handed approach have never become law.

Efforts in recent years that have failed to pass in the General Assembly include creating a state commission with binding authority to eliminate local governments, and to consolidate school districts into one district for each county. Smaller-scale bills, such as ones eliminating small township road districts, also have failed.

But other efforts have succeeded. State lawmakers are consolidating the number of regional offices of education from 44 to 35. A law passed last year has given the DuPage County Board the power to eliminate 13 of its 400 units of government if they meet specific criteria. Supporters want to give all 102 counties in Illinois that power should the pilot program be successful.

And a Franks bill aimed at slapping a four-year moratorium on the General Assembly’s ability to pass laws creating new units of government passed the House last week on a 101-10 vote. That bill was enacted to ensure that any consolidated or eliminated government couldn’t go to Springfield and get a new form of government created.

“I think it’s going to be small steps to where we need to be, but for the first time we’re on the right path. We’re doing something about it and empowering the locals to do what they need to do to be more efficient,” Franks said.

The commission’s report did not focus on schools – a separate task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, examined consolidating the state’s 868 school districts in a 2012. That report reached similar conclusions in that consolidation should be encouraged, not mandated, and resources shared or streamlined wherever possible.

Commission recommendations

• Investigate whether several types of taxing bodies are duplicative by nature, such as museum districts and county historical museum districts.

• Examine which districts can create their own police forces and why some choose to do so.

• Change state law to make sure that all units of local government have a means to abolish themselves, and remove unnecessary barriers.

• Re-examine state mandates that add costs to local governments and taxpayers.

Source: Local Government Consolidation Commission final report

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