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Consolidation law would have little pull in McHenry County

Commission looking for ways to pare state’s 7,000 governments

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013 11:32 p.m. CDT

A new law that allows the DuPage County Board to ax a handful of its 400 units of government would have less of an impact in McHenry County if its board was likewise empowered.

Senate Bill 494, which Gov. Pat Quinn called a pilot program when he signed it Aug. 2, authorizes the DuPage County Board to eliminate 13 units of government that meet a strict set of criteria. If the same law were applied to McHenry County, the County Board realistically could eliminate four of the 140 or so public bodies that can levy property taxes, an analysis of county records shows.

They include the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District, the Crystal Lake Rural Fire District and the Greenwood and Hebron drainage districts. The drainage districts do not even levy a tax.

But supporters of paring the state’s 7,000 units of government see the new bill as a baby step that could be expanded if and when state lawmakers give the power to other county boards. The law comes as a state-appointed Local Government Consolidation Commission is expected in January to issue its final report.

“I want to see what happens with [DuPage] County, using it as the experiment,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who filed the bill creating the commission and is commission chairman. “I’m all for expanding this so we can get more taxing bodies to end.”

Under the pilot program, the DuPage County Board can vote to eliminate a taxing body for which it appoints a majority of its trustees, provided its boundaries are completely within the county, and it is not a fire district with full-time employees or a body created under the Water Commission Act of 1985. The County Board must cite a reason for elimination based on unnecessary or duplicate services, and voters can petition the county clerk to force the elimination to a referendum.

The sanitary district manages wastewater and pollution control services for Lake in the Hills residents, and the rural fire district exists solely to collect taxes for protection services outside Crystal Lake and does not have any employees. The drainage districts exist to maintain their respective townships’ drainage canals.

Illinois has far more governments than any other state – the first runner-up, Pennsylvania, has about 4,900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Census of Governments. The main reason for this has its roots in a borrowing cap set in the 1870 Illinois Constitution, which lasted for a century before the 1970 constitution.

The 1870 constitution limited the amount of debt local governments could incur. Municipalities that reached their limits and wanted or needed to add services asked lawmakers to allow the creation of special districts that flourish today, from fire districts and the Chicago area’s mass-transit boards to obscure ones such as cemetery and mosquito abatement districts. One of the proposed bodies on the DuPage County Board’s chopping block is a taxing district whose sole purpose is maintaining 77 streetlights in a Naperville subdivision.

Illinois has 1,298 municipal governments, and 3,232 nonschool special districts, according to census data.

Another reason for the large number of Illinois governments lies in the state’s infamous culture of corruption that has resulted in federal convictions of more than 1,800 public officials since 1976, according to a 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago study.

Simply put, Illinois’ long-standing tradition of patronage – rewarding the politically faithful with government jobs and pensions – requires that government has the jobs and offices to bestow. State lawmakers – pressured by the local bodies themselves and their lobbying groups, whose dues are paid by taxpayers – have been reticent to force consolidation.

Besides being a burden on beleaguered taxpayers, the sheer number of governments makes public accountability difficult, even when an effort is made to do so.

The Northwest Herald on Friday went to the sanitary district’s office and, without representing as media, requested to view minutes from the district board’s most recent meeting. (The district does not have a website or post board meeting agendas or minutes online.)

The newspaper’s request was politely rejected by staff, which said the request would need to go through the director, who was out for the day. Meeting minutes are public documents open to review under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Accountability also can be hard to come by with the government whose job it is to appoint a body’s governors.

One of the sanitary district’s three trustees did not attend his March 27 reappointment hearing before the McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee, but the committee voted, 5-2, to recommend reappointment to another three-year term. The full County Board made it official along with appointments to other commissions on a 24-0 vote in April.

The report by Franks’ consolidation commission is expected to include not only ways to consolidate governments but also to encourage those that don’t to lower costs to taxpayers by sharing services and pooling resources. DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin in his push for the consolidation bill stated that 45 governments in DuPage County offer mosquito abatement services, and all but nine of them use the same vendor.

Franks’ commission is not examining consolidating the state’s 905 school districts, which was done by a separate state commission that released its findings last year. The Classrooms First Commission – which changed its name from the School District Realignment and Consolidation Commission – concluded that consolidation would be cost-prohibitive for many school districts, and suggested consolidating and sharing services instead.

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