Lyons: Good luck asking government to fix government

At least on the surface, some well-meaning legislators and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn want to do something about the ridiculous local government overlap and sheer volume of taxing bodies in this state.

But if you read Kevin Craver’s Sunday story about legislation to consolidate local units of government, you would have learned that the law would allow the elimination of only four of about 140 local units of government in McHenry County.

I’ll pause for a moment so you can fantasize about how to spend the two cents this could theoretically save on a future property-tax bill.

Illinois is like a Monty Python skit when it comes to the number of government agencies. We have about 7,000 of them that deal with things as important as public education and fire protection to things as trivial as mosquito abatement and street lighting.

I couldn’t find a Ministry of Silly Walks but wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a pension board that supports one somewhere in the Land of Lincoln.

Most of the discussions about consolidating local governmental units are about money. And why shouldn’t they be? As Shaw Group Editor Dan McCaleb pointed out on Sunday, Illinoisans pay the second highest rate of property taxes in the nation and McHenry taxpayers also pay among the highest U.S. property-tax rates.

Those tax dollars go to the dozens of local units of government, which each sets its own tax levy, some of which have staff with pensions and bureaucracy and employees whose primary function is to prove they are needed so we’ll keep paying for them.

On some level, this is our own fault. We expect the government to do things for us. We want rights-of-way mowed. We want schools to feed our kids. We need someone to arrange garbage collection and resolve our petty neighborhood disputes.

Here’s the catch: The more you ask government to do, the more it’ll do. It’s called job security.

Meanwhile, these services cost money. When you want someone else to do things you aren’t willing to do yourself, you generally have to pay them whether they work for the government or a private business.

So the only way to drive the costs down on your property-tax bills is to ask government to stop doing things or spend less doing them. Simple enough, right?

But what’s almost as big of a problem with the number of local governments as the cost is that many people don’t even know where some services and government functions come from. It’s a problem of accountability.

This has always been one of the biggest problems illustrating the need for local government consolidation in Illinois. How can you know why things cost so much when you don’t even know who you’re paying or who’s responsible for which service?

When the government accountability is spread so thinly, it offers some explanation on why voter turnout is so abysmal during municipal elections. “Who are these people and what on earth do they do?” isn’t exactly the best motto to increase voter turnout.

Perhaps someday we’ll get serious about consolidating government in Illinois, which this legislation doesn’t do.

Instead I suspect we’ll continue to do what Illinoisans typically do: Let government do it for us. You get what you pay for.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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