A new task force meant to find ways to reduce Illinois’ almost 7,000 units of local government is not the first of its kind, but it very well could be the first commissioned by a governor who has made reducing that number a top priority.
Thursday marked the first meeting of the Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force created by Gov. Bruce Rauner and chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti. As the name implies, its role also includes examining the fiscal burdens state government puts on local governments by imposing regulations on them without accompanying funding.
Three McHenry County politicians – state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo; state Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington; and Barrington Village President Karen Darch – are among the task force’s 25 members. Rauner, who lists the sheer number of Illinois governments as one of the reasons for the state’s large property-tax burden, created the task force last month by executive order. The task force is required to submit its findings by year’s end.
At more than 6,900, Illinois has more units of government than any other state, and 2,000 more than the first runner-up, Pennsylvania. They include such esoteric bodies as cemetery, water authority and street-lighting districts, school districts consisting of one school, and townships that are all but completely covered by municipalities.
Critics allege the large number of governments encourages waste, patronage and corruption because they are too numerous for taxpayers and watchdog groups to keep an eye on them. Only New Jersey has a higher average property tax burden than Illinois, according to a 2013 report by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Franks, who long has championed consolidation, created a consolidation commission under former Gov. Pat Quinn. Thursday’s agenda included Franks providing a rundown of the commission’s findings released last year. His Local Government Consolidation Commission concluded that consolidation efforts should be locally driven, and that the best way to do so would be giving local taxing bodies and their voters the legal power to consolidate or eliminate themselves.
He said this new task force’s makeup indicates it is committed to paring down the number of local governments, and that Rauner’s commitment to it could help what he and Duffy called strong pushback from local government lobbying groups in Springfield.
“We’re going to have to use the bully pulpit of the governor’s and the lieutenant governor’s offices to get these things done. A lot of people are protecting fiefdoms, or don’t want to be accountable to the voters,” Franks said.
Duffy said he hopes the task force’s report will lay bare the scope of the problem of too much government and duplicative services. DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, in his push to consolidate some of his county’s more than 400 units of government, has pointed out at least 45 of them provide mosquito abatement services, many of them through the same vendor. Cronin, whose county is something of a test subject under a law allowing it to eliminate certain local taxing bodies, also was named to the task force.
“We have so many layers of government that we’re broke and we can’t afford to pay for services for the most needy. We need to look to whether we can afford so many layers of government when so many of them offer the same services,” Duffy said.
Efforts in past years by state lawmakers to force consolidation on local governments have failed, but bills granting that authority at the local level have had more success.
Besides the bill allowing the DuPage County Board to eliminate 13 or so of its smallest and oddest taxing bodies, lawmakers allowed Evanston Township, which is completely within city boundaries, to eliminate itself. A similar bill working its way through the Illinois House would allow Belleville Township in downstate St. Clair County, which is almost completely taken up by the city of Belleville, to do the same.
A Franks bill signed into law last year created a mechanism giving taxing bodies such as cemetery, waste disposal and water authority districts the power to either consolidate or vote themselves out of existence if they so choose.
On top of countywide entities and their subordinate bodies, McHenry County’s taxing districts include 30 municipalities, 19 school districts, 17 townships, 17 fire protection districts, 13 library districts, four park districts, two sanitary districts and two cemetery districts.