Local Government

Barbs fly as Jack Franks' Illinois government consolidation bill remains in committee

State Sen. Pam Althoff did not call for a committee vote Wednesday on a government consolidation bill she is being pressured by some of her fellow McHenry County lawmakers to advance.

House Bill 229, which seeks to give the McHenry and Lake county boards the power to eliminate certain small units of government, was scheduled for a Wednesday vote in the Senate Executive Committee. But Althoff, who is being accused of sponsoring the bill with the intent of gutting it or killing it altogether, said Senate President John Cullerton has given the bill an extension to address issues such as making sure employees who are part of collective-bargaining units are safe if their employing government is eliminated.

“[Cullerton] had given the bill an extension while several other issues are being considered by staff,” Althoff said.

But state Rep. Jack Franks, the Marengo Democrat who crafted the bill, rejected the explanation, noting that the bill is identical to a 2013 law that has allowed the DuPage County Board to eliminate some public bodies.

The bill passed the House last month on a 61-40 vote, and Franks has publicly accused Althoff of grabbing the bill to weaken or stop it, after wanting concessions such as language that would forbid the elimination of entities such as the McHenry County Conservation District or the Mental Health Board. Althoff has filed an amendment to protect those two boards, but the amendment as of Wednesday was still stuck in the Senate Assignments Committee and had not yet been forwarded to Executive.

“I’m not sure why she didn’t call the bill [for a Wednesday vote]. My guess is that she didn’t get the amendment she wanted, so she’d rather kill the bill,” Franks said.

If passed, House Bill 229 would empower the McHenry and Lake county boards to abolish certain units of government that meet a strict set of criteria. DuPage County, which has made slimming down its 400 units of government a priority, received the power to take some steps in that regard through a 2013 law acting as something of a consolidation pilot program.

Under that law that Franks wants to apply to McHenry and Lake counties, the DuPage County Board can vote to eliminate a taxing body for which it appoints a majority of the 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 duplicative services, and voters can petition the county clerk to force the proposed elimination to voter referendum.

The Lake County Board wants that power, and asked Franks to add it to his bill. Franks and state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Democrat from Grayslake who had served on the Lake County Board, unsuccessfully asked Althoff to relinquish control of the bill, and Franks took the unusual but authorized step of asking Cullerton to declare Althoff a “hostile sponsor” and have her replaced.

Althoff and McHenry County Board Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, have said they have a problem with a bill that would allow the County Board to attempt to eliminate bodies that were created by voter referendum, such as the conservation district and mental health board.

But several members of the all-Republican County Board’s anti-establishment minority have been moving behind the scenes to force a debate as to whether the board should back the consolidation bill.

While she didn’t outright advocate eliminating the conservation district or mental health board, board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, accused both entities of not being frugal with taxpayer dollars. She was a vocal critic of the mental health board’s size and spending that helped spearhead significant reforms, and she more recently questioned before the approval of the conservation district’s budget whether the district should seek to partner with local law enforcement rather than maintain a police force of its own.

“Bottom line, these organizations are losing their way on addressing their respective missions to serve the people,” Kurtz said.

Fellow board member Andrew Gasser, R-Fox River Grove, also has been pushing board members to support the bill, and is asking them to consider what it will do and forget that it comes from Franks, a Democrat who frequently has butted heads with the board.

Gasser said he wants the bill passed as it is, and opposes exempting any unit of government on general principle.

“If we do that, we’re no better than Cook County and crony politics, because we’re saying you can limit certain governments, but you can’t touch this stuff, because it’s important to me,” Gasser said.

Illinois has far more units of local government than any other state, at just under 7,000. Critics, which include new Gov. Bruce Rauner, blame that large number in part for the state’s high property-tax burden, which a 2013 study ranked as second only to New Jersey. One of Rauner’s first acts as governor was to create a commission to pursue ways to consolidate local governments – that commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, includes Franks and state Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, as members.

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