By: Nancy Mathieson*
Dan Cronin, DuPage County Board Chairman, thinks consolidating and streamlining special purpose taxing bodies doesn’t have to do with the county absorbing their duties. The real issue he says is, “who really wants to take them on?”
DuPage is the second largest county in the state, and Cronin’s well-known streamlining efforts cover 900 employees in 24 agencies with budgets totaling $300 million. “Everyone wants the best in their towns,” he said in a recent interview. “The goal is to put aside individual wants, take initiative and collaborate.” A major motive behind DuPage’s efforts is that similar to Illinois, current county health and pension costs are not sustainable.
Cronin believes certain public services such as transit, storm water and mosquito abatement lean toward regionalization. He also knows how difficult consolidation can be, and how personally people take some of their municipal services. In addition, employees working at these agencies worry about losing their jobs.
Serving in the Illinois legislature from 1991 until his election to County Chairman in 2010, Cronin sought to obtain information and impose more control over what he calls “all these little empires.” In Springfield he had to cut back even his modest ambitions; he did not get expanded authority to impose more control over fire protection districts which were under financial stress, in debt and often didn’t charge the right fee for their services. Also, Illinois Assn. of Fire Protection Districts lobbyist Chuck Vaughn, representing the fire station chiefs, pushed back hard on his initiatives.
There have been recent successes in DuPage County and one is the West Suburban Fire Rescue Alliance (West Chicago, Carol Stream, Winfield, Bloomingdale, Wheaton), comprising about one quarter of the county. Shared-use of staff and equipment has reduced expenses, but some think consolidation is moving too fast. Jeremy Custer, recent County Board candidate claimed that officials had been putting undue pressure on fire protection districts and fire departments. “There’s definitely some friction between what the fire chiefs, fire boards and firefighters want and what the county wants,” said Custer. “A lot of the districts don’t want to consolidate. The county is really looking for it to happen.”
Cronin also touts the 2011 consolidation of the DuPage County Youth Home into the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center, which was already serving as a regional center for other nearby counties. DuPage’s juvenile youth home was underutilized and running a $400,000 annual shortfall because the state was falling behind on its financial obligations and left local residents to pick up the tab. Between the $400,000 shortfall and the projected savings from the merge, taxpayers could save over $1 million annually.
In 2012, DuPage County established the ACT Initiative to guide county agencies on how to achieve greater accountability, consolidation and transparency. Cronin believes $80 million will be saved through consolidation, better service delivery models and more shared-services. The breakdown is $43 million saved by county government and $37 million saved by county appointed bodies. The full ACT Progress Report is linked here. Some examples of their efforts may sound mundane, such as prohibiting the use of credit cards at the West Chicago Mosquito District or reducing fuel costs at the Wheaton Sanitary District; however, when implemented across the board has an effect on the bottom line. This past July, DuPage County’s ACT Initiative won an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties (NACo).
Big gains may also come from ACT transparency goals, which require agencies to provide annual budget and operational update reports to the County Board, and encourage Fire Protection Districts to develop long term financial and capital plans. Through what they’ve learned in streamlining and promoting transparency, DuPage County can give direction to the rest of the state on how to do more with less.
*Nancy Mathieson has a 30-year career in business, securities regulation and public policy. She held positions at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), where she was a Director of Market Surveillance and managed a professional staff in the investigation of securities trading violations. She also served as Operations Director at Truth in Accounting, a Chicago non-profit whose mission is to promote transparency in government financial reporting. She is a contributing editor at Wirepoints.com.