No Easy Task: Consolidating Illinois’ 8,466 Units of Government – WP Original
By: Nancy Mathieson*
Illinois is #1 on another list, this time comparing number of units of government to all other U.S. states. 6,963 is our number published by federal census records, which is actually lower than data provided by our own state records. Illinois Dept. of Revenue shows the state has 7,409 units of government and our own state Comptroller shows we have a whopping 8,466. How did we get here?
Illinois government units are either General Purpose, such as cities and counties, or Special Purpose which perform a specific function, such as school districts, parks, and sanitary districts. Illinois has about 3,000 General Purpose units and 1,400 of these are Townships. Special Purpose units comprise the rest, including about 800 local school districts.
Township government is the oldest existing unit of government in the U.S. The 1848 Illinois Constitution gave voters in each county the opportunity to adopt township government. By law, Illinois townships are charged with the assessment of real property for local taxes, general assistance for the indigent, and maintenance of roads and bridges outside other government jurisdictions. Tax and debt limits in Illinois in the late 1800s likely contributed to the state’s growing government. When officials needed more money, they created a new unit, said former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who helped write the state’s 1970 constitution.
Illinois Sen. Daniel Biss knows a lot about how to try to consolidate local government. It took several years and a special law he sponsored to merge Evanston Township into the City of Evanston, even though the two units of government shared the same boundaries. The estimated annual savings of this consolidation is $250,000. Inspired by events in Evanston, some residents in River Forest tried to place a similar advisory referendum on the ballot, asking voters if they wanted to dissolve River Forest Township into the village government. The River Forest Township advisory referendum was ultimately left off the Nov. 4 ballot because pro-township forces found enough questionable signatures on petitions.
According to Sen. Biss at a recent town hall presentation, of the 1,400 townships in Illinois only about 20 have the same geographic footprint as their associated town, local examples being Evanston, Oak Park and Cicero. The majority of Illinois townships are “layered” which create “geographic complexities” and make consolidation more difficult. Low-hanging fruit for consolidation are townships and cities which overlap geographically by at least 90%. Another complication is that under Illinois law, voters in an entire county can decide to simultaneously dissolve all townships within the county, but voters in a single township can’t choose to dissolve on their own. After several tries, Sen. Biss’ special law was crafted to allow the dissolution by narrowing the type of township to criteria which applied only to Evanston Township.
Elsewhere in the Chicago area, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin is pushing a countywide initiative which calls on 24 local government entities to make structural and operational reforms. Due to a state law approved last year, DuPage has the authority to eliminate as many as 13 of those agencies, including fire protection, sanitary and mosquito abatement districts. Sen. Biss calls Cronin “evangelical” about his goals for consolidation and cost reduction. We’ll discuss Dan Cronin’s efforts in DuPage County in Part 2 of this series.
Illinois has a projected $4 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2015, and the largest-in-the-nation unfunded pension liability. We have a new governor-elect who has already met with legislative leaders to discuss the budget. As part of a statewide mandate to consolidate, the Illinois State Board of Education has already announced the closure of one regional education office in Southern Illinois. Going forward, consolidation and streamlining of Illinois government will certainly be debated between Gov. Rauner and the state legislature.
*Nancy Mathieson is Contributing Editor of WirePoints. She has a 30-year career in business, securities regulation and public policy. She held positions as staff auditor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and Director of Market Surveillance at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Most recently, Nancy was Operations Director at Truth in Accounting, a Chicago non-profit whose mission is to promote transparency in government financial reporting. In this role, she directed Accounting teams in grant-funded research studies on the financial condition of state and local municipalities.