With approximately 7,000 units of government, Illinois leads the nation with the highest number of independent taxing bodies, many of which are repetitive and outdated in cost and administration. Members of the Transform Illinois coalition recently made strong cases for government consolidation at the Illinois General Assembly at an opportune moment when the state is in need of fiscal efficiency. Two key bills that would expand opportunities for consolidation and voter empowerment in these matters are currently pending in the legislature.
On June 26, 2017, the House Committee of the Whole held a hearing on local government consolidation that featured members of the Transform Illinois coalition including Jose Sanchez of the Better Government Association (BGA), Carol Portman of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois and Hillary Denk of the League of Women Voters of Illinois. The hearing highlighted arguments for and against the streamlining of local government units in light of Senate Bill 3 (Cullerton, T., D-Villa Park) which focuses on consolidation of townships and has been passed by both the Illinois House and Senate and House Bill 4067 (Durkin, J., R-Burr Ridge) which allows voters to call for referendums on government consolidation and is currently in the Rules Committee.
Mr. Sanchez testified in favor of HB 4067, which empowers voters in the consolidation process, and emphasized that the legislation would allow taxpayers the local government they deserve. Cook County is one of the jurisdictions in need of consolidation, he said. With more government districts than the next three largest counties in the country combined, Mr. Sanchez explained that Cook County also has the highest road maintenance costs and referred to plans from the Cook County Board President and the Sheriff to consolidate police agencies in unincorporated Cook County. The BGA also identified the need for reform in townships and special districts. The Lyons Township School Treasurer’s Office, for example, has functioned without oversight and has mismanaged its $200 million budget. Furthermore, Mr. Sanchez explained that there are over 200 special districts within just three Illinois counties and these represent a mode of service to residents that is outdated and inefficient. As a Transform Illinois partner, the BGA fully supports voter empowerment in the consideration of dissolving government units.
While in support of government consolidation efforts, Ms. Portman of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois emphasized the reality that Illinois is a diverse state and that certain strategies may not work uniformly. Furthermore, she acknowledged the widespread confusion on the exact number of government units in Illinois. According to Ms. Portman, the Illinois Department of Revenue has reported over 6,000 government entities, while academic sources such as Northern Illinois University have indicated the existence of over 8,000 units of government. Ms. Portman emphasized that an important aspect of the consolidation process is not to “get rid” of government units, but to understand them and assess their relevance and capacity to leverage expertise and staff in a way that would increase government effectiveness. She stated that this is a lengthy and complex, yet necessary, process. Ms. Portman contends that in order to achieve this, local communities must be brought in to the conversation in order to understand what they want and for officials to best meet the needs of their constituents.
Ms. Denk of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, another Transform Illinois partner, concurred that the state has too many units of government. She provided an example of consolidation efforts in Cook County: merging the Recorder of Deeds and County Clerk’s office, a matter which two-thirds of voters favored in the November 2016 general election. Ms. Denk also described the initial concerns surrounding the consolidation of Evanston Township and the City of Evanston which included the potential loss of services and employee layoffs. Ms. Denk noted that this effort took exemplary action in providing public education by holding public forums where residents were ensured that services would in fact be continued and improved. This dissolution has resulted in $780,000 worth of savings, according to Evanston officials. Such efforts have led the League of Women Voters to support SB 3, which focuses on consolidating townships. However, they are still working to develop an informed position on HB 4067. Ms. Denk also noted that the cost-saving effects of consolidation also have the potential of reducing property taxes.
A recent article from The State Journal-Register stressed that Illinois residents are weary, both of politics as usual and of increasing property taxes. It is evident from panelists’ testimonies that government consolidation offers a solution to these issues. In line with Transform Illinois’ guiding principles, the testimony presented highlights how the bloated number of government units is not synonymous with high-quality public service.