Ends and Means: Plan Could Trim Illinois' Glut of Local Government Units

Jun 1, 2014

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Illinois has some 6,500 units of local government — a great many more than any other state in the nation. A pattern of overlapping jurisdictions, pyramided taxing powers, fragmented public services and divided responsibility has pervaded Illinois and caused a complex and complicated tangle of governments at the local level.

Is this a recent observation from some academic think tank, offered as Illinoisans this month face paying the first installment of the property taxes that sustain most of the 6,500-plus governing bodies?

A reasonable assumption, to be sure, but in fact the remarks were made on the floor of the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention in July 1970 by Delegate John C. Parkhurst of Peoria, the chair of the Local Government Committee, as he opened discussion of a new local government article his panel proposed for the charter the convention was drafting.

While some delegates wanted to flat out abolish some government forms in the new constitution — townships, for example — Parkhurst’s committee proposed a less radical remedy for the government bloat: a special commission that would study the state’s local government structure and recommend steps — such as consolidations, mergers and cooperative agreements — that local taxpayers in the affected areas could approve by referendum.

But led by the bloc of Chicago Democrats loyal to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the convention as a whole rejected the commission idea as likely to create more problems than it would solve, opening the door for state interference in local affairs. 

Now, almost 44 years later, Illinois is even more awash in governmental units, with 6,963, almost 2,000 more than second-place Texas’ 5,147, according to the most recent count by the U.S. Census Bureau. Perhaps more telling for taxpayers, 5,976 of them are authorized to levy real estate taxes to pay their bills, which they did to the tune of almost $26.8 billion last year, according to the state revenue department. By comparison, the state’s two largest revenue sources — the income and the sales tax — combined to bring in $27 billion in fiscal 2013.

What sets Illinois apart from most of its sister states are the almost 2,200 special taxing districts that have been created over the years, each to provide one particular service, ranging from parks and fire protection to mosquito abatement, cemeteries and street lighting.

The existence of so many and such diverse taxing bodies is largely a legacy of the 1870 Constitution that was supplanted by the handiwork of Parkhurst and his colleagues. Local government excesses of the mid-19th century were in the minds of the 1870 drafters, in particular the vast amount of debt rolled up by counties and towns in subscriptions to railroad stock. To curb the speculation, the 1870 charter limited local government borrowing to 5 percent of its property tax base. 

As an unintended consequence, cities and counties weren’t able to finance many of the infrastructure improvements needed to provide services to an ever-growing population. The solution was to create new types of taxing authorities, each with its own mission and property tax base to build and maintain the sewers or the flood control structures or the libraries or the hospitals the urbanizing state required. And once in place, with a governing board, employees and community relationships, a local district usually became a permanent fixture, impervious to whatever challenges might arise to its continued existence.

Critics contend many of those services could be handled by the county, city or even the township, saving taxpayers money by eliminating wasteful duplication and achieving economies of scale. Defenders generally have prevailed in the past, typically by citing the civic virtues of government “close to the people” and tightly focused on a single mission.

That seeming immortality might be coming to an end, however, as beleaguered taxpayers become more insistent on government efficiency and economy and increasingly question the need for so many special districts.

“The climate has gotten a lot better” for efforts to downsize local government, noted Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat who chaired the Local Government Consolidation Commission, which studied the issue and reported back to lawmakers in April with suggestions to increase efficiency and economies in local units. “With the high unemployment, property taxes out of whack, people see the correlation with government that’s inefficient with property taxes,” Franks said. “There’s more appetite to say to local governments that you need to consolidate and cooperate ... you can’t continue to keep doing business as usual because we can’t afford it. We need to rethink government.”

Rather than using the stick of mandated consolidation, an approach that’s failed consistently in the past, the consolidation commission chose to offer a carrot — initiatives that would encourage and empower local citizens to demand more accountability and efficiency from their local taxing bodies.

Franks acknowledged that he approached the task favoring mandated consolidation, but soon realized that “top-down” wouldn’t work. “Springfield doesn’t know what’s best,” he said. “Local governments do. So we wanted to empower the locals, put pressure on them to become more efficient.”

One early surprise: even when officials of some special districts decide it’s best to close shop, there is no legal way for them to do so. While a host of statutes provide for creating a plethora of districts, most do not include a process for dissolving a district that’s outlived its usefulness. So the commission recommended changing more than a dozen existing statutes to include provisions for annexation, disconnection or dissolution of districts providing a host of services, including cemeteries, civic centers, museums, street lights, water supply and others. The revisions would empower residents and local officials to explore every option to make their governments effective, efficient and cost-conscious, the commission noted in its report.

Legislation embodying the changes — HB 5785 — is headed to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Other recommendations did not fare as well. A proposal to empower county boards to eliminate or consolidate districts whose members they appoint remained stuck in a House committee, which balked at its threat to local districts. The measure was patterned after similar authority granted to DuPage County last year, in the wake of serious problems in the operation of the county’s water commission and its housing authority. Subsequent reforms are expected to save the county’s taxpayers some $600,000 over the next several years, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin told the commission last fall.

The panel also called for a review of state mandates on local governments to determine whether the benefits outweigh the added cost, and urged additional state help for local governments seeking to improve operational efficiency. “Local government efficiency grants, consulting resources and educational programs are possible ways the state can assist local government,” the commission suggested. All would come with a price, however, ruling them out in the current fiscal climate.

Illinois may never pare its local governments down to the level of its neighbors — Missouri has 3,768; Wisconsin 3,128; Indiana, 2,709; Iowa, 1,947, and Kentucky, 1,338, according to the Census Bureau. But Franks and his colleagues have made a start, providing taxpayers and local officials the tools they need to make their own determination.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, June 2014