A state commission to examine consolidating some of the state’s 7,000 units of government plans to ask for more time to develop its report.
The Local Government Consolidation Commission likely will ask during the fall veto session that its Dec. 31 deadline be pushed back. The reasons, chairman Jack Franks said, are the long delay in appointments to the commission and the wealth of information it is taking in now that it is meeting.
“We’re talking to ask the General Assembly to give us more time to go to September ,” said Franks, D-Marengo. “We’re talking to others who have gone through this so we can have some good recommendations.”
The commission was created by a Franks bill signed into law in August 2011 by Gov. Pat Quinn. But it did not hold its first meeting until February, because legislative leaders took their time filling the commission’s 17 seats.
The commission is advisory only and has no enforcement power. Its scope does not include the state’s 860-plus school districts, which were looked at by a separate commission that presented its findings earlier this year.
From county and municipal governments to eclectic bodies such as mosquito abatement, rural drainage and cemetery districts, Illinois by far has the most units of governments of any state – the first runner-up, Pennsylvania, has about 4,900.
On top of countywide entities and their subordinate bodies, McHenry County’s taxing districts include 30 municipalities, 19 school districts, 17 townships, 17 fire protection districts, 13 library districts, four park districts, two sanitary districts and two cemetery districts.
Opponents of consolidation equate local government with local control and direct voter accountability. But critics allege that the sheer number of taxing bodies on residents’ tax bills, not counting each of their committees and subcommittees, makes it almost impossible to watch for waste, fraud and abuse.
“People can’t follow them, no matter how hard they try, and as a result there is very little oversight,” Franks said.
The reason that Illinois is the Land of Lincoln and local governments is rooted, like many problems caused by government, in loopholes and the law of unintended consequences. Local governments in the late 19th century, faced with hard limits on what they could tax and borrow, simply created new governments when they reached their maximum.
Reformers for decades have tried to reduce the number, or at least consolidate duplicated services among them. DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who is championing consolidation of his county’s 400-plus bodies, has pointed out that at least 45 of them provide mosquito abatement services that could be merged.
But Springfield initiatives to force consolidation do not go far and often are met by fierce resistance by government lobbying groups, whose memberships are paid for by our tax dollars.
The Senate last year defeated a bill by Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, to create an eight-member commission with binding authority to eliminate local governments. Bills in recent years to force school consolidation and abolish township road districts with few lane miles to maintain have never gotten out of committee.
Sometimes scheduled consolidations never take place. A bill signed by Quinn in June to cut the number of Illinois regional offices of education from 44 to 35 by 2015 mirrors a consolidation that was scheduled to happen in 1999, but never did.
And while taxing bodies seek to consolidate on their own – Cary School District 26 and Fox River Grove District 3 are exploring a merge – there are efforts to create more. County voters next April likely will face a referendum to create a “377 Board” and corresponding property tax to help care for county residents with developmental disabilities, similar to the existing Mental Health Board.
Franks said the commission is not only exploring consolidation of governments, but also ways that governments that stay independent can merge services. The commission also plans to identify roadblocks in state statute to promoting such efforts.
The school report by the Classrooms First Commission – which changed its name from the School District Realignment and Consolidation Commission – concluded that school consolidation would be cost prohibitive to many districts, and suggested that “virtual consolidation” through shared services would be a better option.
Franks said the next meeting of his commission is set for October in DuPage County, to talk about and study Cronin’s initiatives.
“[The number of Illinois governments] at one time might have made sense, but certainly when we have 2,000 more levels of government than any other state, we’ve got too many,” Franks said.