The U.S. Census Bureau this week released a final count of local governments operating in states around the country, and as usual, Illinois was No. 1.
Census counted 6,963 units of local government operating in Illinois as of June 30, 2012, far and away the most of any state in the country.
That’s a lot of elected officials and bureaucrats with underfunded government employee pensions.
The count includes 102 county governments, 2,729 municipal and township governments, 905 school districts, and 3,227 “special district governments,” such as the DeKalb Sanitary District, along with a plethora of other special purpose governments, including mosquito abatement districts, cemetery maintenance districts, drainage districts, park districts, housing authorities, joint water and sewer commissions, drainage commissions, and on and on and on and on.
It is ridiculous. Illinois has 26 percent more units of government than Texas, the state with the next-highest total at 5,147. Texas also has roughly double the population of Illinois and more than four times the land area.
So what if Illinois has a whole bunch of little governments out there “governing,” one might ask.
For one, it costs money. So many of these governments have some well-salaried bureaucrat – or a whole administrative team – running them. There are probably about 900 school district superintendents in our state making six figures and in line to collect generous pension benefits the public can’t afford after retiring in their 50s – we have about $100 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Meanwhile, a state such as Florida – with a larger land area and 7 million more people – manages to get by with only 95 school governments.
Illinois has 1,431 townships, many of which have elected township supervisors, highway commissioners, assessors and assorted other employees who work in publicly funded buildings.
The other part of this problem is that with so many governments collecting and spending public funds, it is virtually impossible for a citizen to keep track of what all of them are doing. Many of them are less than transparent in their operations, and many of the services they offer are duplicative.
Efforts have been made to consolidate the number of governments in Illinois, with scant results. The numbers cry out for streamlining government – even with a 25 percent reduction in local government, our state would still have the most in the country.
But talk about eliminating one – the largely superfluous townships are a frequent target – and the people who work for them produce a long list of reasons why we absolutely cannot live without their vital services.
Although we do need some of the services these micro-governments provide, the rest of the country proves that they can be provided without the twisted tangle of government agencies that leave Illinoisans overtaxed and unable to effectively monitor how their money is spent.
What’s needed is decisive action to address this issue. Legislators have begun taking baby steps toward allowing voters to determine how much government they have, using areas such as Evanston Township as test cases, but bolder, statewide action is needed.
Voters should have the power to consolidate and close unnecessary governments by popular vote. School district consolidation should be encouraged in areas where unit districts are not the norm.
Our system needs to be simplified and streamlined. In Illinois, citizens are being over governed, and overtaxed to pay for it.