This is how a wishful watchdog hopes our Illinois state legislators spent New Year’s Eve: Popping a Champagne cork, strapping on a party hat, pulling out a kazoo — and then considering some serious resolutions.
They’ve already taken a giant step toward meaningful pension reform, so they only have to resolve to finish the job this year. It’s challenging but eminently doable. And it leaves plenty of room for another major resolution: Attacking the obesity epidemic. I’m not talking about dusting off the old treadmill, renewing a gym membership or trying the latest fad diet in an effort to slim down.
This is about a state that’s morbidly obese when it comes to government: Illinois has nearly 7,000 separate taxing bodies, by far the most in the country. In fact, nearly 2,000 more than runner-ups Texas and California, which have larger populations, and Pennsylvania, which is about the same size as Illinois.
Cook County alone has 530 governmental units, more than any other county. Those fiefdoms spend billions of taxpayer dollars each year to operate and deliver services that often overlap and duplicate one another. That’s why it’s time for a crash diet to combine some of the enclaves and eliminate others.
Does Illinois really need 1,400 townships when most of their statutory obligations are being handled by counties or overlapping municipalities? There may be reasons to maintain some townships in rural areas, but in high-density Cook County, with more than 120 towns and villages and a $3.5 billion county budget, the 30 townships are essentially poster children for useless, wasteful excess.
And the 900 school districts in Illinois — 600, or two-thirds, are downstate, and a fourth of those have just one school. By way of comparison: Alabama, which is about the same size as downstate Illinois and has roughly the same school enrollment, operates with 130 districts.
SHARING IS CARING (AND CONSOLIDATION)
So it’s time to start eliminating our tiny districts by consolidating their administrative functions, which shouldn’t affect teachers or classroom quality. Illinois also has 850 drainage districts. This is one place where Cook County is efficient, with only three. But why does Iroquois County need 95, or Champaign County 73?
Please. Let’s start sharing staff, supplies, equipment and overhead by combining districts that are in physical proximity.
It may be more challenging to deliver fire protection, and maintain parks and libraries, over broad geographic areas, but does Illinois really need 800-plus fire protection districts, or 300-plus park and 300-plus library districts? Cook County alone has more than 80 park and nearly 50 library districts. How do you spell c-o-n-s-o-l-i-d-a-t-i-o-n?
Cook County also has five offices — clerk, clerk of the courts, recorder, assessor and treasurer — that essentially push paper. Why not combine them into one or two?
Six years ago, Indiana studied local government efficiency and issued recommendations including elimination of townships and consolidation of assessors, auditors, coroners, recorders, sheriffs, surveyors and treasurers into single county executive positions. Within a year, several local governments implemented full or partial consolidations.
Illinois taxpayers would be well-served by a similar attack on our bureaucratic bloat.
The recent vote on pension reform, after years of stalling until the crisis reached epic proportions, demonstrates that lawmakers can suck it up and get the job done. So now it’s on to the obesity epidemic.
Lawmakers — get out your pens or digital notepads and add one more New Year’s resolution: “I resolve to save tax dollars, improve the state’s business climate, and make government leaner and more efficient, by supporting a streamlining process that will gradually eliminate and consolidate taxing bodies.”
The BGA will have your backs.
Happy New Year!
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.