By Alden Loury
Without question, Illinois has too many units of local government.
The U.S. Census Bureau counts nearly 7,000 units in Illinois—about 2,000 more than any other state. The Illinois Comptroller counts more than 8,400 units of local government. And in FY 2012, collectively, those units spent in the neighborhood of $60 billion. Needless to say, that’s a lot of money.
Given governments’ share of financial struggles (like the State of Illinois) with underfunded pensions, massive debt and limited streams of income, they should turn over every stone to look for savings. And trimming units of government found to be duplicative or otherwise unnecessary should be at the top of the list. That’s why the Better Government Association has tabbed “smart streamlining” as one of its top legislative priorities.
The size and cost of local government in Illinois is well documented. What’s not as readily known is how best to deal with it. State commissions have studied the problem and offered some meaningful ideas, but the state legislature has only inched the ball forward in response.
The Metropolitan Planning Council will explore some potential pathways to greater government efficiency with the two leading candidates for governor at its annual luncheon at noon, Aug. 28, at the Fairmount Chicago Millennium Park.
A number of areas are ripe for exploration.
Administrative costs are usually the first target for savings whenever government units consolidate or dissolve. And the potential for those savings can be great in some cases.
For example, Illinois spends more for school-district-level administration than any other state in the nation, according to the census. In fiscal year 2011, Illinois spent more than $900 million for district-level school administration costs, surely a function of the state having more than 860 school districts. By comparison, Florida, a slightly larger state with fewer than 100 school districts, spent less than $250 million for district-level school administration in fiscal 2011.
However, school district consolidation can be an extremely difficult task given the differences in debt, property wealth, teacher salaries and academic culture among school districts. Consolidation can also be painful, particularly when it results in the loss of a school—a prominent symbol of a community’s identity.
The state offers financial assistance to school districts exploring consolidation, and downstate districts have been the most receptive, accounting for the vast majority of nearly 150 consolidations since the early 1980s. Suburban Cook County has been the least receptive with just one consolidation during the past 30 years among more than 140 school districts. On top of that, suburban Cook County is home to some of the nation’s highest rates of spending for district-level school administration.
Other areas worth examining include the state’s more than 1,400 townships and more than 3,000 special districts, including fire protection districts, sanitary districts, library districts and park districts.
Consolidation may not always be a viable option, but I fear that the resistance to consolidation is far too often motivated by politics. Let’s not forget that we’re in Illinois, a place where politics matter. Trimming units of government inherently means trimming board appointees, people with the authority to award contracts and jobs. When we lose units of government, someone loses power and influence.
Still, even if local governments aren’t willing to downsize, they can explore other cost-saving moves. DuPage County has boasted a projected $80 million in savings through dissolution, tax reform, shared service agreements, joint contracts and other partnerships. Meanwhile, the City of Chicago and Cook County have reported $70 million in savings and additional revenue by sharing equipment, making joint purchases, partnering on grant applications and coordinating enforcement of cigarette tax violations.
Local governments throughout the state have to show the same level of interest and innovation. We can no longer afford to sit back and watch them sink further into financial ruin.