BGA Policy Analyst Jose Sanchez testified in favor of government consolidation Monday afternoon during a House Committee of the Whole hearing chaired by state Rep. Sam Yingling, a Round Lake Democrat.
Sanchez was part of an expert panel discussing the need for smart streamlining that included Carol Portman, president of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois, and Aaron Lawlor, chairman of the Lake County Board, among others. Sanchez highlighted instances of local government waste uncovered previously by the BGA’s investigative unit. His testimony follows.
Good afternoon, Chairman Yingling and members of the committee; thank you for allowing me time to share testimony. My name is Jose Sanchez and I am a Policy Analyst for the Better Government Association, a 94-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan, full-service government watchdog organization.
I’m speaking on behalf of the BGA’s Policy and Civic Engagement team, which operates separately and independently of its investigative unit. For the past few years, the BGA has examined the issue of smart streamlining of government, while separately, the investigative unit has uncovered inefficiencies. Our policy team has explored potential remedies and advocated for pathways for the public and local officials to pursue “smart streamlining,” the consolidation or dissolution of inefficient, duplicative, or otherwise unnecessary units of government.
As you know, Illinois has more than 7,000 units of government, more than any other state nationwide and more than New York and Florida combined.
The BGA has documented examples that highlight the need for government consolidation in our state. Today, I’d like to highlight some of the BGA’s findings.
Cook County has more than 150 school districts, 120 municipalities, 80 park districts, nearly 50 library districts and 30 townships. It has far more units of government than Los Angeles County, which is almost twice as large. In fact, Cook County has more municipalities, townships and school districts than the next three biggest counties in the U.S. combined.
Over the years, we have seen cases of Cook County townships that were spending only a fraction of their tax revenues on services and programs, while much of the money went to administration, including inflated salaries. For example, one suburban township spent almost 45 percent of its budget on salaries, while spending five percent on state-mandated help for the poor. Another suburban township spent a little more than 2 percent on general assistance for the poor, while paying out 39 percent of its budget for employee salaries.
Suburban Cook’s township road districts have the highest road maintenance cost-per-mile figures in the six-county region, but each district typically averages less than 15 miles of road. The BGA was able to examine road maintenance costs because of an IDOT study ordered by the Legislature a few years ago. When high administrative costs were discovered and publicized in Belleville and Evanston townships, public support grew to streamline those entities.
Some of the BGA’s more recent findings about the operation of township government in Illinois show the need for reform:
- The Lyons Township School Treasurer’s Office managed more than $200 million of taxpayer dollars but had little oversight. Excessive spending did not go toward education. Its oversight board is composed of politically-connected individuals. A story on Thornton Township highlighted an administrator with a six-figure salary, an expense account of nearly $25,000, and a car leased by taxpayers. All that for what is a part-time position.
- In the area of special districts in need of attention and reform, there are more than 200 special districts in just three Illinois counties alone, Champaign, Christian and Iroquois counties. Special districts were the result of 20th Century, hyper-localized needs. But today, there are more efficient ways of delivering services to residents.
The stories BGA has pointed to highlight the wasteful spending and structures that do not improve quality of life for taxpayers. The challenge has been to modernize these government institutions and systems. Specific cases of waste suggest actions we can take in more than one area, but we recognize one size does not always fit all. We support opportunities for local residents to consider, adopt, and implement their own consolidation efforts. We also have highlighted plans by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart to streamline policing in unincorporated areas of Cook County in order to more efficiently deliver services and save taxpayers’ money.
The Better Government Association is and appreciates being a member of the Transform Illinois coalition, which allows us to be able to join with other streamlining advocates to highlight the need for government consolidation and efficiency. We also have been able to learn of success stories from those efforts. The results are clear: government consolidation means a more efficient way to deliver services that use tax dollars wisely.
For all these reasons, the BGA is supporting, HB4067 — the Citizens Empowerment Act — just as we also support SB 3, a similar government consolidation and streamlining bill. HB4067 empowers voters to begin streamlining units of local government by setting clear requirements for ballot referenda. In addition, HB4067 would remove a restriction limiting townships to 126 square miles. The bill also would allow township road districts to be abolished by public referenda. Lastly, HB4067 also would expand the Local Government Reduction and Efficiency Division of the Counties Code to all counties. This would enable counties statewide to dissolve local units of government within their boundaries. HB4067 empowers voters to decide what their local governments look like. It’s been challenging to extend these powers statewide, but the counties of Lake and McHenry have joined DuPage in coming under the Township Modernization and Consolidation Act. We will continue to work for this kind of local empowerment, to ensure taxpayers can get the efficient government they deserve.
Thank you for allowing me to testify today on behalf of the Better Government Association’s Policy and Civic Engagement team. Thank you, also, Chairman Yingling, for holding this hearing.