BGA Policy Director Madeleine Doubek talks about smart streamlining victories in her bi-weekly column for the Chicago Sun-Times.
You’re feeling the Illinois governments’ squeeze, right?
State lawmakers took more, raising the income tax. The school district and city are taking more. Cook County is taking more if you buy sugary drinks. Metra is getting ready to take more.
The governments are everywhere. They’re always taking more. Feels like no one ever is giving you more. Where does it end, right?
Well, the success stories about ending governments and their excesses don’t get enough attention. Here are three attempts at tackling township excess:
One thing local government boards like to do is take as much of your money as they can and keep it. State Rep. Brad Halbrook, a Shelbyville Republican, sponsored a law that says, in effect, township trustees can’t hoard tax dollars. Township funds, other than the capital fund, cannot exceed 2.5 times the average spent from them during the previous three years.
Some local watchdogs dug around and found some Shelbyville Township funds had “20, 30, 60 times or more in reserve than they were spending,” Halbrook told me.
Governments just don’t need to be holding that much of our money. Halbrook expects that a rebate is coming in Shelbyville Township, but how does this law get enforced elsewhere?
“The enforcement is going to be from trustees or supervisors who will do the right thing,” he said. “I think what you’re going to see is citizen engagement and I think you’re going to see people starting to look at what’s happening in their townships. This is going to have a big impact on property taxes right now.”
Suburban school districts are ripe for this kind of law. The Daily Herald reported earlier this year that two-thirds of 93 districts studied had far more in reserve than the 25 percent the state recommends.
In Sangamon County, which encompasses Springfield and several other central Illinois communities, the township collector jobs are going away.
State Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, told me Sangamon’s Citizens Efficiency Commission recommended the job go because it duplicates what the county treasurer already does. In Sangamon, 16 of the 26 townships continue to elect collectors. In a little more than four years, they’ll all be gone because the law Butler sponsored discontinues the office at that point.
Most Illinois counties eliminated collectors long ago. They went by the wayside in Cook County in 2012. Will, Madison and Peoria counties are the others that still have them, Butler said.
“I do think that’s a good model because it gives people the lead time to make the adjustment and figure out how they transfer the work,” Butler said.
It might be a model for future use in other governments. Butler’s district includes Lincoln, a community with 14,000 people and four school districts. “I don’t think you’re doing the students the best service” to have all different curricula going into high school. “I just think that’s something we have to talk about with 800-plus school districts, but that’s always a difficult conversation to have,” Butler said.
Seven years ago, then-Avon Township Supervisor Sam Yingling, now a Democratic state representative, looked at the township’s highway commissioner. The job was handling 11 miles of road because the rest of it was within municipal boundaries, but it had a $2 million levy. Then, state law said a township had to have four miles of road or less for a township board to be able to abolish it. Now, in counties outside of Cook, trustees can vote to put a question on the ballot abolishing a road district and, Yingling says, Vernon Township is holding hearings and preparing to do just that.
Outside of the Chicago metro area, Yingling noted, road districts “are the lifeblood in moving agricultural goods to and from the market,” so the law provides for local control. What works in one part of a state as diverse as Illinois might not work in another.
Ironically, Avon Township still has a road district. “I know, I know,” Yingling said. I’m working on it. … It’s amazing to me how long these things take.”
They do take long. And we citizens have to demand the efficiencies are sped up and that we are given more power to spark change ourselves.
Next month, Transform Illinois, a coalition of groups promoting this kind of smart government streamlining, will host its third annual conference and awards ceremony in Oak Brook. Full disclosure: The Better Government Association is a member of that group.
Yes, it seems our governments lately are always taking more. But there are efforts to take some governments, remake them and make sure they’re being efficient with our money. Let’s cheer these efforts and make sure they keep coming. We deserve it.