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Editorial: Applause for merging, purging Illinois' many layers of government

The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Toss a rock in Illinois and you’re bound to hit a unit of government. Mosquito abatement districts, townships, drainage districts, joint water agencies, housing authorities, sanitary districts — Illinois has them all, in abundance. The official tally is 6,918, higher than in any other state.

But that might be a serious undercount. A recent report by the Civic Federation found the actual total to be 8,923. Only one other state has more than 5,000. We have more special purpose units than Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin combined.

If the total tax burden on residents is ever going to be reduced, some of those government bodies have to go. The Lake County Board noted in 2018, in reference to the Lakes Region Sanitary District, “Every time customers of the LRSD flush their toilet, they pay four taxes and fees to three different government entities.”

Cost is not the only consequence of the profusion. Voters can’t possibly keep track of all the elected and appointed officials who run such bodies and have so much effect on the lives of ordinary people. In the April 6 election, 345 offices appeared on ballots in Lake County — and 220 races were uncontested. It makes a sham of democracy.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope on this front. In recent years, the General Assembly has passed measures making it easier to consolidate or dissolve government bodies — “merge and purge.” Last year, Lake County voters agreed to get rid of the office of recorder of deeds, assigning its tasks to the county clerk. Ela Township residents voted to dissolve their road district.

In 2018, the Lake County Board adopted a plan aimed at “eliminating duplicative and unnecessary units of local government.” It scrapped the LRSD and a drainage district in Mundelein and Vernon Hills, and it’s now taking steps to close the Lake Bluff Mosquito Abatement District, which has spent some $900,000 over the past decade.

Board Chair Sandy Hart said her constituents worry about the environmental risks of spraying, and she thinks the county can handle any needed tasks at a lower cost. “What are other municipalities doing?” she asked. “Are they spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on eradicating mosquitoes? I don’t think so.”

 

DuPage County says it has saved $145 million since 2011 by dissolving such entities as the Highland Hills Sanitary District and consolidating the election commission into the county clerk’s office.

Decisions like this are a welcome change in a state whose residents pay among the highest property taxes in the nation. As Civic Federation President Laurence Msall says, “Especially at a time when local governments are facing severe revenue shortfalls as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, streamlining redundant services makes financial sense and would put Illinois governments in line with best practices.”

And House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch should free House Bill 2994 from his Rules Committee. Sponsored by Tim Butler, R-Springfield, the bill would allow a vote on government consolidation in his district. Last week, when the bill appeared to be dying in committee, he chastised Welch for sitting on the bill for political reasons.

Move the bill, Mr. Speaker. Voters in Butler’s district should be able to decide whether to combine their governments.

The elimination of any one of these tiny entities doesn’t amount to much by itself. But a sustained drive to reduce their number would pay off in the long run. It brings to mind what Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu of South Africa said: “There is only one way to eat an elephant — a bite at a time.”

©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

 

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