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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Efficiency deficiences

Commission calls for change. But don’t call it ending waste.

 The final report issued this month by Sangamon County’s first-ever citizens efficiency commission is remarkable for its nomenclature.

The word “resources” appears 39 times in the 71-page document authored by the 23-member commission charged with figuring out how to streamline the workings of local government. “Efficient” shows up 31 times, “government” appears a whopping 377 times and there is also “vision,” which is mentioned 73 times.

“Money,” on the other hand, appears just once. “Waste” shows up five times, in each case to describe garbage, aka solid waste.

Chalk it up to diplomacy – the commission has no power to do anything but make suggestions that may or may not be enacted by local governments that have turf to protect, jobs to preserve and budgets to justify. But money and waste lie at the heart of the work of the commission created in 2010, when voters approved the formation of the unpaid body that automatically dissolved at the end of 2013. After all, if money weren’t being wasted, there wouldn’t be a need for the commission.

Voters in March will be asked to reauthorize the commission, albeit in a slimmer form, with nine unpaid commissioners, less than half the number that comprised the original body. All but two, former state Sen. Larry Bomke and Springfield Housing Authority executive director Jackie Newman, served on the first commission. Like its predecessor, the new commission would dissolve after three years.

The 23 recommendations contained in the commission’s report vary from conceptual to concrete.  Consider, for example, what the commission had to say about building permits. The process is complex and varies widely between jurisdictions, the commission found, and while some governments outside Sangamon County have started up online permitting systems and figured out cool ways to track the progress of building projects, such initiatives cost money.

“In response to these limitations, the CEC recommends that local jurisdictions involved in the building permitting process endeavor to document their permitting processes and consider implementing a combined project tracking software or a structure for system management,” the commission intoned in its report.

It’s hard to argue against getting stuff in writing and keeping track of it, but when it comes to building permits, the commission hasn’t issued any specifics beyond suggesting that local governments do a better job of handling data, either on their own or in conjunction with other jurisdictions. It’s an issue the commission says it did not have time to fully explore.

The commission also recommends that local governments pool resources to get the best deals possible when procuring equipment and supplies, an idea that already exists via a joint purchasing program run by the state Department of Central Management Services that allows local governments to get state-negotiated prices on everything from toilet paper to automobiles, which the state says saves an average of more than 27 percent over retail prices. The commission recommends that the practice be expanded so that villages can get materials at discounts from the county highway department and smaller municipalities can get accounting and payroll done using software from larger cities.

A few things recommended by the commission have already come to pass, or at least are headed in that direction, most notably a recommendation to abolish the role of townships in collecting property taxes and turn those duties over to the county treasurer’s office, which already collects second installments and most first installments even though townships have designated tax collectors. Peoria County is the only other county in the state where townships play a role in collecting taxes, according to the commission, which reports that five of the county’s 26 townships recently have gotten rid of tax collectors.

More sweeping, dramatic and challenging are calls to revamp public safety systems. It now costs $70 million a year to provide law enforcement services in Sangamon County, which works out to $350 for every man, woman and child who lives within county borders, according Bob Gray, who chaired the commission’s committee that analyzed public safety. That’s more than most areas with 200,000 residents spend, he says.

The commission recommends that Auburn and Chatham disband stand-alone emergency call dispatch systems and join the county’s centralized dispatch system. The commission has also called on the county’s fire districts to consolidate so that there would be four districts outside Springfield. Commissioners also say that it would be a good idea for the sheriff’s office and the city of Springfield to collaborate and figure out more efficient ways to patrol unincorporated areas that border city limits.

The commission is also thinking big when it comes to sewers. Recent tax hikes to pay for sewer improvements in Springfield won’t be enough to cover the cost of repairing and maintaining an aging system, the commission determined. Sewers are best dealt with on a regional basis, the commission found, and so the city should turn over ownership of sewers to the Springfield Metro Sanitary District, which operates the county’s water treatment plant while also running part of the collection system outside Springfield.

The commission also recommended further analysis of the Prairie Capital Convention Center and the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau to determine whether the entities could be consolidated.

So far, the biggest ideas for change remain just that, proposals as opposed to plans, and the commission has no authority to force any governmental entity to do anything. At some point, Bomke predicts, there could be resistance, and any needed changes to state law to force change could prove difficult.

“I don’t know that you can (do this) without stepping on some toes,” the former senator and former chairman of the county board says. “That’s part of the beast. … Let’s face it: It’s a very touchy situation. The township officials’ association has a very strong lobby. The Illinois Municipal League is a strong presence. Any time there are changes, there are concerns.”

But neither cities nor townships should feel threatened, Bomke said. In many cases, he said, townships have demonstrated that they can maintain roads in cost-effective ways, although it may make sense for some townships to share road commissioners.

Whatever changes the commission calls for won’t happen overnight, Bomke predicted.

“Maybe it takes someone kind of chipping away at it,” he said. “That’s what I think the efficiency commission is doing. If we keep working at it, maybe some good will come of it.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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