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Thursday, May 22, 2014 12:01 am

Downsizing government by ‘smart streamlining’

Illinois has more local units of government than any other state in the U.S., but consolidating some of those units could make the government more efficient.

That was the message at a May 20 forum in Springfield, bringing together the Chicago-based Better Government Association and the Citizens Efficiency Commission for Sangamon County. The two reform groups want to find ways to streamline local governments statewide without negatively affecting the economy.

“This is a real fiscal crisis,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at University of Illinois Springfield. “Help is not on the way from the state or the feds.”

At 6,963 units of local government, Illinois has even more governmental bodies than larger, more populous states like Texas and California. Besides municipalities like the City of Springfield, Illinois also contains hundreds of fire protection districts, mosquito abatement districts, park districts, townships, sanitation districts and more.

Redfield says that while each of those units of government serve a distinct purpose, they are collectively very expensive, and some functions currently performed by local units may be more efficient if consolidated with existing units.

“We spend an incredible amount of money on local government,” Redfield said.

He says Illinoisans pay $27 billion in property taxes alone each year to support units of local government. That’s almost as much as the $29 billion the state collects from income taxes and sales taxes combined.

The Citizens Efficiency Commission, of which Redfield is a member, began meeting in 2011 to find ways to streamline services in Springfield and Sangamon County. In January 2014, the commission released 23 recommendations, including consolidation of tax collection duties, collaboration on purchasing supplies, reforming the building permit process and more.

Redfield said many existing local units of government came into existence under Illinois’ previous 1870 state constitution, when taxes had to be levied uniformly throughout a given county or city. Forming a special district, like a mosquito abatement district, allowed counties to levy taxes in a more focused area where an issue needed a solution, Redfield said. The previous constitution, which was replaced in 1970, also placed strict limits on municipalities’ authority to issue bonds, Redfield said, so units of government like library districts were created to get around the restrictions.

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said state legislators are becoming more willing to consider bills that enable local units of government to be consolidated and streamlined. Under Illinois’ current state constitution, many local governmental bodies have only limited powers, meaning they have no authority to join with other governmental bodies. Manar said deconstructing Illinois’ decades-old framework of numerous local governments is a “difficult conversation.”

“The challenge, of course, is how do you alter that path, and how do you put something that’s an alternative to the status quo on the table,” Manar said.

Jim Donelan, who was executive assistant to late former mayor Tim Davlin, is now associate director of the Township Officials of Illinois Risk Management Association, which helps townships obtain insurance. Donelan says the effort to streamline Illinois’ local governing bodies must be done carefully to avoid creating more problems. Donelan spoke in response to an audience question regarding the possible elimination of Capital Township in Springfield. The township, which has the same boundaries as the City of Springfield, has three main functions, one of which is administering aid to needy families.

“It comes down to how is this ultimately going to impact the citizens that government serves,” Donelan said. “That’s the question we all need to keep in mind when looking at local government changes. If that’s not done, ultimately the citizens lose, and nobody wants that.”

The May 20 forum, held at Springfield’s Sangamo Club, heralded the coming of the Better Government Association to the capital. Created in 1923 to combat public corruption in Chicago during the era of Prohibition and notorious gangster Al Capone, the BGA now investigates potential government waste and corruption statewide. The organization is planning to open a satellite office in Springfield in the coming weeks to devote more resources to investigating problems in state government.

Andy Shaw, BGA’s executive director, admitted that streamlining local units of government is distinctly unsexy, but he believes it must be done to make Illinois more efficient and business-friendly.

“This is not a reality show; this is not ‘Duck Dynasty’ or the housewives of Beverly Hills,” Shaw said. “This is not going to captivate millions of peoples’ attention. It is a slog in a very complicated and difficult area, but if you love the Land of Lincoln as much as I do and we all do, we need to restore the glow on the statue outside the Capitol building. We need to restore the image and the functionality of this state, and smart streamlining is one of the ways to do it.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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