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Thursday, March 9, 2017 12:07 am

Lawmakers try to consolidate local governments

 State lawmakers have recently proposed legislation that would facilitate consolidation of local governments. The effort is the latest attempt to reduce Illinois’ high number of local government units to improve local efficiency and reduce costs.

Illinois ranks the highest in the nation in the number of local governments, with a total of 6,963 units, which include 1,341 townships and 102 counties, according to a 2012 census report.

A local government consolidation bill, SB 3, was passed Feb. 28 in the Senate as part of the chamber’s “grand bargain” package. The bill facilitates the ability for all counties and townships to consolidate, and allows two or more townships that share a boundary to merge through a referendum process.

House members have suggested similar legislation in regards to local government consolidation.

Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, is proposing a bill that allows dissolving only those townships within a coterminous municipality.

Demmer said there are only 18 coterminous townships in the state and that the bill does not force townships to consolidate. These types of townships include Capital Township, which shares its municipal boundary with Springfield and consolidated with the city in 1892.

“(The bill) says if voters in that community chose to do it, they have a path to be able to do that” he said.

Demmer added currently only certain townships have been able to consolidate,

“All townships should have this ability, they shouldn’t each have to come down and ask for the authority to do this,” Demmer said.

Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is proposing the Citizens Empowerment Act, which would enable voters to petition through a referendum process for local government consolidation. Also, all assets, liabilities and obligations of the dissolving unit of local government would be transferred to the receiving unit under this bill.

“I want to give citizens the ability to eliminate unnecessary governments. It puts the power in the hands of citizens,” he said. “This is just a way of encouraging consolidation.”

McSweeney said one of his main priorities includes reducing property taxes.

“I believe that is very important because if we don’t reduce the number of units of government, we’re never going to have lower property taxes,” he said.

Terry Steczo, spokesperson for the Association of Community Mental Health Authorities of Illinois, said the association opposes Demmer’s bill because of the uncertainty of how powers and responsibilities would be transferred after a coterminous township is dissolved.

Steczo added the ACMHAI authorities are local governments created by referendum, which levy property tax to help fund the mental health resources they provide in their areas.

“It’s a precautionary opposition because we don’t want our capability to be able to raise local funds for mental health services diminished,” he said.

The ACMHAI is composed of various community-based organizations that raise funds and provide mental health services in their community. Partners of the association also work with local legislators.

 The ACMHAI has facilities for each region of the state with 40 locations total. The central Illinois facility is located in Normal. While most are county-based, there are some located in coterminous townships.

Steczo said the ACMHAI is exempted from other proposed local government consolidation bills such as SB 3 and HB 792.

“Those bills all have an exception for our authorities because what we do is so vital,” he said.

  Under the Community Mental Health Board Act, a local unit such as the ACMHAI that is authorized to levy a tax must establish a seven-member community mental health board.  Both bills exclude these boards.

Jose Sanchez, a policy analyst from the Better Government Association, said the association supports both Demmer’s and McSweeney’s proposed bills.

“The reason we have high property taxes, we have a lot of government inefficiency is because we have a lot of overlapping units of government,” he said.

Sanchez said The BGA advocates for “open and efficient government” through means including litigating access to data and working to promote policy reforms.

“Consolidation and government transparency is something BGA has taken a lead on,” he said. “We believe that taxpayers should have the power to either abolish or consolidate units of government.”

Debby Hernandez can be reached at editintern@illinoistimes.com.

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