Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government. That’s the highest count of any state in the nation, and the runner-up is not even close.
One of those units of government is the Naperville Township Road District, where seven employees maintain less than 20 miles of road at a cost of $116,000 per mile. City officials have said they could maintain the same distance at half the cost, and have moved to take over the road district’s duties on behalf of local taxpayers.
But the final decision on whether to outsource maintenance of those roads to the city rests with Naperville Township Road Commissioner Stan Wojtasiak, who has put local taxpayers on the hook for thousands of dollars in meals and treats, including alcohol, over the course of his tenure, according to the Naperville Sun. Wojtasiak said he spent the money to boost staff morale, and has yet to announce his decision regarding consolidation.
The Naperville case is emblematic of a statewide problem in Illinois: Having thousands of local governments poses serious problems when it comes to oversight and efficiency.
The result of the status quo? Illinois property taxes are the third-highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, which also predicts Illinois will soon overtake New Jersey as the state with the highest property taxes. Many homeowners in Illinois are now paying twice for their houses over their lifetimes – once to the bank, and once to the government through property taxes.
A look into the nature of local spending in Illinois reveals big opportunities for sorely needed property-tax savings through government consolidation, and also shows the high costs shouldered by Illinoisans due to decades of political inaction.
But the drama over a few miles of Naperville pavement illustrates how the road to consolidation is often littered with obstacles.
One bipartisan bill being considered in Springfield would help smooth the consolidation process for many local governments. House Bill 4501 would allow county boards to dissolve certain units of local government via ordinance, a power already enjoyed by DuPage County.
While this is a step in the right direction, local governments will need more than the powers granted by HB 4501 to tackle major cost drivers to prevent property-tax bills from growing even higher.
For example, prime candidates for consolidation are Illinois’ 859 local school districts, which consume nearly two-thirds of the $27 billion in local property taxes collected across the state each year. According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, a quarter of Illinois school districts serve only a single school, a third serve fewer than 600 students, and more than 40 percent serve only one or two schools.
Forthcoming research from the Illinois Policy Institute shows that reducing the number of school districts by half could lead to annual operating savings of $130 million to $170 million and could conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years. In terms of the number of school districts per student, the move would put Illinois between California and Texas.
Beyond consolidating small school districts, many larger communities would be well-served by merging elementary school districts with high school districts.
The Homewood-Flossmoor area is home to two K-8 school districts and a high school district, an inefficient setup mirrored across the state. Instead of having a single “unit” school district that covers all schools in the area, taxpayers shoulder the burden of three separate administrative staffs, which contain duplicative and overlapping positions.
The base salaries of all three districts’ staffs cost Homewood-Flossmoor-area taxpayers nearly $5 million a year. By consolidating those three staffs into one, Homewood-Flossmoor could save local taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Consolidating the three superintendent positions into one would alone save $500,000 each year.
Consolidation focused on cutting unnecessary costs from school-district administration – and not on equalizing salary contracts or funding new facilities, as has plagued similar efforts in the past – is a fair and necessary step in communities across Illinois.
The same goes for road districts, mosquito-abatement districts, park districts, library districts and more.
But as long as state and local politicians fail to trim Illinois’ glut of government units, taxpayers will continue to be crushed under the weight of ever-higher costs. Transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility all depend on consolidation in Illinois.
Austin Berg ([email protected]) is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. An earlier version of this article appeared at http://ilnews.org/8264/whos-afraid-of-consolidation/. Used with permission.