A handful of laws that go into effect Jan. 1 will make it easier to get rid of select units of governments, but reducing the number of taxing bodies in the state isn't guaranteed.
Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government, nearly 2,000 more than Texas, a much larger and more populous state. Illinois has school districts, fire protection districts, library districts, townships, municipal governments, mosquito abatement districts and even cemetery districts and street lighting districts, among other types of local government. Most have the authority to levy property taxes. Illinois has among the highest property taxes in the nation.
State lawmakers made some progress in cutting down on the number of local units of government, but some say more needs to be done.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, said one measure he helped pass that becomes law Tuesday shortens up the time-frame county officials must wait to dissolve a unit after an audit from five months to two months.
Cullerton said in 2013 that lawmakers passed a bill to allow DuPage County to start dissolving local units of government, but there were report and timing requirements. Eventually, Cullerton said lawmakers opened the process up statewide, but the process was allowed to take a year or longer. Now, with House Bill 5777 becoming law, Cullerton said the process for moving forward with a desired consolidation or dissolution of government is shorter.
“Now right after the first audit, instead of having to waiting five months, its two months for people to go over the audit, figure out what needs to be done, figure out if there are any bumps in the road through consolidation of local units, whether they’re going to go to the county or to whoever else and now it’s only a two-month process,” Cullerton said.
He said it has taken small changes to chip away at the layers of local government.
“In Springfield, if you do things incrementally people will go along with it,” Cullerton said. “If you try one big sweeping change people sort of pull back and they don’t want to do anything about it.”
While Cullerton’s measure is for the entire state, other measures are more targeted at specific units of government, such as one allowing for the elimination of the election commission in DuPage County or drainage and sanitary districts in Lake County.
There’s also a measure to expedite dissolution of mosquito abatement districts.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said more work needs to be done, but a lot of it may come down to the local residents.
“I’ve been an advocate for school consolidation and that’s a tough thing because the hardest thing to kill is a school mascot, and people do not want to consolidate,” Butler said.
Illinois has more than 850 school districts. In Sangamon County, Butler said there are 18 school districts for a county of 200,000 people. He said the community and taxpayers could benefit from consolidations. While it may cost jobs on an administrative level, he doesn't think there’d be many teacher positions eliminated.
“But at the end of the day, the pressures on our budgets from local government entities all the way up through to the state of Illinois is so tough right now and we’ve got to find ways to save money,” Butler said.
Butler was able to help get a measure passed last year to do away with the position of Sangamon County Township Collector by 2022, but said there’s more work to be done to give local voters more say in how to consolidate.
In Springfield, there’s a battle between Sangamon County officials and some Springfield city officials about how to dissolve Capital Township. Butler favors folding it into the county.
“The legislation that we passed a couple of years ago does allow for a township to go into a city if it’s coterminous,” Butler said. “I’d like to see that expanded to have it go into a county or a city.”
Sangamon County voters approved a nonbinding question in November to merge the township with the county but some city officials are pushing for the township to fold into the city’s operations, which have the same boundaries. City alderman last week moved a resolution forward to place the merger question on the April ballot for city voters to have their say.