By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers continue to pay for more local units of government — nearly 7,000 — than any other state, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
That includes municipalities, townships, library districts, school districts, park districts, water and sanitary districts, mosquito-abatement districts, airport and transit authorities, hospital boards, tax-increment-financing districts — all of which provide services for Illinois taxpayers.
But services come with a cost, says one government watchdog. Cons? They’re expensive to operate. They duplicate services. Many lack transparency. It’s exhausting to monitor all of them and how they’re spending money.
“They’re good if you want to be employed as a politician,” said Brian Costin, director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank.
Illinois has 6,968 units of local government, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s preliminary 2012 Census of Governments, released last week. Considering the state’s population of 12.8 million, that means there’s one governmental body for about every 1,800 residents.
“You could go to a local government meeting every day of the week and still not be able to make all the meetings,” Costin said. “I think that’s something where citizens get discouraged. They say, ‘I can’t keep up on everything that’s going on, so I’m just not going to participate.’”
Illinois leaves No. 2 Pennsylvania in the dust by more than 2,000. The Keystone State has 4,905 units of local government. Rounding out the top 10:
- Texas: 4,856,
- California: 4,350,
- Kansas: 3,806,
- Missouri: 3,752,
- Ohio: 3,702,
- Minnesota: 3,633,
- New York: 3,454,
- Wisconsin: 3,123.
The 10 states with the fewest units of local government:
- District of Columbia: 2,
- Hawaii: 21,
- Rhode Island: 134,
- Alaska: 177,
- Nevada: 190,
- Delaware: 338,
- Maryland: 347,
- Virginia: 497,
- Louisiana: 530,
- New Hampshire: 542.
Illinois lost a few governmental bodies in the past five years. The 2007 Census of Governments showed Illinois had 6,994 local units — still No. 1 among the other states.
Still, consolidating or eliminating local government is not easy. Voters have to push for a ballot referendum, and officials and lobbyists often resist the idea, because someone most likely will be out of a job. Occasionally, bodies decide on their own to merge.
“I think it’s easier to create a new one than to consolidate,” Costin said, noting that the creation of tax-increment-financing, or TIF, districts has surged throughout Illinois. All it requires is a majority vote of the overlapping taxing bodies to approve a TIF. These special taxing districts funnel money to areas that local officials deem blighted in an effort to attract development.
Illinois in 2011 authorized a 17-member Local Government Consolidation Commission, charged with examining local governments and, among other things, reducing “the multiplicity of local governments” and eliminating “overlapping and duplicating of unnecessary powers.”
Members include state senators, state representatives, residents appointed by the governor and people who represent various units of local government. The commission is supposed to file a report by the end of 2012 but is seeking more time.
Illinois currently has 2,831 “general purpose” units of government, such as municipalities, counties, villages and townships. It also has 4,137 “special purpose” units, including 3,232 special districts and 905 independent school districts. Special districts include mosquito-abatement districts, sanitary districts and transit authorities.
Illinois has 1,400 townships alone, the most of any state. Townships, which are a taxing body, usually staff crews for rural road maintenance and snow removal. They sometimes undertake additional roles.
“In fact, Illinois law actually requires very little of townships — some provide welfare services and run food pantries — but those functions could be incorporated into nearby towns and villages that already offer similar programs,” BGA President Andy Shaw wrote. “Still, townships continue to hoard tax dollars and sit on cash cushions that would make King Midas jealous.”
Costin said he believes Illinoisans are ready to talk about consolidation of governmental services but they have little power to force the conversation.
“If there’s no legal avenue for the citizens to push for consolidation, I don’t see a lot of the agencies themselves saying, ‘Let’s make an effort to see how we can save the taxpayers money,’” he said.