Is It Worth It?: Illinois’ governance maze is too complex to be controlled

A house needs a solid roof. After a few years, replacing a shingle here and there may fix a leak. You might even be able to patch up damaged caulk now and then to get by. But too many patchwork fixes over too many years cannot stand the test of time. Eventually, even if a builder uses the strongest materials available, no roof will last more than fifty years, and the whole thing will collapse in on itself.

A stable roof ensures that a family’s most basic needs—safety, warmth, and protection from the elements—are met. Like a roof, our government cannot withstand layer upon layer of patchwork. A solid local-government infrastructure ensures that not only are core government services met, but also that they operate efficiently and without waste and corruption. Unfortunately, cities and villages across Illinois have set up a local governance maze, a massive system of agencies that regulate and serve a group of communities it has outgrown.

Illinois has the unflattering accolade of harboring the most local governments in the country. The state has nearly seven thousand units (6,963) of local government, according to the latest figures from Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti. That’s far and away the most layers of any state in the nation—Texas has the second-highest number, with just more than five thousand (5,147). Texas, a state with more than two times as many residents and five times the land as Illinois, has almost two thousand fewer layers of local bureaucracy than Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. And actually, if you took the governmental units in Texas and added the average governments per state (1,801), the number would still be shy of Illinois’ tally.

When people think about “local government”—and it doesn’t happen all that often, relatively speaking—most imagine city councils and school districts. There’s a sense that local tax dollars benefit schools and basic public works, no doubt necessary services. But in Illinois, that concept doesn’t fit neatly with reality. While many of these agencies are what taxpayers would expect—for example, Illinoisans pay for nearly one thousand three hundred municipal governments, the city and village councils that manage local operations—Illinois also has sixty-nine cemetery districts, nineteen hospital districts, and thirty-three air transportation districts, among many other less conventional agencies, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. It has three thousand two hundred twenty-seven “special” districts like these, which include governments set up to do things as narrow as “street lighting” and as broad as public transportation (see: the Chicago Transit Authority) and trade and business development (see: Chicago Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place downtown).

So where does the bill for all of this government show up, and how does it affect Illinoisans? Property taxes. And Illinoisans pay the highest in the nation. Everyone who owns a home in the United States pays property taxes. In Illinois, those taxes are largely associated with the quality of education available within the community—parents move to neighborhoods like Winnetka and Arlington Heights to enjoy some of the best public schools in the country. And they, for the most part, gladly pay for it.

It’s true that a majority of property-tax dollars go toward the education system—twenty-seven billion dollars annually across the state— but homeowners are chipping in for more than classroom spending. They’re also covering the cost to operate library districts, conservation districts, county government, city government, special districts, and much more. It’s a steep bill. While the median property-tax rate in the United States is 1.31 percent, in Illinois that rate is 2.67 percent, according to California-based data provider CoreLogic. Cook County Clerk David Orr reported that the average 2016 property-tax bill for county residents came to $6,685, up from $6,575 in 2015.

Breaking Down The Tab

The average home price in the greater Chicago area is nearly two hundred seventy thousand dollars, according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. Depending on the location, annual property taxes often reach five figures. Some homeowners, such as “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, who lives in Lincoln Park, paid more than one hundred thousand dollars in 2015 alone.

In the suburbs, Lake and McHenry counties make it easy for homeowners to review how their money is spent. Property owners can visit a single page on each county’s respective treasurer’s website to learn almost everything they need to know. (That’s not the case in Cook County, which posts some information on various pages, but nothing in an efficient, aggregate location.) So how does the breakdown look for the average Illinois homeowner? A single-family home at 118 Savoy Lane in Cary, Illinois, was listed for $265,000 as of August 2016. The owners paid $11,307 in property taxes in 2015, according to McHenry County records. According to the McHenry County treasurer the bill features twenty-one line items toward which the homeowners must pay taxes, including Cary village government, two school districts, a community college district, a library district, a park district, a fire district, and more.

By far the most money from this bill goes to schools ($5,594). This tab also includes seven hundred one dollars for McHenry County, four hundred sixty-two for the Cary Park District, and four hundred sixty for the Cary Fire District. But the homeowner isn’t just paying for whatever services these agencies provide. Past services are also funded by the taxpayer. This family paid five hundred ninety-two dollars into nine different pension funds.

It’s a stiff bill, and the sticker shock certainly doesn’t elude Illinoisans. The rising taxes is one reason many leaving residents list for why they are departing. The state loses one resident every five minutes, according to U.S. Census data.

Two Northfield Township residents sit among staff at a regular meeting of the Township board. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

Two Northfield Township residents sit among staff at a regular meeting of the Township board. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

Keeping Track Of Your Government

Cary isn’t the exception; it’s the rule. Illinois is also the only state in America where a majority of its residents pay property taxes to three layers of general purpose local government: county, township, and municipal, according to research from Donald Boyd, senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. In most states, two layers of local government is the norm. In some, such as Louisiana and Maryland, a majority of residents live under just one layer.

Local government is a good thing, because it’s closest to the people. Your everyday, essential services are controlled and operated locally. That’s one of the reasons our system grew to its expansive state. Illinoisans were willing to pay for improved services. Some residents don’t bat an eyelash at their tax bills, instead enjoying family-oriented library events and park amenities. Alden Loury, director of research and evaluation at Metropolitan Planning Council, acknowledged that one driver behind the growth in local government certainly was a desire for more services. That being said, Loury added, Illinois was quick to add bodies rather than expand the responsibilities of current ones. “But one of the things we have to acknowledge as well,” Loury added, “is that as there was an expression of a desire for new services, there wasn’t enough discussion to say, ‘Well is there a way that this can be done within the existing framework?’ People haven’t been innovative enough to incorporate these services within existing tax dollars that have been collected.”

Local government is also accessible. It’s simpler to track local decisions and policies, as well as local politicians. Because of that, the taxpayer is most likely to effect change at the local level. Don’t like the way your village government is collecting the garbage? Go talk with your councilman or visit a public meeting and speak your mind with your closest neighbors. Problems with your elementary school’s after-school care program? Talk with your school board members.

Local government is a good thing, because it’s closest to the people. Your everyday, essential services are controlled and operated locally. That’s one of the reasons our system grew to its expansive state.

In theory, a well-made local-government setup should present taxpayers with a direct link to the men and women making decisions about how to spend their money and run their governments. But too many local governments means it’s almost impossible for the average citizen to know what they’re paying for and who’s running the ship(s). In Illinois, that’s the case. You cannot be fully engaged. If you wanted to go to every single meeting for all of the different agencies in your area, it’d be a full-time job, one with lots of overtime.

That doesn’t sound so bad on its face—after all, we elect people we trust to manage these affairs, right? But a detachment from local affairs, and the ability of officials to bury information can lead to abuse, even crime.

Downstate Dixon is just one example. Former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell committed wire fraud and stole more than fifty-three million dollars from the city of Dixon during a period of more than twenty years. She spent that money on all sort of extravagant purchases, primarily using the money she embezzled to fund her Quarter Horse business. She was arrested by the FBI in 2012. Crundwell was able to continue her theft for so long because the city lacked transparency measures. Additionally, Crundwell was almost solely responsible for the city’s accounting and treasury duties.

Incidents of local government corruption aren’t limited to downstate communities or even Chicago, where the corruption issues are well-documented. The state’s second-largest public college, the College of DuPage, or C.O.D., was at the center of a ninety-five-million-dollar-spending scandal in 2014. data show illegitimate spending included nearly fourteen thousand dollars in membership dues for a private shooting club for C.O.D. President Robert Breuder and more than two hundred forty thousand dollars on liquor (which was recorded as “instructional supplies”), in addition to millions spent with companies that had ties to C.O.D. leadership.

A vast majority of public servants do admirable work and do their best to provide core government services efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, however, incidents like the ones at C.O.D. and Dixon aren’t uncommon in Illinois; though, they are some of the highest-dollar and most notable cases in recent history. With so many elected officials managing so many tax dollars, oversight isn’t what it should be, simply because it’s impossible for the average taxpayer to keep track of every board, committee, and elected official in their neighborhood. On top of that, the reduction-in-force in the newspaper industry has limited the kind of on-the-ground journalism it takes to uncover much of the corruption and mismanagement.

School Districts: The Good And The Bad

The Chicago suburbs boast some of the best public schools in the state; this comes at a premium. Local governments across Illinois collect twenty-seven billion dollars in local property taxes, according to the Illinois Department of Revenue, and two-thirds of that money goes to school districts. After all, Illinois has eight hundred fifty-nine of them—the fifth most of any state in the nation, a number that seems odd when you consider Illinois catalogs the second largest school district (Chicago Public Schools) in the country. A state like Florida, for instance, which has seven million more residents and six hundred thousand more students than Illinois, has just sixty-seven school districts.

A smaller system, like Florida’s and most states, means less overhead, while Illinoisans pay a hefty sum for administrative oversight. School-district administrators, in Illinois especially, bring home big paychecks—three hundred twenty of them in Illinois make two hundred thousand dollars or more each year, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. New Trier High School District 203’s superintendent, Linda Yonke, makes $336,350. But Yonke is not the only superintendent bringing home a six-figure salary in the New Trier area. And that’s part of the problem with so many school districts, especially when they are so close together.

Aside from expensive property taxes, do homeowners notice just how much government they’re paying for?

This is a discussion about volume, not value. Educator has long been and will continue to be a backbone profession in our society. They deserve to get paid as such, even though, like in all industries, there are plenty who are undeserving of their salaries. The inflated Chicagoland teacher salaries (the area is among the highest-paying for educators in the country) have become a problem because of the quantity. Including Yonke’s New Trier High School, New Trier Township maintains seven school districts. The other six are elementary districts, all of which feed into the high school, that operate nineteen total schools, making the average just over three schools per New Trier elementary school district. Seven districts means seven superintendents, all of whom made two hundred thousand dollars or more in 2015. Those superintendents are all supported by assistant or associate administrators, business managers, and curriculum heads, as well as administrative assistants.

In large part due to the cost of local schools, property taxes in New Trier Township are some of the highest in the state—and the country. Despite the high number of school districts in Illinois, Loury said this type of local government has actually been shrinking. Loury, formerly of the Better Government Association, has been a government watchdog for years both as a researcher and reporter. “With regard to school districts, there has been a reversal of thought,” he said. “School districts are without a doubt the one type of unit of government that has declined over the years. I think primarily as the school districts experienced the advent of property-tax caps, there have been a lot of restraints on how quickly the levy can grow and school districts can spend more. No other type of unit of government has consolidated the way school districts have over the years. One hundred fifty have consolidated or reformed in some form or fashion. But without those kinds of financial pressures, consolidation hasn’t been the first option considered for other types of local government.”

Confusing And Convoluted

Aside from expensive property taxes, do homeowners notice just how much government they’re paying for? “I think many folks are, to some degree, oblivious,” Loury said.

“They look at their tax bill; they know what they owe, but then lots of folks … say, ‘Wow, I’m paying for two school districts, a fire district, a mosquito abatement district, and so much more.’ But what they may not be aware of is who these units of local government are.”

That can be a problem for many reasons, according to Loury, one of which is that with so many government agencies doing so many things and spending so many dollars, it can be incredibly difficult for people to figure out how their tax dollars are put to use. “They may not know where to go,” Loury said. “Even if they do know, they may have no clue when those bodies meet, whose on the board, etcetera. For most folks it is overwhelming to the extent that they completely check out or get frustrated to the point where they don’t want to engage.”

Northfield Township Supervisor Jill Brickman calls roll at the a meeting. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

Northfield Township Supervisor Jill Brickman calls roll at the a meeting. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

Tough To Make A Change

Whether you think Illinois’ setup is a problem, there’s not much debate that it’s far from the norm and was never the plan. “If you were starting from zero, you would not design the same system that we have in Illinois,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he also serves as a research fellow for the Institute for Legislative Studies. “The question should always be, ‘What’s the impact on the bottom line?’ Are you getting efficiency and effectiveness? Is there a reasonable connection between what citizens want and what’s being provided?”

Unfortunately, even if residents in a community decide they want change, they face a difficult path forward: It’s more difficult to consolidate local government than it is to amend the Illinois Constitution. Say a community united its efforts to remove its township government. To eliminate townships in Illinois, voters must get a petition signed by ten percent of the registered voters in each township of the county. If they can do that, they can place a binding referendum question on a ballot. Then, of course, the item needs more than fifty percent of the vote. Making the process even more complicated is that it—the gathering and filing of signatures, the approval of those signatures, and the ballot language development, filing, and approval—must be completed within ninety days. Amending the state constitution, on the other hand, requires just four percent of registered voters to sign a petition over a period of five hundred forty days to get an amendment on the ballot.ilgov-v-peers

So how did we get to this point, for better or worse? Some experts point to rules in the 1870 Illinois Constitution, which limits local governments’ taxing power and capacity to take on debt, to explain why so many governments have cropped up in Illinois. To get around the constitutional limitations, if a government body can’t borrow money or get new funds through taxes, officials simply create another government agency that can and will. Think street maintenance and water and sanitation services: If municipal governments can’t find the money to provide these services, they form a new government agency. In Cary, for example, the village’s public works department provides these services.

Across the state, local governments continued to multiply to get around these borrowing limitations. It became a trend. General logic could say that additional governments would only shift the tax burden, not add to it. But new overhead costs need to be funded, salaries only increase, and governments are encouraged to levy taxes each year—for fear they’d lose out on the funds.

Loury said this has contributed to a culture across the state that is very narrow in scope when it comes to addressing the desire for more services. The common thought is there is no need to expand already-in-place government when you can just add more. Over time, this culture has contributed to the state’s massive system. Redfield agreed: “The 1870 Constitution was very restrictive in terms of intergovernmental agreements, creativity, and flexibility in terms of counties and municipalities … ability to provide services.”

That being said, fewer isn’t always better. Consolidation isn’t necessarily the only answer. According to Redfield, when there’s a problem, the solution depends on the circumstances. “Sometimes that is the case, if units are superfluous and duplicative,” he said of consolidating. “But you have to work backward from what are the citizens paying for this and what are they getting out of it? How do you reduce costs without harming efficiency and effectiveness?

“Townships in the suburban areas are more social service agencies. In rural Illinois, they do provide roads and services and they do assessments. Townships are different in Cook County vs. Polk County.”

Cronin’s Rightsizing

In a state filled with layer upon layer of government, one local official figured out—and fought for—reforms to save taxpayers money and cut back on inefficiency. Shortly after Dan Cronin was elected DuPage County Board chairman in 2010, he learned nearly seventy million dollars had gone missing from the DuPage Water Commission. And soon after that, he learned that another ten million dollars was misplaced. “It was a real discovery process for me,” Cronin said. “I started wondering … ‘How many different agencies am I responsible for?’”

Cronin took stock and discovered that he was responsible for appointing members to fifty-two agencies. As he tried to wrap his head around all of these entities—ranging from the DuPage Housing Authority to sanitary districts to the DuPage Airport Authority—he experienced just how challenging, and at times, impossible, it was to get all of the information needed from local government. As it turned out, even the county board chairman couldn’t access all the financials and documents needed to give a proper analysis of the county-wide agencies’ fiscal health. Cronin had to go to Springfield to request all of the information he needed, and when he got the report back, it was in reams and reams of pages. So he hired a consultant to provide a financial and efficiency diagnosis of DuPage County. “I soon learned that some agencies were not running efficiently,” Cronin said. “Some were under financial stress. Some could consolidate functions. Some could be shut down entirely.”

Cook county has more than one thousand four hundred taxing bodies. And they all expect payment.

What followed was the most drastic reworking of local government by any Illinois county to date. Before he could act on the recommendations and information he received, Cronin had to return to Springfield to get permission from state lawmakers to enact reforms. He got it, in the form of Senate Bill 494, which gave him permission to dissolve thirteen units of local government. So far, the county has dissolved four. Since 2012, Cronin’s efforts have saved DuPage County taxpayers more than one hundred million dollars.

So what did Cronin’s changes look like? Among other efforts, DuPage consolidated its 9-1-1 dispatch centers from twenty-two to five facilities, worth four-and-a-half million dollars in savings; eliminated forty-five full-time county staff positions over the past seven years, entirely through attrition; and reduced its annual budget, saving thirty-three million dollars. But most of Cronin’s reforms came from utilizing shared services. Some examples include three million dollars in savings for the DuPage County Election Commission through joint procurement, thirty-six-and-a-half million in annual taxpayer savings through the elimination of a quarter-cent sales tax, twenty million dollars in savings over twenty years by reforming county employee benefits, and nearly seven million in savings through a shared services agreement with the Kane County Juvenile Detention Center.

“My challenge is that there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Cronin, who is also partnering with other like-minded groups to spread DuPage’s model across the state. “I believe in incremental reform. It’s hard, it’s tedious … it’s not glamorous. But it works.”

Thanks to bills the Illinois legislature passed this summer, two more counties will be able to adopt the reforms that have brought DuPage County success. As of August 5th, local officials in Lake and McHenry counties can eliminate un-needed governments, making it likelier that they’ll spend tax dollars more efficiently. It’s worth noting that though this law opens the door for savings, it’s not as strong as the DuPage County law—the Lake and McHenry counties’ bill exempts fire departments with full-time employees, as well as conservation districts, from consolidation. But this step could be considered the kind of “incremental change” Cronin said is so important when it comes to cutting costs at the local level.

Wrapping Up: Local Government And Homeowners

In August, Chicago and suburban homeowners started receiving their property-tax bills. Many of them weren’t happy, as Cook County Clerk David Orr reported an increase in bills across the board. At the same time, home values declined once again. Chicago homeowners were hit the hardest, with a 12.8 percent increase in property-tax bills.

Cook County has more than one thousand four hundred taxing bodies. And they all expect payment. Chicago knows this truth all too well, especially based on recent history. In 2015, the city enacted the largest property-tax hike in modern history to fill a seven-hundred-fifty-million-dollar budget deficit. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new budget passed unanimously November 16th included another increase to the sewer and water taxes—as well as a tax on plastic bags and a hike in parking meters downtown. In August, Chicago Public Schools passed a budget that included another property-tax hike—this time to cover a small portion of teacher pension costs.

The moral of the story in Illinois is: The bigger the beast, the greater its appetite. As innocuous as all of the little agencies in towns across the state may seem, each has a staff and a budget that need funding, and these budgets tend to get bigger, not smaller, each year. And that money is coming from your pocketbooks.

About the author

Hilary is the managing editor of the Illinois Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank and government watchdog that researches public policy and supports limited government. She has been lauded by the Illinois Press Association and Chicago Headline Club for government reporting.

More From Chicagoly