Here’s a gift Illinois pols would be wise to give voters

Evening in Springfield

Pssst! Hey you, lawmakers and wannabe elected officials. Have I got a winner of an idea for you!

Not sure if you’ve had time to scroll through social media lately, but I came across an exchange that went something like this: “Got the property tax bill today. Spouse’s reaction? Guess we’ll be having cat food for Christmas dinner.”

This was followed by several comments from people chiming in who similarly felt the tax-bill pain, and a few who even said they’d had to sell their homes and find someplace cheaper to live because the tax lift just got too heavy.

So, the winning idea? Work hard, get elected and turn yourself and your colleagues into champions of government streamlining and efficiency. Seriously, I don’t know why more of our bright public servants haven’t seized on this one yet and pushed harder to get it done. Perhaps it’s because, as they come up through the ranks in government and politics, they start locally and become friends with the many other local government officials who fear losing their jobs or having to tell government workers they might lose theirs.

Whatever the reason, this remains a cause that is ripe for someone or several someones to dig into and own.

My own property tax bill arrived a few weeks ago. I did the math and it went up from 2021 to 2022 by 6.9%. Sure, it could have been much worse, but it’s never, ever gone down. 

My bill had charges for 15 different units of government or tax funds. There wasn’t just township government; there’s the township road and bridge fund and the township general assistance fund. There’s mosquito abatement and water reclamation and park districts.

There isn’t just one consolidated school district in my community. We’ve got a community college, a high school district and an elementary district. They all have administrators and managers and pensions we’re supporting. And, if that’s not enough, there’s four different line items for various components of Cook County government.

Among the 15 lines listed on the bill, not one charged less money or held the line, of course. They all charged more, and they always do. But the reality, of course, for all of us supporting all of these governments — either through homeownership or our rental rates — is that we’re not always getting raises every year or ones big enough to keep up with these bills and the other inflationary increases.

Illinois isn’t as big as California or Texas or Florida, but Illinois does win the prize for having the most units of government of any state. That shouldn’t be a point of pride for any of us.

Almost three years ago, the fine researchers at the Civic Federation conducted a study, did the counting and found we have 8,923 local government units. The Civic Federation found that figure was 30% higher than the U.S. Census of Governments numbers frequently cited by media.

Over the years, some state lawmakers have tried to introduce laws to encourage streamlining, efficiency and consolidation. There have been task forces that take testimony about the bloat, but inertia always seems to win the day and not enough of these efforts have been enacted as law. 

When the efforts have succeeded, the government officials who are targeted by an effort to streamline typically get organized and fight back, making the case to their supporters that their government unit couldn’t possibly go away or share services with another. Those efforts have tended to win because most of us average residents are busy with our own lives and jobs and running the kids around to after-school activities. But the jolt of those rising tax bills does hit and stops us in our tracks now and then.

I have seen and read enough stories from communities downstate to know that some people find their township governments much more necessary than some of us do in the metro region, where we have municipal and county governments that easily could cover the services townships provide. 

So, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t necessarily work, but surely there ought to be more that can be done to economize, consolidate and cut back on some of these government units. For instance, couldn’t Chicago and Cook County share fleet services, computers and office supplies? Or, even if people are reluctant to merge elementary and high school districts into unit districts, couldn’t we do more to encourage the sharing of administrators and administrative duties? Lawmakers have tried and failed at some of these ideas. It’s time for a bigger, better, more organized effort.

As the late, wonderful former Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said back in 2021, “Streamlining redundant services makes financial sense and would put Illinois governments in line with best practices.”

Doing so this coming year not only would be a tremendous way to honor Msall, but I’m betting the elected officials who turn themselves into successful efficiency champions would reap the rewards of a grateful voting and taxpaying public.

This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business on Monday, November 27, 2023. Read the article in its original context here.