McHenry County Board member Donna Kurtz’ thoughts on consolidating local governments:
It is heart-breaking to see an increasing number of friends and constituents in McHenry County express outrage and frustration as their taxes increase and government seems powerless to provide solutions. Even worse is that many are considering moving away where taxes are affordable. As a result, I believe it is vital for local and state government officials to search and seize upon any tools that can help stem the tide of the overwhelming tax burden being shouldered by our citizens.
In April this appeared to have occurred when Representative Franks introduced HB229 and received the support of Representatives Wheeler, McSweeney and Senator Duffy. This bill would give the McHenry County Board the power to consolidate government taxing entities, where the County appoints more than 50% of the membership of that board. This legislation is based almost exactly on a bill successfully implemented in DuPage County in 2013, and is part of a larger effort they initiated and call the Accountability Consolidation Transparency (ACT) Initiative.
DUPAGE REFORM CREATES COST-SAVINGS
Through the ACT Initiative, and to a lesser extent, their new consolidation powers, DuPage County Board was able to consolidate functions as well as entire units of County Government. As a result of these efforts this year DuPage County is projecting “$116 Million in taxpayer savings through shared service assimilation, joint purchasing, benefit reforms, and modifications to procurement practices”.
Although DuPage is significantly larger than McHenry County, and has more potential budget to cut, giving McHenry County Government tools to conduct consolidation would seem like a no-brainer. After all, why would we not want to have the power to rein in government spending and expansion–particularly when McHenry County is one of the highest per capita taxed counties in the USA, and within our own County we have over 300 government entities.
DERAILED LEGISLATION FOR MCHENRY COUNTY
Unfortunately this legislative effort was derailed in the Senate by Senator Althoff. According to her, consolidation efforts are appropriate except when it comes to the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) and the McHenry County Mental Health Board (MHB). She sought to modify the original legislation to provide these exceptions and then undertook procedural actions to delay the vote and jeopardize the passage of this bill.
Both she and County Board Chairman Joe Gottemoller’s excuse for not supporting HB229 is that any unit of government initiated by voter referendum, i.e. the Conservation District and the Mental Health Board, should not be subjected to any changes unless the voters approve this. However, this concern does not make sense because HB229 legislation supports taxpayer empowerment by requiring only 200 signatures to place a referendum vote on the ballot to reverse a County Board decision to consolidate or dissolve.
VALUE OF REFORM OCCURS BY BEING ON-GOING
In addition, Senator Althoff and Chairman Gottemoller have expressed concerns that the results of consolidation, via this legislation, has provided minimal value with DuPage County, in which only two units of government have been consolidated. What they fail to see is that consolidation of government (particularly in a state like Illinois, where historically it easy to create new standalone government entities, but almost impossible to change or consolidate once established) should be an on-going process similar to the kind of reassessment and re-engineering that we see in well managed companies.
MANY SERVICES ARE SUPPORTED
Finally, some have voiced concern that once the County Board has the power from this legislation to dissolve units of government, the MHB and/or MCCD would be at risk. However, eliminating the value and the services provided by these organizations is neither practical nor realistic. There is wide spread community support to address the increasing needs to serve McHenry County’s mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and drug and alcohol substance abusers. In addition, because the State may reduce funds for these services by over $100 Million in FY2016—any county board member who would seek MHB program elimination is likely to generate a high level of resistance and anger from both the community and other board members.
Similarly, McHenry County values its open spaces, areas of natural beauty, and hiking and camping areas, and most residents realize that protecting these unique areas promotes property value and precious groundwater recharge. Again, eliminating these vital services would require a broad level of support in the community and on the County Board—and that simply does not exist. As stated before, even if in the unlikely event that the County Board decided to dissolve a unit of government, this legislation has a fail-safe provision that allows residents to save that government entity through voter referendum.
REFORM CAN LEAD TO COST-EFFECTIVE SERVICE DELIVERY
However, what I believe our citizens do want are less costly ways to deliver valued services by improving efficiency, reducing duplication, and encouraging resource sharing. Consolidating current standalone government entities with existing County infrastructure offers the potential to dramatically reduce administrative costs by merging functional areas such as IT, HR, procurement, security, and finance as a means to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
In addition, adoption of standard financial, HR, budgeting, procurement, and ethics policies can potentially provide invaluable oversight controls that promote best practices and economies of scale. Thus, with fewer funds being used for overhead, more funds could be used, without raising taxes, to address the mission of the governing unit in question. Consequently, the potential for more tax dollars to address conservation; as well as more funds to address mental illness/developmental disabilities/drug and alcohol would provide tremendous benefit given the status of shrinking State and Federal funds.
NO SACRED COWS
A final sticking point in this mess for me as been the illogical defense of MCCD and MHB as sacred cow institutions that must be protected from any consolidation efforts. When elected officials like Senator Althoff and Chairman Gottemoller call for exceptions for specific units of government, instead of protecting the existence of a unit of government, they undermine that organization’s credibility for not supporting standards that will provide greater efficiencies and cost-effectiveness. It also calls into question whether this is more about protecting fiefdoms and less about serving the tax paying public.
THE COURAGE FOR CONSTRUCTIVE REFORM
With an impending financial crisis looming ever larger in Illinois and with taxes spiraling out of control, we need more elected officials like Franks, Wheeler, McSweeney, and Duffy who understand that the status quo has not been working for some time and they have the courage to make constructive reform for our state and local government the highest priority.