BGA Takes on Excessive Number of Local Governments, Lack of Legislative Competition

The following BGA piece, first published in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 1st, is reprinted with permission of the Better Government Association.

Local Government Has Obesity Problem

Public agencies need a crash diet, with unnecessary units of government eliminated and duplicative functions consolidated.

The Land of Lincoln still has about 7,000 units of government, more than any other state. Cook County alone has 50 library districts, 38 fire prevention districts, 30 townships of dubious value and four mosquito abatement districts. If I’m a mosquito I’m flattered by so much attention, but if I’m a taxpayer I’m fuming at the wasteful overlap.

Illinois also has more than 300 boards and commissions, including the Human Rights Commission, which lavishes a dozen politically-connected members with generous pensions, low-cost health care and salaries of nearly $50,000 a year for — hold on to your wallets — 12 hours of work each month!

The state also has nearly 900 public school districts but nearly a third of them have — you guessed it — only one school. Gov. Pat Quinn and a few reform-minded lawmakers have been promising a major downsizing but so far it’s been mostly talk. Like most diet plans. So maybe it’s time for a 12-step program that works.

The Biggest Losers?

McHenry County Republicans did not follow the script laid out by Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.  No opponent was found for Democrat Jack Franks, who has voted for Mike Madigan for House Speaker seven times.

Technically, all 177 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs this fall. The reality’s a different story.

Roughly 40 Democrats ran unopposed in the March primary and don’t have Republican opponents in the Nov. 6 general election, the BGA found.

Several dozen Republicans had the same luck.

And, collectively, nearly 40 Republicans and Democrats had primary opponents but now have no general election foes.

That means more than 60 percent of the seats in the Legislature are basically already won — so long as nothing changes.

For instance, there is a window in early June for the two parties to file a candidate in uncontested races and third-party candidates can file later in June. Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said he plans to file roughly 18 candidates in uncontested races while Democrats wouldn’t say what their plans are.

Either way, it appears many legislators still will have no competition. And that poses a problem.

“The more competition you have . . . the more you engage voters,” said Kent Redfield, a retired professor of political science at University of Illinois at Springfield.

And an apolitical redistricting process would increase the competition, which is why incumbent politicians oppose it.

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This column, a weekly feature in the Chicago Sun-Times called “Public Eye,” was written and reported by the BGA’s Andy Shaw, Patrick Rehkamp and Andrew Schroedter. To reach them, email or call (312) 386-9201.


BGA Takes on Excessive Number of Local Governments, Lack of Legislative Competition — 6 Comments

  1. Sorry, but this is one time I will (partially) disagree with the “small government” folks because when it comes to school districts, the facts are against them.

    You can look up the numbers yourself. NIU runs a site called the Interactive Report Card ( Look up a bunch of districts, small and large, and you will find that on average larger districts spend more per pupil, and more on administration, than smaller schools.

    So consolidating schools is actually likely to result in higher costs.

    In small districts, everybody in town knows what’s going on, who gets paid how much, and who slacks, and they howl if people get paid too much. In large districts, people are less knowledgeable, less involved, and the bureaucrats takes over, with assistant principals, curriculum coordinators, assistants to assistants, and more expensive contracts for teachers.

    In the real world, there are NO economies of scale in governments. In fact, the exact opposite. Large units of government actually face less voter scrutiny and end up costing more.

    Are there some governments we could do without entirely? Absolutely! Let’s start with regional school superintendents. But when it comes to schools, ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you agreed with the statement, “larger governments are cheaper than smaller governments”?

  2. This article would be better suited for the Spring when most of the electorate will sit home for the elections that really affect our pocketbooks.

  3. I would suggest the NIU study is biased, as many academic studies are.

    If you combined D47 and D155, how much administration do you eliminate? Especially with built out school districts?

    Perhaps the study doesn’t take circumstances like that into account? Further, TOWNSHIPS NEED TO GO.

    Regional superintendents can follow.

    Crystal Lake would benefit from the Park District being under the city (OK, maybe not with current leadership).

    You have Three Oaks Rec Area (city-owned) competing with Crystal Lake (park district administered).

    The Park District has its own “police” department.

    Redundancies abound.

    What we really need is a summit meeting: city, park district, some county board, schools, townships (heh) and citizens.

    A meeting charged with and resulting inefficiencies and redundant services.

    I would volunteer to serve on that committee.

    Nah, what I am thinking.

    That’s too forward thinking for government.

  4. There is no NIU “study”, so it cannot be biased. The web site is a data base of statistics on every school district in the state, including staffing, enrollment, test scores and finances. You can pull a sample and compute the numbers yourself. I have done so.

    You are correct, that, in theory, if school districts were to combine, they should need fewer administrators than when separate.

    But what happens in reality is that bigger school districts have MORE administrators relative to their budget and their enrollment than smaller districts.

    Sad, but that’s the way government works.

  5. Small, special purpose governments are almost always run by partisans. (Who runs for the park board if they hate parks?)

    So they grow and grow and no single government is responsible for rationalizing all the needs.

    This also makes it virtually impossible for a good citizen to keep track of every unit of government and to affect their elected representatives.

    In a perfect world, each town would have one government that would include parks, schools, et. al., and one combined tax rate and they would have to make decisions: more police, more parks, or more teachers.

    And voters would only have to watch how their one, single alderman voted.

    But we don’t live in a perfect world.

    In urban areas, that might be possible, but rural areas, it wouldn’t work.

    Rural areas can’t be grafted onto cities.

    Still, Illinois is about as inefficient as it is possible to be, and there are indeed many units of government that could be eliminated without any citizens noticing a diminution in service.

  6. By spring, it will be too late to file for local government offices.

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