Who’s afraid of
Written By: Austin Berg, INN Contributor
April 14, 2016
Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local
government. That’s the highest count of any state in the nation, and the
runner-up is not even close.
One of those units of government is the Naperville Township Road District, where
seven employees maintain less than 20 miles of road at a cost of $116,000 per
mile. City officials have said they could maintain the same distance at half the
cost, and have moved to take over the road district’s duties on behalf of local
But the final decision on whether to outsource maintenance of those roads to the
city rests with Naperville Township Road Commissioner Stan Wojtasiak, who has
put local taxpayers on the hook for thousands of dollars in meals and treats,
including alcohol, over the course of his tenure, according to the Naperville
Sun. Wojtasiak said he spent the money to boost staff morale, and has yet to
announce his decision regarding consolidation.
The Naperville case is emblematic of a statewide problem in Illinois: Having
thousands of local governments poses serious problems when it comes to oversight
The result of the status quo? Illinois property taxes are the third-highest in
the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, which also predicts Illinois will
soon overtake New Jersey as the state with the highest property taxes. Many
homeowners in Illinois are now paying twice for their houses over their
lifetimes – once to the bank, and once to the government through property taxes.
A look into the nature of local spending in Illinois reveals big opportunities
for sorely needed property-tax savings through government consolidation, and
also shows the high costs shouldered by Illinoisans due to decades of political
But the drama over a few miles of Naperville pavement illustrates how the road
to consolidation is often littered with obstacles.
One bipartisan bill being considered in Springfield would help smooth the
consolidation process for many local governments. House Bill 4501 would allow
county boards to dissolve certain units of local government via ordinance, a
power already enjoyed by DuPage County.
While this is a step in the right direction, local governments will need more
than the powers granted by HB 4501 to tackle major cost drivers to prevent
property-tax bills from growing even higher.
For example, prime candidates for consolidation are Illinois’ 859 local school
districts, which consume nearly two-thirds of the $27 billion in local property
taxes collected across the state each year. According to data from the Illinois
State Board of Education, a quarter of Illinois school districts serve only a
single school, a third serve fewer than 600 students, and more than 40 percent
serve only one or two schools.
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Forthcoming research from the Illinois Policy Institute shows
that reducing the number of school districts by half could lead to
annual operating savings of $130 million to $170 million and could
conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension
costs over the next 30 years. In terms of the number of school
districts per student, the move would put Illinois between
California and Texas.
Beyond consolidating small school districts, many larger communities
would be well-served by merging elementary school districts with
high school districts.
The Homewood-Flossmoor area is home to two K-8 school districts and
a high school district, an inefficient setup mirrored across the
state. Instead of having a single “unit” school district that covers
all schools in the area, taxpayers shoulder the burden of three
separate administrative staffs, which contain duplicative and
The base salaries of all three districts’ staffs cost
Homewood-Flossmoor-area taxpayers nearly $5 million a year. By
consolidating those three staffs into one, Homewood-Flossmoor could
save local taxpayers millions of dollars annually. Consolidating the
three superintendent positions into one would alone save $500,000
Consolidation focused on cutting unnecessary costs from
school-district administration – and not on equalizing salary
contracts or funding new facilities, as has plagued similar efforts
in the past – is a fair and necessary step in communities across
The same goes for road districts, mosquito-abatement districts, park
districts, library districts and more.
But as long as state and local politicians fail to trim Illinois’
glut of government units, taxpayers will continue to be crushed
under the weight of ever-higher costs. Transparency, accountability
and fiscal responsibility all depend on consolidation in Illinois.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote
this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the
Institute. Austin can be reached at
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