Monday, September 26, 2011

Time To Reorganize

Illinois has thousands of units of local government – more than any other state. We have townships, park districts, mosquito districts, library districts, sewage districts, water districts, road districts, and who-knows-what-else districts. Each district is governed by some sort of board, mostly elected, and each spends money, mostly from property tax and other taxes.

My local township raises and spends a few million dollars each year. A large part of the money is spent on office staff. What do these people do? Almost nothing that some other unit of government either already does or easily could do. For example, you can apply for a passport at the township office. Or you can apply at any number of post offices. Or you can go to the passport office in downtown Chicago. If you apply at the township office, they don't actually issue the passport. They just mail it to the passport office.

What else does the township office staff do? They can tell you how to appeal your property taxes. Or you could get the same information at the county assessor's office a couple of miles away at the county courthouse in Skokie, where you can actually file your appeal. You can also get the information and file the appeal online. The township office doesn't decide the appeals. They just mail them for you to the county assessor if you want.

The township also plows a few miles of roads. That could also be done by the county, which plows a lot more roads in the area. The county's plow trucks drive right by the roads that the township plows. All they would have to do is lower their plows.

A well-meaning, diligent group of people are elected to run the township. They take their jobs seriously. But their jobs don't need to exist. They aren't the only ones we should be looking at. My town of less than 35,000 people has four elementary school districts and a high school district. Why? Historical happenstance, and now none of the administrators wants to give up their jobs, and few of the elected board members think anyone else could do as good a job as they do . As a result, one district is building new school buildings to accommodate a growing population within its boundaries while the district across the street has empty classrooms. One district has a budget surplus while the district across the street is having financial difficulties. If the districts were consolidated, these problems and disparities wouldn't exist.

Not only does having so many units of government create waste, it also creates confusion. Hardly any voters know what all these districts do, let alone who is running for them. That is part of the reason we have so many districts. They provide a lot of jobs that the political parties can dole out as rewards for their loyal supporters.

Having so many special districts also allows mayors and county officials to avoid responsibility for the things the other districts do. It's hard to blame the mayor if the library district raises taxes, even if the mayor appointed the library district board or had them slated. And a city's budget doesn't look as big as it would if it included all the things that have been shunted off onto the other districts. My village's spending would be twice as large if it included all the money the park district spends. Both the village and the park district serve and collect taxes from exactly the same people. When people complain that their property taxes are too high, both units of government can escape criticism by blaming the other.

Most of these special districts could be eliminated, and their work done better. The neighboring suburb of Highland Park, with about the same population as my town, consolidated several school districts a few years ago, and it has worked out fine.

It isn't easy to get rid of a governmental entity. The special district that was created to run a tuberculosis sanitarium in the suburbs wasn't dissolved until decades after it stopped being needed due to improvements in the medical treatment of TB patients.

You may wonder why I am writing about this issue. The answer is that just because some of us think we should stop making wars and should provide medical care for everyone and should preserve Social Security so that people will be able to live decently in old age and should educate all children and should do a lot of other things for the benefit of everyone doesn't mean we like to see our tax money wasted or our government poorly administered. But unlike the regressives in the Tea Party and Republican Party, we don't think that the only answer is to thoughtlessly eliminate government programs. A better solution is to implement changes that will create efficiencies without hurting people.

I don't claim that progressives thought up the idea of consolidation. It has come up now and then, and has been supported by people all over the political spectrum. Right now, it is an idea that I would like to see get broad support, and not just because of the improvements it would bring to the way our government runs. Maybe, if progressives and regressives worked on this issue together, we would learn that we have more in common than we sometimes think. Maybe we could even learn to get along a little better.

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