Illinois has long held the record for the most units of local government in any state — 8,923 local taxing bodies to be exact, according to a recent report by the Chicago-based Civic Federation.
This total is higher than estimates from other government officials, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Illinois Department of Revenue, and state Comptroller’s office.
In addition to county and municipal governments, Illinois has many special districts designed to provide a specific public service — including school districts, drainage districts, fire protection districts, road and bridge districts, and cemetery districts.
However, not all of these districts are counted in the same manner. Although both the Civic Federation and the Comptroller’s office tally the number of local governments in the state at over 8,000, the Census Bureau’s numbers are closer to 7,000, and the department of revenue’s count has it at around 6,000.
The Civic Federation report explains some of this discrepancy can be chalked up to different methodologies in counting, such as attributing a district which spans across county lines to just a single county.
For Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, such discrepancies in counting local governments lead to a lack of accountability and complicate policy reforms for those taxing districts. Msall it’s important for Illinois to have an accurate count of the number of local government bodies in order to better evaluate whether services are being delivered in the most efficient manner.
“Whether it’s a township providing similar or very similar services that a local municipality might, or whether it’s a school district that provides services only for a portion of the students, there just isn’t the efficiency when you have that overlapping and duplicative government,” Msall said.
Chris Goodman, an assistant professor with Northern Illinois University, has been researching local governments and special districts for years.
Goodman said when there are a series of vertically stacked governments in a single area — or multiple local government districts overlapping in the same community, sometimes providing similar services — it can be difficult for residents to distinguish which government body is providing which service, which can lead to calls for either government consolidation, dissolution, or more shared service practices.
“The issue is the vertical piece,” Goodman said. “Because all those governments don’t have to talk to each other, or at least there’s little incentive for them to talk to each other. They don’t know what each other are doing and it’s nearly impossible for them to coordinate on taxing and things like that.”
Goodman’s colleague, NIU professor Kurt Thurmaier also said it’s important to recognize the diversity of local governments throughout Illinois.
In one area of the state, consolidating a township government into a municipal or county government unit may make sense because the services being provided are redundant and cost additional tax dollars. Whereas in another community, a township government may also manage the operations of various special districts, like libraries or cemeteries — responsibilities which could be difficult or burdensome to transfer to a municipality or county body.
“One school of thought is [that] fragmented government is actually terrific because smaller units tailored to a specific small group of people is able to better respond to the demand, the desires of both what services are offered and how much people are willing to pay,” Thurmaier said.
However, from a public administration perspective, investing in multiple small government units does not always make fiscal sense. According to the Civic Federation report, there are 26 school districts in Illinois representing fewer than 100 students and nearly half of all townships in the state serve populations smaller than 1,000 residents.
Like many services in local communities, each of these units of government tend to rely heavily upon property taxes in order to operate.
“Having a school district that’s consisting of a single high school is one of the most absurd notions to anybody in any other state in the country,” Thurmaier said.
For Thurmaier and the Civic Federation’s Msall, one of the biggest barriers standing in the way of more shared service practices among different government districts are statutory restrictions on services provided across city and county lines.
“Just because there’s a political boundary doesn’t mean the services should stop at that political boundary,” Msall said. “If you look at for example the other utilities, they don’t pay attention to municipal boundaries unless it’s under the law that they have to. So services can be provided on a grid basis according to where there is need much more efficiently if there is cooperation.”
But in order to remove what they view as antiquated restrictions on sharing services, Msall and Thurmaier said state lawmakers need to make legislative changes to the districts they first created.
One legislative proposal that has been filed this session ( HB162 ) would require local government units once every ten years to evaluate their utility and explore opportunities where services and costs can be shared among similar taxing bodies.
“It forces that local unit, if it has outlived its purpose, if it has outlived its value to the Illinois taxpayer, this specifically forces them to disclose that to the public and to face a reconciliation process,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore), said.
The legislative proposal, which is scheduled to be heard by the House Counties & Townships Committee on Friday, would not apply to county, town, village or city governments.
Msall also said the General Assembly should develop a single state oversight board to manage and accurately count units of local government, and to better enforce said government bodies to comply with state reporting mandates.
The Civic Federation’s report lists around 150 units of government that failed to send in an annual financial report to the Comptroller’s office in the 2018 fiscal year. Although a number of these delinquent government units represent small and impoverished communities, 54 county governments were among those who failed to turn in a financial report.
“The Comptroller right now has some responsibility for collecting reports from some units of local government, audited financial statements,” Msall said. “But they have very limited enforcement power.”
Comptroller spokesman Abdon Pallasch said the previous administration did not keep adequate records concerning whether units of governments had been given ample notice on the need to file annual financial reports. As a result, governments which failed to send in required reports did not face any consequences, a practice that may change in the future.
“We have not yet gotten to the part of the process where we actually penalize them,” Pallasch said. “But that’s probably coming shortly.”
The Comptroller’s office said since fiscal year 2018, 350 units of government were delinquent in sending in their financial reports to the state.