by Shawn P. Flaherty (Winter 2016)
On January 4, 2016, the Illinois Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force issued its Final Report, which was approved by final action of the Task Force on December 17, 2015. Chaired by Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti, the Task Force conducted 16 meetings held statewide, gathered testimony from 33 experts, and solicited more than 85 proposals aimed at improving local government operations through consolidation and to curb unfunded mandates imposed on units of local government throughout the state.
Local government consolidation has long been a political rally cry in our state given the state’s ranking as the state with the most units of local government and as one of the states with the highest property tax rates nationwide. According to the Task Force report, Illinois residents pay the second highest median effective property tax rate in the country at 2.32% of home market value per year. Interestingly, the United States Bureau Census of Governments has counted 6,963 units of government in the state, while the Illinois Office of the Comptroller lists 8,480 units, and the Illinois Department of Revenue lists only 6,027 units. Depending on the source relied upon, Illinois currently has between 828 to 838 fire protection districts. A reasonable argument can be made that the state has too many units of local governments when authorities cannot even reach a consensus on what is the proper count.
The Task Force found that current Illinois law makes consolidation a difficult process through outdated legal processes, and an inability for Illinois citizens to easily dissolve units of government by referendum. Legal barriers have been placed over the years which make it more difficult for even willing consolidation partners to achieve the desired goal of consolidation. The reality in Illinois is that there are significant cultural, political and technical obstacles to consolidation that stand in the way of consolidation, even when the consolidation may result in long-term savings to taxpayers. The final report then presented several examples of how intergovernmental cooperation and consolidation efforts have worked among local governments.
The Task Force addressed some of its 27 consolidation related recommendations towards Illinois fire departments and fire protection districts. Proposal No. 2 was to initiate legislation that would extend the DuPage County pilot consolidation program to the other 101 counties. Such a bill would empower counties to study the local governments within county borders to determine whether duplicative services may be eliminated by absorption into other governmental agencies. Proposal No. 3 would create a streamlined method to consolidate or dissolve units of local government via a taxpayer-petition generated referendum question. Another proposal suggests reform to the Prevailing Wage Act, while another proposal allows for modernization of newspaper public notice mandates. Still another proposal calls for the merger of public safety pension funds into a single pension investment authority, leaving control over all pension board decisions other than investments with the current local boards. Collective bargaining as well as arbitration reforms, and changes to the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act definition of “catastrophic injury” were also advanced by the Task Force.
Fire protection districts were surveyed by the Task Force to determine what governmental mandates were most burdensome to operations. Based on 126 responses statewide, workers’ compensation expenses were voted as the most onerous mandate, followed by fire and EMS training costs, and personnel costs. Notably, public pension and collective bargaining costs were far down the list. This is perhaps unsurprising given the number of part-time and volunteer fire departments in Illinois. Fire protection districts in the northeast part of the state would likely rank these two issues at the top of their most burdensome governmental mandates. The huge disparity in the type of fire protection provided across the state will result in differing impact depending upon the size and type of fire district and the region of the state in which the fire district is located.
It is not exactly clear what the Illinois General Assembly will do with the findings contained in the Task Force’s final report; however, it is expected that several of these proposals will be drafted into legislation that will be presented in the second year of this 99th General Assembly in the coming weeks and months. Consolidation is an issue that will be certainly be illuminated in the klieg lights of Illinois politics for years to come.