LISLE – When State. Rep. Chris Welch, D-Westchester, sat on the Proviso High Schools District 209 Board of Education, and residents would ask about low test scores, he would often start by explaining how seven different grade school districts fed the single high school.
Welch used that example of ineffectual layers of government during a panel discussion Monday titled “Smart Streamlining: Effective Government Consolidation,” hosted by the Better Government Association at National Louis University in Lisle.
“I think that if you look at certain areas where it can be smart, and a good idea to (consolidate), we should,” he said. “We should have a discussion about it. And I wold love for the school consolidation issue to be back on the table.”
Welch and DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who also spoke Monday, repeated throughout the discussion that Illinois needs consolidation in local governments, but only on a case-by-case basis.
The discussion is one of many planned by the nonpartisan association and Reboot Illinois to bring attention to Illinois’ unusually high number of local government bodies – 7,000 in the state, which is 40 percent higher than the next two biggest states, Texas and California, according to the association.
Monday’s event was attended by about 100 people, many of whom were township employees throughout DuPage County.
Cronin has made consolidation a priority with his “Accountability, Consolidation and Transparency” initiative. He and Welch were joined by Robert Porter, a former long-time park district administrator, township supervisor and current consultant to the Township Officials of Cook County and Brian Costin, director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute.
Much talk Monday night fell on townships, and whether it’s possible to consolidate some with municipalities without losing service levels.
Welch’s House Bill 4425, which is waiting in Springfield, would allow voters to consolidate River Forest Township into the municipal government. He said that would make sense, because they share the same borders, as opposed to some townships that serve a dozen different towns.
Porter said townships and other local governments were largely created by residents by referendum in response to service needs, and should only be removed or consolidated if the impetus comes from resident discussion. He took issue with the consolidation discussion following a bill such as HB4425, instead of the other way around. He also touted the accessibility of local officials versus those of larger governmental bodies.
“I think there has to be open dialogue and discussion generated by the residents,” he said. “Versus a political agency or a political person looking to enhance another notch in their gun barrel for advancement of their career or their organization or whatever they want to try and accomplish.”
Cronin said his Accountability, Consolidation and Transparency initiative has more often taken away from the county’s authority, with steps such as handing fire protection over to municipalities, and has not consolidated more power or authority with his organization.
“Some of the innuendo here about somebody who’s interested in political attention, you know, I think that’s a little irresponsible,” Cronin said. “I’m here to say we all serve the same taxpayers, whether you’re in township government or a fire district or a mosquito abatement district. You said it yourself Mr. Porter, why don’t we engage in discussion, why don’t we have a real honest discussion about what we can do?”
Costin said that with Illinois’ many local layers, it can be impossible for watchdog organizations or residents to keep track of tax dollars.
“We found an example in Elgin where people had 16 layers of local government that they were paying property taxes into,” he said. “What that means is, it becomes virtually impossible for someone to become educated and participate.
“In some ways it invites corruption, because there are so many local agencies that the U.S. attorney’s office actually says there are too many local government agencies to adequately police.”
Reboot Illinois COO Madeleine Doubek moderated the forum.