Taking action: Choosing consolidation - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Taking action: Choosing consolidation

Flickr user J Stephen Conn (CC)

Illinois has more units of local government than any other state.

Across the country, governments are investing in efficiency. Motivated by budget crunches, scarce resources, service duplication and the desire to spur economic development, public officials are exploring consolidation, collaboration and other means to better serve their constituents. In this series, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) will highlight efforts to improve government efficiency.

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, Illinois has 6,968 units of local government—more than any other state in the nation. On April 4, 2014, the Local Government Consolidation Commission, which was enacted through the Local Government Consolidation Commission Act, to identify local government redundancies, released a final report to the Illinois General Assembly. In the report the Commission advised ways for the state of Illinois to eliminate barriers to consolidation should local governments decide that consolidation best serves their constituencies’ interests.

Units of local government include municipalities and townships, but also many single-purpose entities: school districts, library districts, park districts, water and sanitary districts, mosquito abatement districts, hospital boards, tax increment financing districts and transit authorities—all of which provide services to local taxpayers. A surplus of local government units can lead to the duplication of government services, creating inefficiencies that result in cost increases to the taxpayer. It can also be plain old confusing for voters and taxpayers, and not knowing which government entity is responsible for which services makes it difficult to advocate for change. The Committee weighed these issues in their report.

Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is in the midst of analyzing efficient government structures, and the Commission’s report provides valuable insight into how consolidation and cooperation can streamline government processes and increase local governments’ ability to perform services.

The Commission report aimed to help identify barriers to consolidation as well as review statutes governing local governments and special districts that lawmakers should update. The Commission recognized the potential to achieve greater economies of scale and to see a reduction in costs if local governments cooperate on service delivery or even consolidate services.

Interestingly, the report finds that reducing the number of local governments does not necessarily result in a reduction in costs to the taxpayer. This is based on evidence from reports and expert interviews in Michigan, Minnesota and New York, all of which have commissioned studies and undergone similar efforts. The Minnesota report, for example, found the following:

Some consolidation efforts did reduce costs while others maintained relatively stable costs and still others showed increased costs. Smaller municipalities tend to be less efficient with capital-intensive or specialized services. Some studies indicate that smaller jurisdictions have a better chance at increasing efficiency through consolidation than larger jurisdictions.

Furthermore, working toward a result voters support is essential. In addition to citing three out-of-state examples the Commission considered the DuPage County Accountability, Consolidation and Transparency Initiative. One current effort underway in DuPage County is the West Suburban Fire Alliance, which would bring four separate fire protection jurisdictions together to reduce costs and improve efficiency by sharing training, coordinating dispatch, and creating common protocols.

The Commission suggests that cooperation and consolidation be assessed on a case-by-case basis, allowing individual units of government the ability to determine what works best for their jurisdiction. The report also makes clear that solutions cannot be imposed from the top down, but must emerge from the ground up. The report recommends the following actions:

  • Identify differences between potentially duplicative units of government;
  • Develop standardized statutes for units of government to be dissolved;
  • Provide resources to local governments wishing to explore efficiency; and
  • Investigate the impact on local government’s costs and efficiency.

For example, in identifying duplicative services, the report cites Museum Districts and County Historical Museum Districts. They ask if these districts are serving the same functions. The Commission also recommends investigating which districts and authorities in the state are able to establish and maintain a police force. The Commission writes,

It would be beneficial to learn which individual districts in Illinois use this power, which contract for services, and which simply rely on the police protection of the jurisdiction the property lays in.

Having this information available to decision-makers is critical in deciding whether consolidation or a shared service agreement is the best policy prescription. However, even with consensus on consolidation, there can be legal roadblocks in the way.

One such potential barrier to consolidation is the Public Library District Act of 1991. Section 20-10a of the act implies only contiguous library districts with the same limitations on the annual library tax may merge. In other words, if Town A and Town B want to merge their library districts, but Town A’s district is larger than Town B, they are legally barred from doing so.

This is an example of a review that lawmakers can undertake to reduce barriers to consolidation. The report addresses this and other ways lawmakers can update statutes and give local governments the ability to make their jurisdictions more effective, efficient and cost-conscious.

Finally, the Commission recommends lawmakers monitor the DuPage County Initiative, which MPC also has covered, to see whether that model could apply to counties other than DuPage.

All told, the Commission report is a thorough examination of both the need, but also the complexity, of improving government service delivery through rethinking the very units of government providing those services. There is no silver bullet here; cooperation works some of the time, and is the wrong option in other instances. The same is true for consolidation, and for a spectrum of partnership opportunities somewhere in between. What the Commission report reinforces across the board, however, is the need to focus on the ultimate goal: developing the optimal situation for quality service delivery in a cost-effective manner.

Curious about other initiatives around the Chicago region and beyond? Take a look at the rest of the Taking Action series.

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