Behind the Numbers: Shining a light on Illinois' street lighting districts - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Behind the Numbers: Shining a light on Illinois' street lighting districts

Flickr user Hernán Piñera (CC)

Street lighting districts may not be the best candidates for consolidation.

For our Behind the Numbers series, we asked students at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to investigate selected types of special purpose districts in Illinois, analyzing the services provided, financial conditions and efficiency of service provision. Their work offers policy makers guidance on where to direct local government reform efforts going forward.

It doesn’t take much thought to flip on the lights at home. Nowadays there are even apps for that. But turning on the lights for an entire municipality every night can take a little more coordination.

Illinois is home to 20 street lighting districts, small special purpose governments originally established to bring streetlights to unincorporated communities. Funded through specific property tax assessments, these districts have been under attack in recent years by critics of government inefficiency and advocates for consolidation.

For example, a 2011 article in the Chicago Tribune pointed to the Norwood Park Street Lighting District as one example: a three-person board spent $18,600 to maintain 40 street lights in a small corner of unincorporated Cook County, with fully half that amount going to administrative costs.

From the Tribune’s depiction, Norwood Park indeed seems a prime candidate for consolidation—one of the many larger nearby jurisdictions in Cook County could almost surely do better than to spend close to $20,000 a year on 40 streetlights. But are all street lighting districts such anachronistic and wasteful entities?

Not necessarily.

To get a better sense of these districts’ true efficiencies or inefficiences, we obtained basic data on a handful of districts and nearby communities—a surprisingly difficult task involving dozens of hours of phone calls to county offices and district board members. We then compared the cost per streetlight in these districts to the cost in surrounding areas where lights were provided by other government entities.

Some street lighting districts are more efficient than others, and some villages and counties are more efficient than others, but there are no clear universal efficiency gains and cost savings to be had from consolidation. While Century Hill SLD, for example, might be able to benefit from the economies of scale inherent in consolidation, there is little data in support of merging districts like Ursa SLD into larger jurisdictions.

Moreover, even where street lighting districts are inefficient, the absolute costs involved are still quite low: the mean expenditures  per capita in SLDs was $16.32 a year and in no case more than $53.

While the curious nature of a distinct government entity tasked with providing lamps to just a handful of blocks may make street lighting districts an easy target, it seems reformers hoping to achieve significant savings may be better served to focus their attention elsewhere.

More detailed analysis of Illinois street lighting districts is available in the group's full report.

Learn more about this issue with other posts in the Behind the Numbers series.

Dhathri Chunduru is a research assistant at the Metropolitan Planning Council. Before graduate school, she managed Teach For America's teachers in Atlanta, Ga. Besides street light districts, she's strives for social justice by bringing the voices of the unheard to housing and education policy-making.

Sophie Cohen is a MPP candidate at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. This summer she is a Mayor's Office Fellow with the City of Chicago, and prior to graduate school she worked for the economic development firm RW Ventures.

Laura Ravinder is currently a master’s student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. This summer she is interning at Living Cities in Washington D.C., a foundation collaborative that works with cross-sector leaders in cities to develop and scale new approaches geared at dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people. Prior to entering graduate school, Laura worked at nonprofit organizations that focused on economic empowerment and entrepreneurship education in Oakland, Los Angeles and Boston.

David Simpson is a MPP student and member of the Municipal Finance Certificate Program at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is currently working as a Property Tax Graduate Research Fellow for the Cook County Clerk's Office and is interested in careers working to address economic inequality.

Alex Warofka is an MPP candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy with a focus in quantitative analysis and international policy. Prior to attending Harris, he analyzed employment trends in the U.S. manufacturing industry as a research associate at the UCLA California Center for Population Research.

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