Behind the Numbers: Everything you need to know about Illinois' special purpose districts - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Behind the Numbers: Everything you need to know about Illinois' special purpose districts

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This post was authored by MPC Research Assistant Quentin Shipley-Mellon.

For our Behind the Numbers series, we're asking a variety of people—from University of Chicago Harris School students to our partners on the Transform Illinois coalition—to dive into the important question of why Illinois' 7,000 units of government should be more efficient. These posts offer policy makers guidance on where to direct local government reform efforts going forward.

Another win was struck last month in the fight for more effective government in Illinois. Using the powers granted by Public Act 98-1002, the Century Hill Street Lighting District in Naperville, Ill., voted to dissolve and consolidate with DuPage County.

The single-purpose government served 800 residents by maintaining 77 street lights and poles in one subdivision.

This may seem like a small feat, but it marks the first time a government entity has used the powers granted by the public act to dissolve itself.

No public referendum necessary. No navigating the challenges of the Springfield legislature. Just a local unit of government choosing to govern themselves in the way they think is best.

How did this little government come about?

When the community of Century Hill was being built in the 1970’s, street lights were installed with the assumption that one day it would be annexed by Naperville, who could provide lighting services. When annexation didn’t occur, and the developer ran out of money, the lights went out.

To keep the lights on, a new unit of government had to be created.

Residents came together and created the Century Hill Street Lighting District, a new special district government. In this case, the new entity existed to serve a single purpose: lighting the streets for 312 parcels of land.

For 40 years, those living in the Century Hill neighborhood have paid a tax to the lighting district to deliver this simple service. At the end of its life, the lighting district operated on a $17,000 budget—$238 per light. This was among the highest cost per light in Illinois, home to 19 other lighting districts.

So why did this special district get eliminated? Simply, it’s because its residents wanted it. A survey was sent out to the community, and 98 percent said that they were in favor of getting rid of it.

Providing street lighting services through existing County contracts helps control annual service costs and provides opportunities for infrastructure investments that were not previously possible.

None of this would have been possible without the powers granted in Public Act 98-1002. The 2014 law, sponsored by Representative Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) and Senator Daniel Biss (D-Skokie), gives smaller units of government, including street lighting districts, the power to consolidate with a neighboring county or municipality by vote of its board. Before this law, many avenues existed for creating a new unit of government, but the options for dissolving were more restricted, leading to the proliferation of governments we know today.

Before this law was enacted, 13 out of the 30 types of special districts in Illinois had avenues to be dissolved. Now, 12 more types of special districts can be eliminated through the new law.

These new entities include:

  • Cemetery Maintenance Districts
  • Civic Centers
  • Public Health Districts
  • Tuberculosis Sanitarium Districts
  • Museum Districts
  • Port Districts
  • Solid Waste Disposal Districts
  • Street Light Districts
  • Surface Water Protection Districts
  • Public Water Service Districts
  • Water Authority Districts
  • Water Commission Districts

But why should some of these entities be considered for consolidation or elimination? To answer that, I'll let John Oliver explain.

Of course, not all special districts need to be consolidated. Many, like park districts or the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, provide important services to many residents in great ways. Without these special districts, services would be drastically reduced or nonexistent.

This story of creating a special unit of government to perform one purpose is common throughout the history of government in Illinois. But how did we get here? Why does Illinois have so many units of government?

In some cases, like in Century Hill, they were created out of necessity because residents lived in unincorporated areas. In most cases, however, it has to do with municipal limitations.

The 1870 Illinois State Constitution limited the financial capacity of local governments. Spending and borrowing caps meant that governments could only do so much. As population grew, so did the requirement for government services. However, local governments were handcuffed. Under the law of the land, they had no way to provide what their residents wanted.

Special districts were created as a workaround, having the ability to tax and issue bonds on their own. This allowed for new services to be provided when a local government maxed out its spending limit. As municipalities hit the limit, new units stepped in. Services like park districts and fire protection had to be managed by a separate government.

The 1970 Illinois State Constitution, our current version, granted Home Rule to municipalities. Home Rule allows for local government to create taxes and spend the revenue on themselves. In turn, this strengthened the muscle of local governments to provide for their residents. This has allowed for the creation of new units to slow down. However, very little has been done about consolidation or elimination.

Illinois has more units of government than any other state in the nation. Even scarier is that we don’t even really know how many there are. We have a good idea, but not a complete one. Different agencies count in different ways. They rely on reporting from governments, but not all units accurately report—leading to uncertainty.

While some situations allow for citizen action to start the process, others have no provisions at all. Thanks to the Franks/Biss bill, this has been remedied a bit. Details on each type of district can be found in this report by the State.

Power should be given to local governments and their residents to work toward more effective government. Through Transform Illinois, organizations in the region are pushing for just that. Transform exists as a coalition to research, aid and support legislation in the name of creating a more effective government.

Spearheaded by DuPage County and Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), the coalition was able to push the Franks/Biss bill through the legislature, turning it into law. Additionally, the coalition is endorsing a slate of legislation to continue the fight. One such bill is HB 6272, which would add sanitary districts and mosquito abatement districts to the types of districts falling under Public Act 98-1002. Instead of 25 out of 30 types of special districts, 27 out of 30 would have an established process for being eliminated, another step toward cleaning up our messy government.

As with most of our governments, special purpose districts provide important services for citizens. But is our reliance on these tiny entities really an efficient way to govern? Local governments in Illinois should take an honest look at where there are possibilities for consolidation or dissolution, and then use tools like Public Act 98-1002 to create a smarter, streamlined system of government.


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