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Too many governments? Downstate has the biggest share

1 year, 1 month ago Bob Secter, Tribune reporter

Sparsely populated, Republican-leaning counties rail at big government while supporting lots of little ones

From Bob Secter, Tribune reporter:

Few places in Illinois vote more reliably Republican than Iroquois County, home to 1,120 square miles of mostly corn and soybean fields, 28,982 residents and, according to state records, 218 distinct units of government — one for every 133 residents.

In Democratic Cook County, population over 5.2 million and often held up as the poster child for government inefficiency, there are 539 governments in operation, one for every 9,723 people, records show.

The Land of Lincoln is also, indisputably, the land of sprawling local governments — a nation-leading 6,968 of them, according to oft-quoted U.S. Census Bureau data that appear to significantly lowball the number. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, the official scorekeeper of such things for Illinois, puts the current tally of local governments at 8,459.

That bloat has become a subject of frequent political scorn, in particular of late from Republican governor hopeful Bruce Rauner, who often tells voters that the sheer volume of Illinois governments defies common sense and drives up tax bills and spending. In proposing new curbs on property tax hikes the other day, Rauner said he would help school districts and other local governments devise ways to save money by naming a task force to explore consolidation of government agencies.

"One thing we need to look at as an example, we have 7,000 units of government in Illinois. We have double your average state," he said. "We need to make long-term structural changes. … That is the key to prosperity."

A couple of problems could complicate that pledge by Rauner, who hopes to unseat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in November:

The state legislature in 2011 created a 17-person consolidation commission, among whose members is Jim Oberweis, the state senator from Sugar Grove who is also the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in November. So Rauner's task force might be deemed redundant.

What's more, records show the government proliferation problem to be particularly acute in lightly populated, conservative-leaning downstate counties — places Rauner is counting on for election support and where the prevailing sentiment about government is that there's way too much of it.

Indeed, state Rep. Jack Franks, chairman of that already existing commission, says the most legislative resistance to proposals aimed at merging or streamlining existing local governments has come from downstate Republicans. "It was like prying away their firstborn," said Franks, a Democrat from Marengo in McHenry County, where the ratio is 1 government for every 2,583 residents.

Topinka's office is the repository for annual financial reports filed by all tax-spending local public bodies in Illinois, whether the outlay is in the billions of dollars a year or just a few thousand.

As of April, the data showed Illinois sprinkled with 1,451 agencies dedicated to road and bridge maintenance, many of which overlap with the 1,431 townships in the state. The total of counties, cities, villages and towns is 1,399, while there are also 865 school districts, 847 farm drainage districts, 824 fire protection districts, 337 park districts, 333 library districts and 311 multitownship tax assessment districts.

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