PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday May 10th, 2016, 2:42pm

State Lawmakers, Advocates Tout Bill For Local Government Consolidation

Supporters of proposed state legislation involving local government consolidation are speaking out about the bill as it awaits consideration in the Illinois Senate. 

County boards in Illinois would be allowed to consolidate or dissolve appointed governmental bodies under a measure pending in the state legislature. 

At issue is HB 4501, which passed through the House last month by a 93-19 vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Proponents of the measure, sponsored by state Rep. Sam Yingling (D-Grayslake) and state Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) in their respective chambers, say it is designed to streamline services and save taxpayers money.

Illinois currently has nearly 7,000 local units of government.

"Illinois has more units of local government than any other state in the country, and that is represented in crushing property tax bills that our residents are facing," Yingling said Tuesday morning during a news conference at the State Capitol. 

Via its participation in a pilot program, DuPage County's board has authority to consolidate or eliminate up to 13 appointed agencies under state legislation approved in 2013, a model expected to save the county $100 million. Cullerton helped spearhead that 2013 legislation for DuPage County, which lawmakers are seeking to expand to all Illinois counties through HB 4501. The proposal has nine listed cosponsors in the Senate.

Before the DuPage County government consolidation measure was approved, Cullerton said "there was no function to do this." 

"We have now decided to move forward with pushing the initiative to every county and allow every county in the state of Illinois to do exactly what we ... have started doing in DuPage County," he added. "Presently, we have got about four or five units of local government already brought together."

The Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank, are among the groups backing the proposal, which piggybacks off recommendations from the Rauner administration's task force on Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates. 

"A distinct benefit of this model is that the leaders in each of Illinois' 102 counties would have the opportunity to analyze and review where consolidation makes sense for them, specifically within their counties," said Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole, who served on the administration's Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force. "If enacted into law, this bill would apply statewide, but it would allow for local decision making based on the realities that the needs and existing services in each county are different, and the local officials know best. House Bill 4501 will move Illinois toward smarter and more cooperative consolidations and better efficiencies in a way that makes more sense than just a blanket elimination of certain local units of government."

Heather Weiner, the Illinois Policy Institute's government affairs staff attorney, said many local government units in the state are "inefficient or duplicative and all of them are notoriously difficult to get rid of."

The proposal being pushed by Cullerton and Yingling "should be a non-controversial step toward making government more efficient, controlling these property taxes and stopping the exodus of Illinoisans who can no longer afford to live here," she said. 

Under the measure, which does not apply to township entities, voters could reject county board proposals to consolidate or eliminate governmental units through a "backdoor" referendum. 

"There is still an opportunity for residents to come forward and keep their unit of government, if they want to keep their unit of government," Cullerton said. 

Yingling said the legislation, if enacted, would mark the "first step" toward starting the government "consolidation process in the state."

"The next step, in my opinion, would be to focus on township consolidation," Yingling said. "That is an area where we can save enormous amounts of money across the state, and that's something I'm also advocating for."

The Illinois Farm Bureau opposes HB 4501 due to its lack of a "front door" voter referendum requirement for determining whether units of government should be consolidated or dissolved.

"Our problem with it is that is dissolves these different units of government based on an ordinance by the county board, rather than going through a front door referendum on the thing," Kevin Rund, the Illinois Farm Bureau's senior director of local government, said in an interview. "It does provide a provision for [a] backdoor referendum. But our policy is very clear when it comes to either establishing or dissolving a unit of local government, and we want it to be upfront with the voters out there. Give the voters the chance to make that decision themselves, rather than going through a governing board."

He added: "In this case, we're not judging whether these units need to be dissolved or not. We're simply looking at the process that's being used for that dissolution."

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