Jim Dey: Fewer public offices: It is doable

http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2017-06-15/jim-dey-fewer-public-offices-it-doable.html

Many candidates running for public office promise to expand services, raising the size and cost of government at all levels in the process.

Jack Franks takes a different approach. A former state legislator, Franks has pledged to reduce the size and cost of local government by eliminating public offices through consolidation.

“I’m looking to get rid of the county recorder’s office. Same with the coroner, too. Maybe share one with Lake County,” said Franks, a Democrat elected chairman of the McHenry County Board in November.

Just a couple days after Franks made that comment, a board committee voted unanimously to ask voters in the March 2018 primary if they support merging the recorder’s office with the county clerk.

Working with Franks on the proposal is the current recorder, Republican Joe Tirio, who also was elected in November 2016 on a pledge of doing away with the office.

If approved by voters, the two offices will merge on Dec. 1, 2020.

What’s up with Franks’ campaign to downsize government in McHenry County, which has a population of 700,000 and is located along the Wisconsin border?

“We’ve lost population six of the last seven years. Our property taxes are too high,” Franks said. “That’s why I ran.”

The veteran politician has other irons in the fire. For instance, he’s trying to arrange a merger of the Lake of the Hills municipal government with the Lake of the Hills Sanitary District.

“I think we should be able to save the taxpayers about $400,000 a year,” said Franks, who indicated he’s still studying the issue to “make sure the numbers are real.”

Mergers like this are never easy to pull off because the units of government adversely affected by the change fight bitterly for self-preservation. As a consequence, Franks said, “the sanitary district hates” his merger proposal while the municipal government has warmed to the idea.

Franks’ effort is driven by a question he frequently asks, “How many units of government do we really need?”

The answer depends on whom you ask — taxpayers who foot the bill or the Republicans and Democrats who profit from maintaining the political status quo that provides them a base of power and, frequently, paychecks.

The battle Franks is waging in McHenry County is one that has the potential to spread across the state, thanks to two bills legislators recently sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner for signature.

They provide for consolidation of the state’s sprawling township government network. Many taxpayers are unaware of township government, a largely invisible throwback to the late 1800s when they were necessary units to serve rural population that faced transportation problems. There are 30 township governments alone in Champaign County, just one of the state’s 102 counties. McHenry County has another 17.

Indeed, local units of government exist in overwhelming numbers in Illinois. They range from townships and mosquito abatement districts to library and park districts and water reclamation agencies. Illinois has more than 7,000 local units of the government, the most of any state and all supported by ever-increasing property taxes.

“We have a lot of layers of government. But it wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so expensive. Where I live, the excess is palpable. And unless you’ve managed to find a bastion of austerity deep in the woods somewhere, you probably see it all around you, too,” the Illinois Policy Institute’s Diana Rickert, a resident of suburban Cook County, wrote in a recent commentary published in the Chicago Tribune.

The legislation on Rauner’s desk provides local citizens and public officials the power to make changes. But that will require the strong desire to do so in the face of significant push-back for the status quo.

Take, for instance, the McHenry County Board’s expected decision to ask voters if they would like to merge their offices of county recorder and clerk, as is the practice throughout the state.

The Champaign County Board recently rejected a similar measure. Some Republicans and Democrats favored the move, but a majority opposed merger because both sides were hoping that a fellow party member would win the office in the November election. Ultimately, veteran Republican Mark Shelden narrowly defeated Democrat Matt Duco, a lawyer and local party activist.

That’s just one instance of elected officials putting political party interests ahead of the taxpayers they purport to serve.

One measure before Rauner, HB 607, allows trustees of local townships to initiate referendums to consolidate township road districts. There are current 1,391 township road and bridge districts, not to be confused with the 1,430 townships in the state.

The legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House (75-34) and Senate (43-7).

Local state Reps. Carol Ammons, a Democrat, and Chad Hays, a Republican, voted “no.” Local GOP Sens. Jason Barickman and Chapin Rose voted “no,” and Dale Righter voted “yes.”

Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who headed a commission appointed by Gov. Rauner on consolidation, praised the bill as “the start of a larger effort to give both citizens and local boards the power to consolidate government.”

The other bill, SB 3, lifts the restriction limiting townships to 126 square miles and, by referendum, provides for the merger of townships sharing boundary lines and allows the dissolution of townships. It, too, was passed on a bipartisan vote in the House (75-34) and the Senate (49-3), opposed by Ammons and Hays in the House and supported by Barickman and Rose in the Senate.

The Legislature has inched forward slowly on the township consolidation issue. It passed a bill several years ago allowing only DuPage County to take action on the issue. It subsequently passed legislation extending that power to McHenry and Lake counties.

Franks said legislators in other parts of the state were reluctant to allow their local officials, both Democrats and Republicans, authority to consolidate to save taxpayers money. He used particularly caustic language to describe how politicians’ interests conflict with the public interest.

“Both parties suck. Neither party stands for much. They’re about controlling power. It’s not about what’s best for the public,” he said.

That kind of opposition makes change challenging, but not so difficult motivated citizens can’t get it done.

“It’s not impossible. It’s a matter of political will,” Franks said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.