In recent years, an increasing number of local and regional commentators have called for the consolidation of small units of government, such as townships, into larger organizations. Proponents of this point of view have argued that the large number of independent units of government in Illinois is both unnecessary and inefficient.
My observations, however, lead me to a different conclusion. In my 13 years as Oak Park Township Assessor, I have seen that small units of government do a good job in providing important services — and they do so in an efficient manner.
In township government, the assessor's office is the best known service provider. This is because the assessor serves the general population, whereas most other township services are directed at the neediest people in our communities: at-risk youth needing help to avoid gangs and drugs; senior citizens needing support in maintaining independence and dignity; unemployed people needing financial assistance; and individuals in need of mental health services.
The vulnerable people needing township services are neither highly visible nor politically powerful. Because of this, state and county governments, struggling with huge pension obligations and other problems, often find it easier to cut social services than other, more popular programs.
Townships are among the few social service agencies that have avoided budget cuts. But if township government were consolidated into a government with a broader mission, social services would compete with other programs for money and attention. The result, I fear, would be diminished services for our most vulnerable citizens.
Financial performance of townships
Critics argue that having numerous small units of government is inefficient. To test this proposition locally, I have compared the financial performance of the smallest units of local government — the two townships — with the nine other local governments serving Oak Park and River Forest. Township performance is as follows:
Lowest tax increases. The two local townships have had the smallest tax increases of any local government in their respective communities over the last 13 years.
Smallest impact on tax bills. Townships are the least expensive of our local governments, representing 2.6% of Oak Park property taxes and 1% of River Forest taxes.
No debt. Not one tax dollar from local townships goes for the payment of interest.
Best pension coverage. Dealing with unfunded pensions may force some local governments to cut services or raise taxes. According to data compiled by the Cook County Treasurer, however, Oak Park and River Forest townships have the lowest percentage of unfunded pension liabilities in their respective communities.
This information is not intended to be a criticism of the performance of other local governments. It does, however, demonstrate that small local governments, focused on a limited mission, can provide services very efficiently.
Small governments can be even more efficient when they collaborate. Part of the reason for the efficiency of Oak Park and River Forest townships is that the two governments work with one another and with other local governments to provide youth and senior services. Through this collaboration, the townships have generated cost savings for taxpayers in Oak Park and River Forest.
Costs of consolidation
Supporters of governmental consolidation often note that Illinois has the largest number of local governments in the nation and assume this is a bad thing. But we have so many governing bodies because of the limited jurisdiction of many of our local governments. For example, Oak Park and River Forest have independent townships, park districts and library boards. To significantly reduce the number of governments in Illinois, we would have to consolidate townships, park districts and libraries with municipal government.
Would we be better off by putting more government power into fewer hands? The performance of Oak Park and River Forest townships raises doubts about whether consolidation would save money. But even if there were a small amount of savings achieved by such consolidation, there would be a cost.
Elected officials serving on park, library and township boards receive little money, fame or power for their efforts. The primary motivation of those seeking such positions is a desire to serve the community. These service-oriented citizens generally do a good job overseeing the limited areas of community life on which they focus. They are easily accessible to citizens, and accountable for their performance through elections.
If small governments were eliminated, there would be fewer citizen decision-makers. The remaining elected officials would necessarily be busier and thus would have less time to focus on social services, parks, and libraries. I believe this would ultimately diminish the quality of these services while leaving little or no tax savings to show for it.
As someone who works closely with taxpayers, I agree with proponents of consolidation that the high cost of government is a serious concern. For this reason, I support efforts to create efficiency through the type of intergovernmental collaboration undertaken by townships and other local governments.
Our local governments should look for additional ways to work together. By doing so, we can achieve greater efficiency for taxpayers while retaining a system of government that protects important programs, promotes good oversight of those programs, and spreads the task of governance widely among the citizenry.
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