The advantages of small governments

Opinion: Columns

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By Ali Elsaffar

Oak Park Township Assessor

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.

Conclusion

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. 

Reader Comments

16 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: March 27th, 2014 4:12 PM

It's not that --If the consolidation happens the township would lose its independent levy ability and thus be subject to the budget decisions of the village government-- The township would cease to exist, the board dissolved and it's functions taken over by the village. But since any such action won't take effect for at least a year, it's not going to be reflected in the next FY village budget. IF it actually comes to pass. THAT's up to the voters.

dreamer from Oak Park  

Posted: March 27th, 2014 3:51 PM

Taxman from RF-I,too,was under the illusion that state law required levied funds to be used solely by the designated body.Until the village ok'd $263k,District 200 $331k and the parks $6,000 for early childhood education.I vote for,and expect district 200 members,to confine their spending to high school programs.If district 97 wants funding for early education,let them go to the voters.I question the legality of a taxing district spending their money in this manner.

muntz  

Posted: March 21st, 2014 9:47 AM

@Taxman-Good point. It probably wouldn't benefit RF to merge as RF residents might contribute more and get less in return. (although I could say the same about Harvey consuming more county resources than OP and not contributing their fair share). Most townships consist of 10 or so cities, but OP, RF, Berywn, and Cicero are all one town townships. Perhaps a relic of when the outer suburbs weren't as populous?

Taxman from River Forest  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 10:24 PM

@muntz...we are totally two different communities thats why. We fund 25% and have only 18% of the students. The RF township is very small and serves very different residents. The whole point to merge, which is getting lost because Ali uses hocus pocus information, is to get efficient with the same residents. The village serves seniors, youth and mental health.....just no one in the township wants to admit it!

muntz  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 2:53 PM

All 50 states offer the services mentioned here, yet only 20 have townships and each has managed to survive. Ali raises some good points and, maybe, the services under the township are delivered more effectively and cheaply than under village govt. But can anyone answer why OP and RF townships can't merge, at the very least? We share the same high school. Couldn't there be some gain there? It's that same thinking that keeps Chicago at 50 wards through declining population.

Mimi Jordan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 1:36 PM

Matt and Bridgett, thanks for clarifying. Yes, that was my - and more importantly, Ali's - main point in this article.

Matt from Oak Park  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 10:56 AM

Taxman, RF Library is like OP's the village does a pass through of the levy. The levy is set by the library but the village reports it to the county. The village does not actually decide the levy. If the consolidation happens the township would lose its independent levy ability and thus be subject to the budget decisions of the village government.

Taxman from River Forest  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 7:46 AM

Impossible! I just attended the budget talks for RF Village and they levy for the library and it is NOT even consider in the Village's budget. Again, scare tactics that what YOU to believe what they are saying. You get cuts only by not levying the appropriate amount of money. That can happen and should happen if you don't need the money or the money you are levying is spent wisely. That is what you want your government to do!

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 11:16 PM

@Taxman, I think Mimi's point is not that the collection of the taxes would be misappropriated. She uses the term "budget cuts." That means that the budget, which is created and approved *before* the levy is even set, could have less money in it for such services she mentions.

Taxman from River Forest  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 10:56 PM

@Mimi. You need to understand the basic tax code. If you levy for a specific purpose you must spend that money on that purpose. You cannot just steal from Peter to give to Paul. Gov't accounting rules do not allow that! Ali and the township would like you to believe that since that is the only way they keep their jobs. When you align services you will improve services. When you improve services, you get efficient and it cost less. Period!

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 10:10 PM

@Mr. Middle, to answer your question, No. Intergovernmental cooperation is not the same as consolidation. Consolidating Village hall, the library, the township, the park district, and two school districts, would not equate to better government. Oak Park has an iGov committee made up of two members of each taxing body's elected board, collaborating with each other to save money, be more efficient, and provide better services. This is an example of intergovernmental cooperation.

Mimi Jordan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 8:10 PM

Let's not miss what seems to be his most important point - townships do important work, but many of us don't see it, because they serve our more vulnerable neighbors. If consolidated with the village, these programs are more vulnerable to budget cuts. I also think he makes a good point that smaller government units allow more citizens to participate as leaders, focusing on areas they care about or know something about.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 8:22 AM

Self-serving is best way to describe this. Illogical is another. Last paragraph calls for more inter-government cooperation to save money. Isn't that the same as reducing G bodies so there is unified effort? In the 80s businesses all over the world figured out that the more titles you give out to managers the less efficient you are. G misses that point. A unified G with less Cheifs will be better for all.

Consolidation supporter  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 1:04 AM

I think you have missed the boat on this one. Consolidation saves money and based on op's history, citizen input would be protected. I am all for consolidating the park district. They waste so much of our money without citizen input and they keep on bonding for more. We need consolidation to reduce govt spending and maintain our quality of life.

Follow Evanston from River Forest  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 12:22 AM

With 44 of 54 precinct in, 63% of the voters said YES to abolish Township government today. When will these elected officials get it....enough is enough with our taxes. ABOLISH RF TOWNSHIP NOW! The township leaders could be heroes by saying yes to the merger!

Joan from River Forest  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 12:01 AM

How self serving are you! RF township elected officials get paid...why don't they work for free if small government...less than 1% of our tax $.....is so important. This is exactly why we have bloated government...everyone is trying to justify their position and putting fear in everyone's mind while the taxpayer pays. Shame on you Eli! Thought you were smarter than that...guess not...time for a change.

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