One of the unique aspects of a governmental entity going broke is that few notice — or even object — until the ship of state founders.
That’s the way it’s been with government at all levels in Illinois. Times keep getting harder and harder, eliciting little but yawns from the body politic. Meanwhile, those in charge keep the pedal to the metal as the cliff’s edge draws ever closer.
There are, of course, some fussbudgets who insist on preaching to an empty choir about the danger ahead. They are variously denounced by the powers that be as “carnival barkers” and “con men” who should be ignored.
Few better symbolize that unenviable role than the truth-slingers at Chicago’s Civic Federation. Researchers there produce reports on the state’s financial troubles almost as fast as those in charge can ignore them.
They put out another recently about excessive government in Illinois. They’re hoping to spark a conversation about reducing the cost of local governments — mostly through ever-increasing property taxes — by reducing the number of governmental units.
They see reorganization “as a way to reduce duplication and the cost of government.”
It’s about this time during a discussion of consolidation when most readers doze off. This is, after all, dry stuff.
So, in an effort to help the somnolent snap out of it, here’s a quiz: How many units of government — counties, townships, local taxing districts — does Illinois have?
The answer is so many that the different entities who are supposed to keep track — state comptroller, revenue department, census bureau — don’t know. They each have different numbers, the comptroller’s office reporting the largest — 8,529 units.
The Civic Federation counts 8,923 — 2,826 general-purpose units like counties, municipalities and townships, and another 6,097 “special purpose units like schools, fire departments and libraries.”
The federation contends that some of these similar, smaller units could be merged, reducing costs to taxpayers in the process.
For example, Illinois has 102 counties. Only Missouri and Texas have more. Cook is the largest — it has more than 5 million residents. But Illinois is loaded with tiny counties that could easily be merged into a neighbor.
Of Illinois’ 102 counties, 15 have fewer than 10,000 residents and another 36 have populations between 10,000 and 25,000. The two smallest are Hardin, pop. 4,320, and Pope, pop. 4,470.
All county governments rely heavily property taxes. That’s why the federation suggests merging smaller counties could result in property-tax savings.
Then there are townships, many featuring town boards, supervisors, highway superintendents and assessors.
Champaign County has 30 townships, an invisible but costly form of government. They date back 173 years to the Illinois Constitution of 1848 — yes, 1848.
Eighty-five of Illinois’ 102 counties have a township government, meaning 17 counties don’t.
The 17 counties that don’t have township governments raise the question of why township supporters suggest the world will end if townships in their counties were merged and/or eliminated. What many of them really fear is that their jobs — and those of their otherwise-unemployable brothers-in-law — will end.
Seventeen cities in Illinois have boundaries that are identical to their townships, including Champaign, Urbana, Peoria and Bloomington.
Illinois has 1,425 townships, of which 709 have fewer than 1,000 residents.
School districts are another issue — Illinois has 852. Of that number, 26 have fewer than 100 students. Another 96 oversee only a high school, while 369 oversee only primary schools.
The federation reports that Illinois has one of the “lowest ratios of residents to school districts at an estimated 14,449 per district.” Florida has 220,888 residents per school district.
Municipalities look like a tougher nut to crack. There are 1,298 municipalities in Illinois, a third of them with fewer than 2,500 residents.
The federation’s message is that those who have an urge to merge will find a target-rich environment in Illinois. But it won’t be politically easy.
Many of those who would be affected by mergers will offer knee-jerk political opposition, making the whole process difficult — so difficult that it’s much easier for those in charge to go back to sleep, something that would be much easier if organizations like the Civil Federation didn’t insist on occasionally making a racket.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.