It would be difficult to find anyone willing to argue Illinois needs more taxing bodies.
With nearly 7,000 governmental entities in all shapes and sizes collecting pieces of Illinoisans’ yearly property tax payments, things can get convoluted. Some say they can also become cumbersome, redundant and unduly expensive.
A state law passed last year grants DuPage County a unique ability to do something about it. The provisions of Senate Bill 494 give county officials authority to dissolve and consolidate entities that rely on funding from the public dollar.
“The effect of the law is it has changed the conversation,” said DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, reporting that legislators from other parts of the state have contacted him to see how the consolidation strategy works. “People now believe that you can accomplish something.”
The chairman pushed for the legislation, and regards it as one of the most significant accomplishments of his first three years on the job. Tailored for implementation specifically in DuPage, the law allows the county to be a test case for others in Illinois, Cronin said.
He is particularly pleased by the vigorous support for the measure that came from both sides of the aisle. Twelve Democrats and seven Republican members of the General Assembly, all of whom represent parts of DuPage, signed on as sponsors or cosponsors.
“One of my goals when I got into office was to find ways to eliminate wasteful government and save taxpayers dollars. And DuPage County has more layers of government than any other county in Illinois,” said state Rep. Deborah Conroy (D-Villa Park), one of the bill’s chief sponsors, although she noted the consolidation idea may not play as well downstate. “They don’t have as many layers of government, so the (taxing bodies) are more important to them.”
Birth of a bill
The legislative proposal came to the state Senate via state Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), who says it sprang from a conversation he had with Dan Cronin when Cullerton was mayor of Villa Park.
A state lawmaker at the time, Cronin wanted to talk about consolidating the village’s sanitary district with its water department.
“It turned out the only way you could consolidate taxing bodies was through state law,” Cullerton said.
That’s where the process began. Cronin said two other procedural endeavors preceded last summer’s bill signing.
First, there needed to be a way for officials to receive financial information about the agencies under their purview. Until state law was changed with urging from DuPage officials, that data wasn’t always readily available. And then an audit was arranged to see what could be done to streamline the county’s 52 appointed boards and commissions, two dozen of which do their work using tax-derived funds.
Cronin noted that those taxing authorities employ 900 people and have control over some $300 million annually.
“It’s a significant chunk of government. It’s a significant chunk of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
The bill granting DuPage the ability to fold taxing bodies together included an amendment reflecting the suggestion from Crowe Horwath LLC, which performed the $85,000 audit, that the county take a look at “paper districts,” which levy taxes but function without physical equipment or other assets of their own. Among them are the nine fire protection districts that cover unincorporated areas of DuPage.
Cronin, who has said fire districts are “really ripe” for consolidation, is urging some of those bodies — including the Naperville Fire Protection District — to take a serious look at joining regional fire protection alliances.
“I would invite them to participate and at least look at some of the efficiencies that can be gained,” he said.
Another of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), noted that the idea has its limits.
“When we’re looking to make the most of our dollars, it certainly makes sense to eliminate duplication of services, (but) I don’t believe in consolidating government to a point where we’re leaving people in our communities without services,” Holmes said.
Naperville Fire Department Chief Mark Puknaitis also acknowledges the overall logic of consolidation but sees the Naperville Fire Protection District as an exception.
One of the “paper districts” targeted by the state law, the agency covers the homes and businesses that lie outside Naperville’s corporate limits. The two — the Fire Protection District and the Naperville Fire Department — Puknaitis said, cover 20 percent of the fire services provided in the entire county.
“I think we’re just a little bit unique here in Naperville, because we cover such a large, spread-out area,” he said, stressing that any possibility of diminished services turns the conversation into a non-starter. “It’s kind of hard to say that we could consolidate with somebody else. Who would that be that would come in and cover this area without compromising services?”
Puknaitis sees the current arrangement as the best way to keep residents and businesses safe.
“We have a big stake in this type of concept,” he said. “Personally, from my own perspective, I am in favor of anything that promotes more efficient service to the taxpayer.”
He is particularly concerned that a loss of the district’s services would hinder local responders’ ability to arrive quickly when they’re needed. If emergency personnel can’t get there before a victim draws his last breath, he said, nothing else matters.
“We take a lot of pride in our response time, because that is our product,” he said.
Apples & oranges
Puknaitis also doubts that the service could be provided locally at lower cost. Fire protection represents about $150 of the average yearly property tax bill in the district, he said, pointing out that many cable television users pay more than $150 for that service every month. Unlike many others, Puknaitis also noted, Naperville’s Fire Protection District functions under the oversight of a three-member board of trustees who receive no pay.
“That’s what it boils down to for the taxpayer: How can we lower the cost?” said Puknaitis, adding that if it could be done prudently for Naperville taxpayers, “we would all be for it.”
Elsewhere in DuPage, he said, there are contiguous fire districts where dissolution or consolidation could bring improvement. Warrenville and Winfield, for example, have situations different from Naperville’s.
“I can’t compare my apples to their oranges,” Puknaitis said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
He emphasized that while the local fit isn’t ideal, the concept has solid merit.
“These things are going to continue to develop. It’s the economy — it’s a changing world — and we have to look at ways to save money for the taxpayers,” he said. “Sometimes it works, other times it may not, but we always have to continue to look at those things.”
NEXT: Future may see more government cooperation than consolidationTags: DuPage County, Taxes