Causes and Cures
Democracy gives Illinois too much of a bad thing
November 24, 1978
Another wonk’s lament. What is the appropriate collective noun for airport authorities and fire protection districts and sanitary districts? Ah, I’ve got it—"confusion.” Illinois is plagued by a confusion of local governments. Special districts to do this or that, more than one hundred counties that are themselves usually divided into townships, each with its own trustee—it’s illogical, inefficient, and incoherent.They remain popular however with the people who run them; if you’re township trustee, your two-man road crew thinks you’re God.
When I wrote this they were talking about consolidating some of these mini-governments. They are talking about still, forty years later. It’s like watching your grandpa trying to rid his house of cockroaches with a flyswatter, one at a time.
Government is a subject that is only rarely discussed in political campaigns these days, so I and my fellow citizens of the 50th legislative district were doubly surprised to hear it not merely discussed but discussed intelligently by Springfield's incumbent Democratic representative Doug Kane. Like everyone else this fall. Kane talked a lot about high property taxes, but he departed from the script by suggesting both a cause and a cure for the ailment. There are too many special or single-purpose districts, boards, and authorities in Illinois, he said. Many of them are run by appointed rather than elected officials, who, though insulated from the political pressures by which voters control the spending enthusiasms of their elected counterparts, nevertheless levy taxes on local property for their support.
The total tax rates paid by property owners and renters (the forgotten persons of the property tax debate) are thus not the product of any single legislative body but are merely the accidental accumulation of many separate rates levied for schools, parks, sewers, and the like. It is Kane's view that it is this combination of too many tax units and too little voter control that is contributing to the rise in local property taxes. In order to control local taxation Kane proposed legislation making it possible to merge some special purpose districts with larger general purpose units.
Such consolidations would probably achieve some efficiencies in operation—Kane likes to cite the example of the township road supervisor with a $70,000 road grader that sits in the garage nine months of the year—although the point is debatable. In any event the real point of the reform is political, not administrative. By consolidating functions and the taxing authority that supports them, one consolidates responsibility. In the process one also clarifies the now-confused relationship between government and governed—a happy result, since for government to work it must first be, if not intelligent (that may be too much to hope for), at least intelligible.
Kane's proposals are not especially new, though they aren't often heard in political conversation. A year ago Clarence Danhof, professor of political economy at Springfield's Sangamon State University, authored a position paper published by SSU's Center for the Study of Middle-Size Cities called, "Modernizing Springfield's Governments." In it, Danhof points out that the typical Springfield resident pays taxes to and is serviced by fifteen units of government. Of these, ten are run by people elected by the voters directly and five by appointees. According to Danhof, these governments spent roughly $143 million in fiscal year 1975–76, of which some $61 million was supplied "in one way or another" by Springfield taxpayers.
That $61 million ($630 per capita) may be seen as the total local cost in taxes of local government yet, as Danhof notes, "no organization of local government has responsibility for the total," since each of the fifteen units cooks only its own slice of the revenue pie as it were. Danhof thus asks a question: "Does the mix of local services supplied by local government expenditures represent . . . the mix of services desired by the public?" No one knows for sure; since there is no single mechanism by which voters may dictate the nature and amount of local spending, the system has evolved haphazardly, slapped together by three generations of legislatures, courts and referenda. But Danhof is willing to venture a guess. "Any relationship between the mix of services now offered and the contemporary priorities of the public," he writes, "is more coincidental than logical or coherent."
Danhof suggests a remedy which deserves more discussion than I can give it here, but like Kane's, its net effect would be the consolidations of at least the functions and in some cases the form of many existing local government units. Consolidations of one sort or another are not universally admired as a solution to the problems of local government financing, however.
I've had it suggested to me, for example, that small single-purpose districts enhance, not diminish voters' control over the allocation of local government resources, since the lines of responsibility for the provision of a given service (say, sewers) are free of the bureaucratic thicket that obscures the voters' view in larger, multipurpose governments. Elected officials of each airport authority and mosquito abatement authority may be recalled at the polls, after all, and even appointees may be pressured through their sponsors, who usually are other elected officials.
Of course, the work of focusing voter attention on an issue, devising an appropriate remedy, organizing information, money, and people to put it into force is all horribly hard. In single cases it works, to be sure. But a dozen governments would require a dozen such efforts to accomplish more than piecemeal change. Danhof notes (I think correctly) that voters will rarely even attempt such efforts except in times of crisis such as bankruptcy or scandal. As he phrases it, "Even if some voters were willing to devote much of their time and energies to evaluating the operations of their local governments, the system is inherently unresponsive."
Kane's target in his campaign talks were often appointed officials who run local units, and Danhof agrees that "the large number of appointed officials spending tax dollars seems to violate the principal [sic] of direct responsibility to the electorate." But as Danhof points out, there is a point at which the fragmentation of local government places impossible burdens on the attention and commitment of the voters, so that even the power of the vote in controlling the course of local government is exercised fitfully if at all. Some kind of reordering is needed to solve more problems than just high property taxes. ●