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July 31, 2014
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Local Government Consolidation Efforts in Northeastern Illinois

On March 18, 2014, local citizens approved a referendum to dissolve Evanston Township the following month, at which point the City of Evanston assumed all functions previously performed by the Township.  GO TO 2040 recommends that metropolitan Chicago pursue coordinated investments and analyze the effects of consolidating local governments.  A previous Policy Update explored legislation passed earlier this year by the Illinois General Assembly that empowered a limited number of special districts with the legal means to be dissolved into counties, municipalities, or other special districts.  This Policy Update examines recent local government consolidation efforts in Evanston and River Forest Townships, as well as DuPage County.

Township and Municipal Consolidation

In the past, existing Illinois Township Code mandated that a township government could only be dissolved if all other townships within that county were also eliminated.  Evanston Township's dissolution process began in March 2012, when citizens passed a non-binding referendum to gauge public opinion on the issue.  This prompted state lawmakers to amend the statute the following year in a manner that allowed only Evanston Township's dissolution through public referendum. 

Evanston Township was unique among townships because all its territory fell within the City of Evanston's incorporated boundaries, and thus the township was not required to maintain any roads in unincorporated areas. The township did perform administrative functions, including local management of Illinois general assistance programs and property taxpayer assistance. Upon the township's dissolution, the City of Evanston's Health Department assumed the former government's general assistance and emergency programs, and the City Administrative Services Department took over assessment and administrative duties.  Some cost savings resulted from the elimination of a Township Personnel/Finance Clerk administrative position.
 
The Evanston Township legislation has prompted other communities to explore merging townships with municipalities.  For example, River Forest Township is now one of only 19 townships in Illinois that doesn't contain any unincorporated territory, and it has discussed a possible merger of services with the Village of River Forest. This could include sharing services for the River Forest Civic Center Authority and housing several township offices in the Village Hall.  Similar to the efforts in Evanston, House Bill 4425 was proposed in the Illinois General Assembly earlier this year to allow for the dissolution of the River Forest Township through referendum.  The bill is currently awaiting consideration in the House Rules Committee.

DuPage County Efforts to Dissolve Special Districts

Seeking to reduce the size, scope, and costs of local governments, DuPage County contracted with a private consulting firm in 2012 to perform an audit of the DuPage County Election Commission as well as the 24 agencies whose boards were appointed by the County Board. These agencies account for $300 million in expenditures and employ 900 people.  The audit sought "to obtain a better understanding of the agencies' functions, fiscal sustainability, transparency, accountability, internal controls, audit, and opportunities to improve efficiency, streamline structure, and reduce costs."  Based on the report, the DuPage County Board identified several "paper districts," which are local governments that levy taxes but usually function by contracting their services from a separate district.
 
These findings were used as the foundation for DuPage County's Accountability, Consolidation, and Transparency (ACT) Initiative in 2012, which brought various agencies into compliance with DuPage County policies related to ethics, procurement, and personnel. Various personnel reforms and the sharing of services, such as the integration of the DuPage County Election Commission and County IT and administrative services, have resulted in cost savings. The National Association of Counties recognized the ACT Initiative's success with an Achievement Award in 2014.  
 
As part of the ACT Initiative, the DuPage County Board has sought to dissolve several districts identified in the audit.  After a two-year legal battle in an effort to dissolve the Timberlake Estates Sanitation District (the sanitation district had relinquished its services to a nearby district in 1985 after only two years in existence), the County sought legislation to streamline the process for dissolution.  Public Act 098-0126 provides only the DuPage County Board with the authority to dissolve units of local government and consolidate government functions.  This act was intended as a pilot program for future local government consolidation across Illinois.
 
Following the act's passage in August 2013, the DuPage County Board initiated the legal process of dissolving the Fairview Fire Protection District.  The fire protection district had contracted with the Village of Downers Grove for all of its services and had maintained no paid staff or physical assets.  The district, with more than $100,000 in obligations, levied only $19,721 in property taxes in 2012 due to limitations under state law.  On March 13, 2014, the Fairview Fire Protection District was officially dissolved by the County Board, and its services were formally taken over by the Village of Downers Grove via the establishment of a special service area.
 
Looking ahead, the DuPage County Board has identified several sanitary districts as possible targets for future dissolution or consolidation.  In particular, it is exploring the Highland Hills and Salt Creek Sanitary Districts because of immediate concerns over their fiscal sustainability and aging infrastructure.
 
Efforts such as HB 5786, which would extend the same powers given to DuPage County to every county in Illinois, would allow counties across the state to dissolve local governments whose boards they primarily appoint. 

Moving Forward

CMAP's Local Technical Assistance program has partnered with Oswego, Montgomery, and Yorkville in an effort to explore the possibility of shared services between the entities.  CMAP will continue to monitor and explore these local government consolidation efforts.


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