Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.

Infrastructure Week in Illinois intended to sell needed repairs and funds

This week is one intended to help promote needed funding for infrastructure in Illinois:

With a new Illinois capital program delayed as the state goes 11 months without a budget, transit leaders have been sounding the alarm in both Washington, D.C., and Springfield about the dangers of waiting too long to invest in infrastructure. Business, labor and transit leaders will ramp up discussion nationwide Monday for the start of the thrillingly named Infrastructure Week.

It’s a tough sell — roads, buses and trains seem to work just fine until they don’t, and politicians don’t like to raise gas taxes or other user fees. Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Leanne Redden admits that funding for bridges, signals and tunnels is not a sexy topic, but it’s crucial to keep the system going the way it should…

The Metropolitan Planning Council, which consulted with RTA officials and other experts around Illinois, determined that meeting the state’s transportation deficit requires an additional $43 billion over 10 years — on top of what is already expected in terms of capital funding…

He noted that no system is going to be in perfect shape all the time — it’s like your house, you want to keep it in a state of at least 90 percent repair, with a few projects on a to-do list. But Illinois’ state of repair is currently below 80 percent and could drop below 60 percent in the next five years, Skosey said.

It is unclear from this article whether this week is aimed at the public – who often doesn’t pay much attention to infrastructure and generally doesn’t like paying increased taxes for public services – or state officials and legislators – who aren’t doing much of anything in Illinois these days. I assume the general goal is to raise awareness but what would they like the public to do? Call a political leader? Vote different in the 2016 election?

Thinking about the role of governments, the public tends to assume or hope that governments will do the prudent thing for the future. In terms of infrastructure, this usually means keeping up with maintenance and taking care of needed changes before the situation gets dire. But, given the short-term outlook of many politicians these days plus many competing interests, infrastructure needs are often kicked down the road. Yet, compared to other major issues that can continue to be kicked down the road, at some point roads, railroad systems, airports, electric grids, and other necessary pieces of infrastructure can and will literally crumble and will require immediate attention.

Chicago Epic marketing cut due to state budget

Chicago rolled out an “Epic” campaign this spring to attract tourists but it is now no more due to a lack of state funding:

Chicago’s latest tourism campaign, Epic, is about to end two months early thanks to epic budget cuts at the state level.

Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism program, is losing 40 percent of its operating budget in the latest set of state budget cuts, according to Crain’s. That means Epic, the (perhaps unimaginative) summer tourism campaign launched in April with a TV ad encouraging viewers to “be part of something epic,” would end July 1 rather than run through the summer. Unless they are talking about an epically rainy June, the campaign ending this early wouldn’t leave much sizzle in the summer tourism industry.

Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh said in statement that the program will lose most of its funding, from the state hotel tax, unless there is a last-minute approval of the state’s 2016 fiscal budget—increasingly unlikely as the week progresses…

The loss of Epic could deal a blow to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vow to boost tourism to 55 million visitors by 2020. Crain’s says Rauner, who was once the chairman of Choose Chicago, believes tourism is a boon to the local economy.

Two quick thoughts:

1. If you go with a catch term like “epic,” it is bound to be used sarcastically if something goes wrong (like the campaign ends early). Not exactly epic…

2. How do we – the public – know that such marketing campaigns work? Even though the Epic campaign is ending early, did it have any influence? Did the slogan catch on? What does this mean for future Chicago marketing campaigns? Just because a big campaign was out there doesn’t mean that it did much in this media and advertising saturated world.

No money, no Illiana Expressway

According to Illinois officials, the Illiana Expressway project has been halted:

Illinois Department of Transportation officials decided “in light of the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time. Project costs exceed currently available resources,” a statement from the governor said.

The move is not surprising, given Acting IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn opposed the road when he was chief of the Chicago Metropolitan Area for Planning.

“We see no evidence the Illiana would lead to sustained job creation over the long term,” Blankenhorn said in 2013. “There is potential it would expose the state to significant financial risk.”…

Rauner is feuding with Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton over the Democrats’ budget and how to solve a massive deficit.

This has been quite the controversial project and there have always been questions about the initial funding and ongoing costs. New highways are costly and Illinois doesn’t have much money to spend. Yet, now we get to find out whether this is simply another bargaining chip in the ongoing budget battles in Springfield. While we’ve seen a lot about the Chicago area politics of this expressway, what does Madigan think about it? Will the claims that the highway would be a boon for economic development be resurrected at some point?

Continued lack of affordable housing in Chicago’s northern suburbs

Affordable housing is a problem throughout the Chicago region but here is a closer look at the current state of affordable housing in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs:

Under the law, the Illinois Housing Development Authority in 2004 identified 49 communities where less than 10 percent of the housing was deemed affordable. At least nine of them are on the North Shore, including Winnetka, Wilmette, Highland Park, Deerfield, Northbrook, and Lake Forest.

Reactions to the law varied in those communities. Highland Park aggressively pursued ways to make affordable housing available. Northbrook took a more casual approach and set general goals. In Winnetka, after years of heated debate, officials voted in 2011 to just stop talking about the issue…

But over the last ten years, the affordable housing that has been added “is a drop in a bucket,” she said.

“The economy is bouncing back, but a lot of these communities are still catering to the rich,” said Schechter.

A significant barrier for affordable housing in the North Shore is the lack of undeveloped land and the high price of properties, said Richard Koenig, executive director of the Housing Opportunity Development Corporation.

It doesn’t look to me like much has changed. The 2004 Illinois law hasn’t done much as many communities already met the requirements (based on a formula that may then be too lax), it has little ability to enforce anything, and there are still continuing issues of affordable housing. I think there is also some disconnect about who the affordable housing is supposed to serve. In my experience, when suburbs like those on the North Shore talk about affordable housing, they are more willing to do something when they are talking about public servants, like teachers, police officers, and firefighters, or people who have been in the community before, like kids who grew up in the suburb or retired residents, who have difficulty living there on limited incomes. These suburbs are not thinking as much about the retail or service industry or laborers that might work in their communities.

This shouldn’t be too surprising: given the opportunity, most wealthier suburbs will zone land in such a way that the housing prices and options cater to a wealthier crowd. Affordable housing is an issue that should be taken care of by other suburbs, such as more working- or lower-class communities.

State Budget Crisis Task Force: big debt trouble in Illinois

Even if politicians in Illinois don’t talk about this much, outsiders such as the State Budget Crisis Task Force are noticing the debt trouble in Illinois:

For years, Illinois has racked up billions in public debt to plug budget holes, pay overdue bills, and put money into its mismanaged pension funds. And for the people who live there, this has resulted in decrepit commuter trains and buses, thousands of unsound bridges, 200 hazardous dams and one of the most inequitable public school systems in America…

The group, led by the former Federal Reserve chairman, Paul A. Volcker, and the former New York lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, recommended an overhaul of Illinois’ budgeting practices, to make it harder to kite money from year to year and raid special-purpose funds. It also warned that tax increases may be in store…

Illinois has the lowest credit rating of the 50 states and has America’s second-biggest public debt per capita, $9,624, including state and local borrowing. Only New York State’s debt is bigger, at $13,840 per capita. But Illinois has not been able to use much of the borrowed money to keep its roads, bridges and schools in good working order, because years of shoddy fiscal practices have taken a heavy toll, the report said…

While many states have heavy debt burdens and unfunded pensions, the task force warned that Illinois’ problems had been building for decades and were advanced. The state was “insolvent” even before the financial crisis hit in 2008, the report said, but that was hard to detect because “budget gimmicks became a standard practice.”

Not exactly a rosy outlook.

This could relate to the discussion at the national level about how the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget while other levels of government do. Well, states and other government bodies can still mess up the process even if they are “balancing the budget.”

New Illinois law gives many communities the ability to develop their own rules for public hearings

Public hearings can often be contentious and go on for hours. A new Illinois law gives communities under 500,000 the ability to develop their own rules for public hearings:

Those procedures could deal with the rights of participants to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence during a public hearing.

“It really boils down to efficiency,” said Annie Thompson, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The governor believes in getting the people’s business done in a manner that’s open and transparent but also in a manner that’s efficient. This bill will help (local) governments do that.”

State Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville said she proposed the legislation in response to the marathon public hearings that happened when Navistar submitted plans to move its headquarters to Lisle…

“This bill allows municipalities that are interested in severely restricting who can participate in the process — under the guise of efficiency — to institute undemocratic and unfair rules,” said Terry Pastika, the center’s executive director. “When you think about the anti-democratic rules it could justify, it’s a big problem.”

I can see both sides. On one hand, a public hearing can go on for hours if a large or vociferous enough crowd wants to talk. These meetings can drag into the wee hours of the morning, making it difficult for public officials in smaller communities who work part-time as public servants. Additionally, one could argue that at some point there may be diminishing returns: jut how much does a group have to say to convince public officials that they don’t like a proposal? On the other hand, there are few official settings where citizens can interact with public officials. Public hearings allow citizens to express their opinions and make their voice heard. Citizens can feel that if they make a convincing or large enough argument, they can sway the outcome.

I would guess that this new law will have this effect: communities and citizens will now have spend some time figuring out what are appropriate rules where both sides feel like they can do what they want to do.