DuPage County is in the midst of an immense, but tricky, experiment: Cutting government down to size.

In the past three years it has slashed, shrunk, shared, studied, cajoled and consolidated its way to about $80 million in savings, according to the county, while also working with state legislators to pass two laws that are key to reining in bloated and rogue public agencies.

DuPage’s focus centers on reforming, consolidating and transforming redundant agencies that perform many of the same tasks, including: mosquito, treating and collecting sewage, maintaining street lights, fire-fighting, even hosting the annual county fair.

About 20 miles west of Chicago, DuPage County is the largest regional government in Illinois to make government consolidation a top priority, though other counties are investigating their own consolidation plans. DuPage hopes to be a model for Illinois but the county’s efforts show that there is no cookie-cutter approach and the work must ultimately be done on a case-by-case, community-by-community basis.

“To dial back and dissolve these creatures that were established is very, very challenging,” said Daniel J. Cronin, county board chairman and a driving force behind the government consolidation effort.

Upon taking office in 2010, Cronin—a long-time state senator–found himself essentially accountable for scores of government agencies whose boards were appointed by the county, yet he had little or no power to oversee these units’ operations or even obtain basic information about their finances and procedures.

Dan Cronin County Board Chairman / www.dupageco.org

To address that problem, Cronin worked with state legislators including State Senator Tom Cullerton (D-23), a former president of Villa Park in DuPage and cousin to Senate President John Cullerton, to pass bills giving the county more power over the government agencies whose boards they appoint.

In August 2013, a bill – SB 494 – was signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn that gives the DuPage County board the power to dissolve or consolidate 13 different government units, including four sanitary districts, three “paper fire districts” that have no staff or equipment, the airport authority, county fair authority, housing authority, two mosquito abatement districts and a small agency responsible for street lights.

The bill originally covered 24 non-elected government units, which represented about $300 million in annual costs and employed about 900 people. In the final version, fire districts that provide actual services and public agencies with territory outside DuPage were taken out of the bill.

Although a significantly more limited version was passed, the bill’s backers were pleased especially considering the opposition from local government officials and employees, who feared losing power, jobs or services through sweeping consolidation.

Cronin and his allies describe SB 494 as a “starting point.”

Meanwhile, Cronin’s deputy chief of staff Sheryl Markay said the affected agencies have been more cooperative with the county’s efficiencies efforts since the bill was passed.

“Everyone’s more willing to work with us now because it’s a stick” that could be used against recalcitrant agencies, she said.

(The law also allows a safeguard for residents opposing consolidation. If they don’t like the county’s plans to consolidate an agency, they can block the move by collecting enough signatures to place a binding referendum on the next ballot, then getting a majority to vote for that referendum.)

Meanwhile about 60 former board members who were not sympathetic to the county’s efficiency efforts have resigned or did not have their appointments renewed, according to County board policy and program administrator Chad Shaffer.

A Long and Winding Road

So far the county has barely invoked the powers granted to it by SB 494, and the outlook for consolidating or dissolving even the limited number of units to which the law applies shows what a thorny and lengthy process consolidation can be.

The county is currently in the throes of dissolving the Fairview Fire Protection District, a “paper fire district” that has no actual employees or equipment but rather exists to contract firefighting services from other districts. It will be replaced by a Special Services Area under the village of Downers Grove, as described in County reports on their efficiency efforts.

Dissolving that district will save about $100,000 a year in accounting and consulting contracts that can be terminated, Markay said.

The Fairview Fire dissolution was in progress even before SB 494 passed, and the county had already dissolved the inactive Timberlake Estates Sanitary District, in March 2013, after a majority of residents in the district signed a petition in support.

County officials are examining several other agencies.

A report commissioned by the county and released in May 2012 indicates which units might be prime targets for consolidation and dissolution, most notably the Salt Creek Sanitary District and another small sanitary district, Highland Hills. And county officials have already discussed dissolving the Century Hill Street Lighting District, a body that collects $15,000 in tax levies annually to maintain 77 street lights.

Transparency Before Efficiency

Among the headaches Cronin faced when he took office as chairman were a housing authority that was charged with misspending or failing to account for more than $10 million in federal money, and a water commission that had rapidly depleted $70 million in reserves through apparent mismanagement. When he tried to delve into the finances of these and other units seemingly under his purview, Cronin was stymied.

…60 former board members who were not sympathetic to the county’s efficiency efforts have resigned or did not have their appointments renewed…

“I got to the point where I was genuinely nervous and couldn’t sleep at night because it was my responsibility to appoint people to these boards and commissions but I didn’t really know what was going on out there,” he said. “Though I was new and these weren’t my appointees, I knew I would be held accountable or someone would be. These agencies operated under the radar – there really was no connection to the voters and the taxpayers. I really felt a need to immerse myself in this and find out first and foremost what the heck is going on out there.”

Cronin worked with Cullerton and other legislators to pass SB 541 in 2011, a law that mandates bodies with a majority of board members appointed by the county must turn over documents to the county and reveal certain information to the county board. (Like SB 494, it was written to apply only to DuPage County).

This law was heralded as a boon for transparency, and Cronin said it laid the groundwork for the later passage of SB 494.

SB 541 resulted in “reams of documents, boxes of stuff being dropped off” at Cronin’s office. The county hired consultants Crowe Horwath LLP to analyze the operations of and make recommendations regarding 24 government agencies with boards appointed by the county board chairman.

The Crowe Horwath report, released in May 2012, has been the playbook for DuPage’s transparency, accountability and consolidation efforts. Though no agencies have yet been dissolved or consolidated based on the report, Cronin said the larger initiative has already saved taxpayers $80 million through measures including rebidding contracts, shared services agreements and eliminating 50 full-time staff positions.

Sewers and Mosquitos

salt creek sanitary district publicdomain
Salt Creek Sanitary District / www.saltcreeksd.com

The Crowe Horwath report described the Salt Creek Sanitary District as a “stable organization showing signs of decline.” It recommended potentially consolidating and dissolving Salt Creek – an idea Cullerton had previously pushed as Villa Park village president.

The report also recommended exploring consolidation of the Highland Hills Sanitary District, which collects sewage and oversees water infrastructure for 499 parcels of land, while levying about $50,000 in property taxes each year. The district doesn’t have a treatment plant and contracts that service from another agency, Flagg Creek Water Reclamation District. It is operating at a deficit that will only get worse with infrastructure erosion and increased federal regulations, the Crowe Horwath report said.

In general, the report recommends centralizing sewage collection and treatment countywide and eliminating small sewage treatment plants. This would make maintenance and upgrades more efficient, while also eliminating the (generally small) salaries of sanitary district board members and a number of full-time positions. For example Salt Creek and Highland Hills each have three trustees, who are paid $4,000 and $6,000 per year, respectively. Salt Creek has nine full-time employees while Highland Hills has one full-time and a few part-timers.

Salt Creek Sanitary District president Dennis Keating has been active in DuPage civic or political organizations for 40 years while also working as a real estate broker. Now at 78, he says operating the district “is something to do.” He supports Cronin’s efficiency initiatives, but he doesn’t want to see the Salt Creek district consolidated or dissolved any time soon.

Sanitary Sewer District Map from Crowe Horwarth Final Report

He wants another study done before any decisions are made, and worries about the nine employees who could lose their jobs. The district has already moved to save money by reducing trustees’ salaries, buying chemicals in bulk through the county and possibly combining billing functions with the village of Villa Park.

“We have a lot of forms of government out here, we have too many of them,” Keating said. “But we don’t want to jump into a merger until we know what we’re doing… it’s a very touchy situation – everyone is happy to have a job. We have good people working for us now. When you talk about (consolidation), people get nervous. That’s why we don’t talk too much about it.”

Amy Kovacevic, trustee and vice president of the Downers Grove Sanitary District, said her district is enthusiastic about the idea of potentially taking over the much-smaller Highland Hills Sanitary District. (For comparison, the agencies’ 2012 budgets were nearly $11 million and $405,000). Kovacevic noted that consolidation would entail physically connecting Highland Hills’ sewer pipes to Downers Grove’s system – “there would have to be construction –I have no idea what it would cost or who would pay for it.”

“Consolidation to some people is a scary thing,” Kovacevic said. “But if consolidation offers the best value for our customers, that is the avenue that will be taken,” she said. “The (new) customers would embrace the Downers Grove Sanitary District because of the programs we offer with the bill” – including customer reimbursement for sewer overhauls at homes. “Most districts don’t offer those programs.”

Other prime candidates for consolidation or dissolution, judging from the Crowe Horwath report, would be the Wheaton and West Chicago mosquito abatement districts. DuPage County has 45 separate entities carrying out mosquito abatement, but these are the only two covered by SB 494 since they are the only districts with boards appointed by the county chairman.

Markay indicated that the two mosquito abatement districts might well be dissolved. But it’s not a top priority, she indicated, because the county’s mosquito abatement districts are already adopting a more efficient unified contract with the private company that already provided spraying and other mosquito control services to 38 of the units individually.

A Statewide Model?

At nearly 7,000, Illinois has the most separate government agencies of any state, and DuPage County lays claim to more than 400.

Cronin said he’s fielded numerous requests for advice from officials at other counties, townships, fire departments and towns who are inspired by DuPage’s efficiency and consolidation efforts. In November, state senators from Lake, Kane and McHenry counties introduced legislation that would give county boards and county executives the power to remove appointed officials from office.

And Cronin said Cook County officials have also expressed interest (Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s spokesperson declined to comment.)

Cullerton said he’d like to see DuPage examine and possibly consolidate 10 to 13 government units under SB 494.

“Then after we get some results this year, next year we propose every county does eight to 10 units themselves,” he said. “Within two to three years, we’ve reduced units of taxing government by about 1,000” statewide.

Cullerton points to the Salt Creek Sanitary District as a potential start.

“The dollars that could be saved there are not going to be billions and that’s not going to save the state of Illinois budget, but at this point in the state of Illinois we’re talking nickels and dimes,” he said. “You save a couple hundred thousand here, and if you do that throughout the entire state, you’re talking hundreds of millions.”

But bills facilitating consolidation are likely to continue facing suspicion and opposition statewide, as many see consolidation as a threat to paid appointments, microcosms of power, jobs, services or sources of revenues via tax levies.

State Rep. Deborah Conroy / www.ilga.gov

“Downstate people rely more on small units of government, and people are worried (consolidation) will affect them,” said State Rep. Deborah Conroy (D-46), from DuPage County, a cosponsor of SB 494. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Cullerton noted that even if small agencies are doing little, they have a long-standing place in the political system.

“It used to be that a good (precinct) captain would be appointed to a mosquito district and make 200 bucks a month,” added Cullerton, whose family has been involved in Chicago and Illinois politics for decades. “That was how business was done. But that’s not good government, it’s not good politics. You have to be able to walk away from that whole culture, and say people expect government to be lean, to do more with less, to not live in independent silos.”

Cronin and his allies say that moving slowly and carefully is key. If the county comes across as dictatorial – “heavy-handed or sanctimonious” in Cronin’s words — other counties and state legislators will be less willing to push similar bills of their own.

“What I know or have learned is that it’s a very hands-on, detailed process,” Cronin said. “This goal of consolidation really requires a significant amount of time and attention and it needs to be done at the local level.”