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Orr: Taxpayers would benefit from more consolidation, efficiency

Tuesday, November 07, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Ted Slowik, Daily Southtown

You may have followed the governor's race in Virginia or tracked other contests around the country and wondered why there were no elections on Tuesday in Illinois.

The Land of Lincoln used to hold elections for school board and other local offices in early November during odd-numbered years. But 20 years ago, the Illinois General Assembly consolidated those races with municipal elections held in the spring.

The move has saved taxpayers a lot of money, Cook County Clerk David Orr told me on Monday.

"We would have spent $4 million just in our jurisdiction" when Cook County voters headed to polls 20 years ago, Orr said. "The whole state would have spent $12 million, conservatively."

Adjusting for inflation, Orr's office calculated the estimated savings of eliminating the costs of printing ballots, hiring election judges and other expenses associated with holding separate elections for school boards over the past 20 years.

"The savings for suburban Cook alone is about $50 million, and for the state it's about $200 million," Orr said.

The state Legislature overwhelmingly approved the measure in 1997. The vote on House Bill 652 was 102-12 in the House and 48-5 in the Senate. Then-Gov. Jim Edgar signed the bill into law on Aug. 10, 1997.

In addition to local school board offices, the change affected elections for boards that oversee community colleges, fire protection districts and other tax bodies.

At 73, Orr has served seven terms as clerk and is not seeking re-election. As he reflects on a political career that included serving as an alderman and a week as acting mayor of Chicago, the Democrat wants politicians to find ways to make government more efficient.

"There's so much more we could do," Orr told me. "We need courageous leadership at the highest levels."

Orr believes the potential for cost savings through consolidation are significant.

Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government, far more than any other state.

The longtime clerk acknowledges the political resistance to government consolidation. But, he says, lawmakers in 1997 acted in the best interests of taxpayers despite resistance to his election-consolidation proposal.

"This was not an easy thing to pass," Orr said. "There was opposition."

State lawmakers viewed the proposal as a "win-win," he said.

"It doesn't hurt the public," Orr told me. "It may have frustrated some school boards."

Namely, school districts at the time were worried it would be more difficult to pass tax-increase referendum requests. Turnout was historically lower for separate school board elections. Conventional wisdom says chances for passing tax-increase requests are greater when turnout is lower.

"We still think the way it was done previously was working well," Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, told me by phone.

The legislation had to be amended, Schwarm said. Changes had to be phased in to preserve staggered terms among board members and to ensure that duly elected officials served their full terms, Schwarm said.

"That would have been unconstitutional" if some terms were cut short, as the law initially proposed, he said.

Ripple effects from the 1997 law didn't fully settle until 2003. Schwarm said he could not verify Orr's claims about taxpayer savings due to merging of elections.

"I've never seen any data or statistics on that," he said.

Efforts to reach the Illinois State Board of Elections for comment were unsuccessful.

I asked Orr about other areas in which there might be bipartisan agreement on cost-saving proposals. I asked about the push by Gov. Bruce Rauner for procurement reform.

"That direction is a good one to consider but the details in execution are important," Orr replied. In some cases, efforts to make purchasing procedures more efficient have resulted in longer wait times and higher costs, he said.

Orr instead pointed to the decision by Cook County voters a year ago to consolidate the offices of clerk and recorder of deeds by 2020. Reducing the number of public-worker positions will save taxpayers the costs of salaries, benefits and pensions.

Orr said he also believes fewer positions would be needed if some administrative staff workers could be trained to serve more than one office.

"If you start cross-training workers, that begins to add up," Orr said. "We need to stop the silo mentality of everybody in their own fiefdom."

I reached out to the Better Government Association to ask the watchdog organization's reaction to Orr's ideas for cost savings. Rachel Leven, BGA policy director, directed me to an Oct. 31 article she authored titled, "Collaborations Between Chicago and Cook County Saved Millions. There's Still Room for More."

"As a rule, government always should be looking for inefficiencies in its own ranks," Leven wrote. "This year, this need is particularly vital for Cook County. As part of the 2018 budget hearings, commissioners and agency heads have suggested staffing cuts, consolidation of administrative services like human resources, and closing some branch courthouses."

By way of context, repeal of the unpopular "soda tax" has forced county officials to find ways to trim costs in next year's budget by tens of millions of dollars.

In her article, Leven mentioned past recommendations that encouraged Cook County Board members to explore ways to consolidate the county's four mosquito abatement districts, 21 independent sanitary districts and 33 fire protection districts.

A task force that included county commissioners and representatives of the Civic Federation and Chicago Metropolitan Planning Commission also recommended the county should urge annexation of unincorporated township areas.

"The long-term goal should be elimination of all unincorporated land such that every resident of Cook County is also a resident of a municipality," Leven wrote, quoting the task force's 2012 recommendation.

The county, however, can't force annexations. I've talked previously with several residents of unincorporated areas who told me they do not want to be annexed by municipalities. It seems like there's resistance from some group to every suggestion to save money.

Consolidation talk often includes consideration of eliminating township services that include assessors and highway districts. Townships historically have resisted such efforts.

I agree with Orr's view that politicians must find ways to save taxpayers money by reducing the number of positions on government payrolls through consolidation and improved efficiency.

Orr used an old expression of uncertain origin, though it may date back to a Bible story in the Book of Exodus. The context has to do with how people view an event differently depending on how it affects their self-interests.

"There are political reasons for all these things," Orr said in reference to resistance to consolidation. "We need leadership to say, 'Some oxen are going to be gored.' There are more efficient ways to do it."

tslowik@tronc.com

Twitter @tedslowik



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