WTTW News Explains: Why Are There So Many Units of Local Government?

When you hear “local government,” you probably think of the city of Chicago or Cook County. Maybe you consider wards and precincts.

But you’re probably not thinking of airports and mosquito abatement.

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You should be.

Units of local government refers to cities, counties, townships — the general purpose political subdivisions of a state. It also refers to special purpose things like airports, museums, roads and bridges.

In the big ol’ U-S-of-A, Illinois may be 25th in size and sixth in population, but, when it comes to the number of units of local government? We’re No. 1. Depending on how you count, the Land of Lincoln is home to 7,000 to 9,000 units of local government.

Let’s pick a place as an example … how about the village of Gurnee? It’s home to more than just roller coasters and water slides. There are plenty of units of local government, including: an elementary school district, a high school district, the College of Lake County, Lake County itself, a park district, a library district, the fire department, the North Shore Water Reclamation District and the Central Lake County Joint Action Water Agency.

In other parts of the county, you have a mosquito abatement district, a flood prevention district and even a tuberculosis sanatorium. And they all cost money.

Enter: property tax, sales tax, bonds and even loans.

Sound complicated? Well, to add another layer, some units of government cover only a single municipality, whereas others serve multiple, or a township, or a whole county. Which are, themselves, units of government as well.

Think of it as like a nesting doll of bureaucracy.

Critics want to streamline things; they say many of these authorities are unnecessary and inflate property tax bills. Supporters argue the cost per taxpayer isn’t much, and that these specialized districts can better meet the needs of residents.

Over the last few years, lawmakers in Springfield have tried to make it easier to consolidate or eliminate units of local government – but with thousands still on the books, our state’s behemoth bureaucracy isn’t likely to shrink anytime soon.

Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg

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