The following is written by Jenifer Kim, a 2015 fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, "a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by developing progressive ideas and bold leadership in the service of restoring America's promise of opportunity for all."
The struggle between the different levels of government hierarchy is an old one: federal vs. state, state vs. local. In the turbulent political climate of Illinois today, with Governor Bruce Rauner emphatically pushing his turnaround agenda and municipalities wary of losing the vital revenue needed to keep their towns running while (still) recovering from the recession, the lines between state and local government are more important than ever.
The governor's recent creation of the Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force reflects this need: concerned with the 7,000+ units of local government in Illinois (the most in any state by more than 1,800 units) and the burden of unfunded mandates on local governments, the task force seeks to reduce the burden on taxpayers by "empowering citizens and government officials to streamline local government through consolidation and eliminating unnecessary state mandates." How effective the task force will be depends heavily on the information it receives about local governments' needs and already-existing intergovernmental collaboration. After all, larger governments do not historically have a brilliant track record when it comes to understanding the complexities of their local governments.
Over the past two months, I have been working on procuring some of that information, specifically regarding "shared services"--the recent buzzword for the agreements between different units of local government to share costs, administrative burdens, supplies, and more for a number of necessary services. My work has been done through the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, a collaboration of mayors in the Chicago Metropolitan Area that serves as one of the oldest and most established of such caucuses in the nation. The Mayors Caucus, formed in 1997, provides a forum through which the area's nine Councils of Government (COGs) and 273 local cities and towns, including the city of Chicago, can collaborate, share practices, and start initiatives spanning across municipal boundaries. Placed in the Caucus by my Roosevelt Institute summer fellowship, I led a project exploring the scope and nature of shared services in Northeastern Illinois. What I found was unsurprising to those actually working in local governments, but startling to others.
Although a significant portion of my research took place online and through meetings and phone interviews with the COG directors, the bulk of my information came from a survey sent out to all 273 town mayors and managers. The response was swift and strong: within just two weeks, I received well over 100 responses from municipalities. This surprised members of the staff, who named it one of the most successful surveys ever sent out by the Caucus; it was clear that interest in shared services was prominent. The follow-up emails and phone calls, as well as the number of inquiries I received about the results of the surveys, only reiterated this point: local governments are interested in shared services. In fact, 95 percent of responding municipalities have shared or are currently sharing services, and 99 percent responded "yes" to the question, "Did you find sharing services ultimately beneficial and would you continue to do so?"
Intergovernmental collaboration is not a foreign concept to municipalities: examples include massive insurance pools birthed from COGs that bring together over 500 municipalities just in Illinois; a municipality-led joint-purchasing initiative so successful that it is now found in numerous publications on intergovernmental collaborations and resourced by governments in other states; and even the small, everyday instances of two or three municipalities sharing equipment, water delivery services, public works operations, and more. These collaborations are not new, either: the majority have been taking place for well over 10 years. Local governments know how to work together, and have been for decades without state involvement. They also know how to learn from each other and their pasts; a rising number of shared services projects have sprung up since the recession, and municipalities use case studies, other regional examples, and local agencies such as the COGs, the Mayors Caucus, and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to aid their efforts.
However, while local governments don't need the state to tell them how to collaborate, they can still benefit from state help. So what do these local governments ask for from the state? Grants, to help with the significant start-up costs. Resources, including workshops, training, and information guides. And policy changes to remove barriers that stymie these collaborative efforts, and therefore allow municipalities to work together as they have been for decades.
Illinois needs intergovernmental collaboration to move forward. Between the after-effects of the recession, the state government's chronic reductions of local government revenue, and a proposed property tax freeze currently being discussed by Governor Rauner and state legislative leaders, municipalities are struggling to cover even day-to-day costs, let alone innovation and expansion. The overwhelming benefits and cost savings of collaboration are evident--joint dispatching, for example, saves municipalities hundreds of thousands a year--which makes encouraging these efforts the clear choice. But it's much less clear how much of that collaboration really needs to be forced by or strictly regulated by the state government, and that's something the state must keep in mind as it formulates policies on local governments.
Jenifer Kim was a 2015 Fellow with Roosevelt's Chicago Summer Institute.