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Is it time to start thinking about merging some of Illinois’ counties?

Friday, May 10, 2019

* Illinois Policy Institute

A small county in southwest Illinois is facing big pension obligations and the possibility that it won’t make payroll in late May.

Perry County faces a $1 million shortfall that is threatening its employees’ second payday in May. County leaders May 13 will consider recommendations to hike property taxes and fees, to curb spending, to lay off employees and to shorten their workweek.

“We basically need $1 million in the month of May just to meet payroll and to pay what bills we have left,” Perry County Treasurer Mary Jane Craft told WPSD-TV. “If we just meet payroll and not our bills, we still need $400,000.”

How did the county fall into crisis? Shrinking revenue and growing pension demands appear to be at the heart of the crisis.

Maybe we could address some of these problems by consolidating some of Illinois’ 102 counties. We talk about eliminating townships all the time, but counties spend real money and they’re all required by law to elect their own state’s attorneys, clerks, etc.

Tiny little Perry County has only 22,350 residents. That’s not even half a Chicago ward. Putnam County, the state’s smallest, has just 6,006 people.

The General Assembly could step in and redraw boundaries, but there is another way.

* From the Illinois Counties Code

Sec. 1-4001. Petition to unite counties. Whenever any number of legal voters, not less than two hundred, one-half of such number being owners or life tenants of real estate, residing in any county in this State, shall petition the county board of their own county, for leave to have their own county united and annexed to any adjoining county, and shall also petition the county board of the adjoining county, to which they desire their county to be united and annexed, for leave to have their own county united and annexed to such adjoining county, it shall be the duty of the several county boards so petitioned, to order that the propositions provided for in this Division shall be submitted to the legal voters of their respective counties. The several county boards shall certify the propositions to the proper election officials who shall submit the question at a general election in accordance with the general election law. … Provided, that such proposition shall not be submitted or voted upon more often than once in 5 years.

Life tenants are defined here. The procedure for handling the mergers if approved by voters is here.

If nothing else, it would be fun to watch the hostile takeover attempts.

…Adding… The land-owning requirement probably isn’t constitutional for obvious reasons, but somebody ought to see if this could work.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - TheInvisibleMan - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:16 pm:

    This is good.

    It will take about 3 seconds for southern Illinois counties to turn on each other.

    That will give their politicians something else to worry about instead of their split-off-into-another-state nonsense.

  2. - Spinal Tap - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:16 pm:

    Won’t cutting jobs and services (like snow plowing or road maintenance, for instance) cause more folks to move out thereby further lowering tax revenues and causing the county to be unable to meet its pension obligations?

  3. - Unpopular - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:18 pm:


  4. - Oswego Willy - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:19 pm:

    For every township eliminated two or more counties must merge…

    That would be fun too.

  5. - Thomas Paine - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:20 pm:

    Great opportunity for the Eastern Bloc here to reduce the property tax burden and create a mega-county to contest with the Northeastern Illinois powerhouses of today.

  6. - RNUG - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:23 pm:

    If ‘land owning’ means resident, it might pass muster. All depends on what the intent was. I may have to re-read the 1970 Con-Con discussion transcripts.

  7. - Anonymous - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:24 pm:

    ==Won’t cutting jobs and services (like snow plowing or road maintenance, for instance)==

    Why would they cut services? They could more easily find administrative efficiencies. Just like all the suburban school districts with only one school, but these are counties.

  8. - ChicagoVinny - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:25 pm:

    Thunderdome-style - two counties enter, one county leaves.

  9. - Honeybear - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:25 pm:

    If it’s coming from IPI it must be about destroying collective bargaining/Project labor agreements/prevailing wage. Perfidy 24/7

    -If nothing else, it would be fun to watch the hostile takeover attempts.-

    OMG, that’s all we need is more polical rancor…why don’t you go see if your 5 petunias need to be watered instead ;)

  10. - Ducky LaMoore - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:26 pm:

    As a resident of a very sparsely populated county, I can tell you that there is near zero support for combining our county governments. I myself would consider it depending on which county(s) we would be consolidating with. But generally speaking, this would have about as much support as the flu.

  11. - Honeybear - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:26 pm:

    Nice one Vinny

  12. - wordslinger - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:27 pm:

    –We talk about eliminating townships all the time, but counties spend real money and they’re all required by law to elect their own state’s attorneys, clerks, etc.–

    Exactly. Many are 19th Century anachronisms, lines in the dirt that no longer mean anything.

    Fifteen counties have fewer than 10,000 people. Another 30 counties have fewer than 20,000 people.

    Maybe the Eastern Bloc wants to work on something realistic and useful, like county consolidation plans.

    I kid. They’re not interested in realistic and useful.

  13. - Boat captain - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:32 pm:

    The IPI needs to do some checking. Putnam is not the smallest in population.

  14. - Anonish - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:32 pm:

    Won’t anyone think of the children?
    The Music Man is confusing enough with the traveling salesmen. Now we want to make the reference to how many counties there are in Illinois irrelevant?

    Seriously though, this has some real merit.

  15. - The Dude Abides - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:32 pm:

    Good idea. There are some states that Like Illinois, have a surprising number of counties.Illinois has 102 and states like Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa have 120, 115, 105 and 99 respectively. OTOH Florida and Pennsylvania both have 67, Ohio 88, Wisconsin 72, Michigan 83 and Minnesota 87.
    I think we could get by with 20 fewer counties if we have the political courage to do so. There will no doubt be some push back if we attempt to do that.

  16. - Spinal Tap - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:33 pm:

    Anon @ 2:24 “administrative efficiencies”

    Can you expound on this concept/panacea?

  17. - Iggy - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:35 pm:

    group southern illinois counties every 4 becomes 1. but then break cook county into 4. Times need to change.

  18. - wordslinger - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:35 pm:

    Here’s a link to county populations:

  19. - njt - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:37 pm:

    Each Chicago ward would rank 30th in population. There are 72 counties in Illinois with populations less than any Chicago ward.

  20. - Hamlet's Ghost - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:37 pm:

    Current law appears more than adequate and I see no reason for the General Assembly to get tangled up in the consolidation business.

    If local people want to do this, they already can. If they don’t want to do this Springfield shouldn’t force their hand.

  21. - The Dude Abides - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:43 pm:

    @Hamlet, that’s fine as long as they don’t come to the state with their hand out.

  22. - Merica - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:44 pm:

    The “Pension Crisis” is not a singular event related to one pension system, but a prolonged period of economic stagnation, decreasing property values, population decline, and hundreds of fiscal emergencies. A lot more stories like this to come.

    When you take into account the fact that downstate owes $180 B of unfunded pension liability just to police and fire, and when you take into account OPEB isn’t included in that estimate, and the fact that these communities are shrinking, and the already high level of taxation (2.4-2.7% RE taxes), you can easily conclude there is no way out.

    Consolidating townships, counties, school districts, these ideas need to be more than just talked about, they need to be acted upon.

    The real fear, and the real danger, is what will come in the future, the idea of one group of people (Chicagoans) bailing out these bankrupt units of government.

  23. - Downstate Illinois - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:46 pm:

    Putnam isn’t the smallest county. It used to Pope with 4,325. However neighboring Hardin has lost 4,320. That county lost approximately four percent of its population with IDOC loses the Hardin County Work Camp.

    Calhoun County (of which Hardin is their county seat just to make it confusing) is down to 4,833.

    Alexander and Pulaski counties combined at the Southern tip of the state has less than 12,000 combined. Pulaski was organized out of Alexander back in 1843. While a good arguement could be made for merging it would fail because it would mean the closing of at least one courthouse and all the jobs associated with it.

  24. - Thomas Paine - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:47 pm:

    == Springfield shouldn’t Force their hand ==

    I think offering incentives makes sense. There is big cost savings for the state as well, dealing with oh, let’s say 40 county government instead of 102.

    You also no longer have counties like tazewell and Peoria in bidding wars to see who can offer the biggest tax incentives to a retailer.

    It’s not just leaner government, but more efficient government. It’s sure to reduce property taxes.

  25. - Abbey - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:49 pm:

    I’m in La Salle County and the land area is huge. That makes me wonder about law enforcement. If a deputy is in Grand Ridge, it’s really hard to get a response to an incident near Leland. While I don’t see any county willingly taking on Perry County and it’s obligations, I also don’t see Lee and La Salle County doing much more than the occasional courtesy assist during accidents, felony manhunts, etc. Although bidding buh-bye to the La Salle County jail would be a huge savings in lawsuits.

  26. - Anon221 - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:50 pm:

    Boat Captain- The reference to Putnam’s size wasn’t its population, but rather its actual geographic size.

  27. - wordslinger - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:52 pm:

    == Springfield shouldn’t Force their hand ==

    Counties are creations of the state. They all get shares of the state income tax. Many could be merged and eliminate what would then be redundant offices and officeholders.

  28. - Thomas Paine - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:53 pm:

    California - 58 counties
    New York - 62 counties
    Florida - 67 counties
    Pennsylvania - 67 counties

    Illinois - 102 counties.

  29. - Techie - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:55 pm:

    Can someone explain to me what people are referring to when they say “Eastern bloc”? Is it referring to right-wing politicians in Illinois?

  30. - Juvenal - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:56 pm:

    In fact Word, the state created the county map we have today by splitting existing counties in half.

  31. - Jibba - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:57 pm:

    Perhaps they also need to look into the property tax rate for farmland, which is a real bargain and part of the reason they have trouble funding education.

  32. - anon (not that one) - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 2:57 pm:

    Spinal Tap - I suspect the 2:24 anon comment on administrative efficiencies is that instead of 2 senior administrative offices (county board, county officials) you would have 1. The same way that consolidating school districts should result in going from 2 superintendent down to 1. This cuts positions with higher costs.

  33. - the Patriot - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:02 pm:

    Practically it makes much more sense to consolidate school districts, but yes probably some counties as well. Honestly, this is about Chicago Democrats not having the guts to do it. They are more than willing to say f/u on guns, religion, abortion, taxes and everything else. We got the votes so deal with it.

    So, why don’t they force consolidation?

    Because more government means more taxes, more programs, and more people dependent on the democrat party. You need a fiscally minded democrat from Chicago.

    He/she likely to be found riding a unicorn down Michigan Avenue.

  34. - 47th Ward - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:05 pm:

    ===Honestly, this is about Chicago Democrats not having the guts to do it.===

    Huh? Did you even read the story or do you just skip right to the Chicago-bashing?

    You don’t need anyone from Chicago to force this. Either you decide to do it or you don’t. And whoever is the last to leave Perry County, please turn out the lights.

  35. - Chicagonk - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:08 pm:

    Someone propose a bill to distribute $500 to each resident of Pope and Hardin counties upon a successful merger of their counties. The state would only be out $4 million.

  36. - Anonymous - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:10 pm:

    Rich, you may want to check out Adams county as well. Their county board recently proposed borrowing 2.5 million to meet payroll obligations as well.

  37. - Charlie Brown - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:16 pm:

    @The Patriot

    Please refer to any recent election map. Most of the counties in Illinois are run by Republicans and dominated by GOP voters.

    A mere 200 have to sign a petition and - boom - your paying for upkeep on one courthouse instead of two, one county clerk’s office instead of two…and so on.

    Plus, if you merge a county with high property taxes into a county with lower tax rates - boom - the tax rate automatically goes down.

    Also, given Abbeys point: merge LaSalle, Grundy, Bureau and Putnam, now you are over 200K people and the tenth largest county. That’s going to help your economic development for sure.

  38. - Lt Guv - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:17 pm:

    Techie, Eastern Block = some southeastern legislators who want to chop the Chicago metro area out of the state and then live in blissful nirvana.

  39. - George - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:18 pm:

    Combine the 7 southernmost Illinois counties - Massac, Pulaski, Alexander, Union, Johnson, Pope and Hardin. One county with a population of about 64,000. We should do that throughout Illinois.

  40. - Moe Berg - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:19 pm:

    Patriot: your quarrel is not with Chicago Democrats, it’s with GOP county officials and the relatives and friends they have on county payrolls who won’t want to lose their good-paying jobs and retirement plans.

    If four counties merge, that’s three fewer sheriffs and three fewer state’s attorneys, for example.

  41. - Zim - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:21 pm:

    It’s not just rural counties in the southern part of the state experiencing financial issues. Kankakee County has been fighting its way through significant financial difficulties, including nearly missing payroll on a number of occasions, for quite a few years. Champaign County is also in a rough place financially. Then of course there’s Cook County. Maybe in light of its longstanding financial issues, it needs to merge with another county or counties. /S

  42. - Demoralized - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:22 pm:

    It’s Democratic Party @the Patriot.

    Those that say Democrat Party are hyperpartisan hacks trying to be cute.

  43. - Anonymous - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:28 pm:

    Hamlet, I’m fine with local control as long as we stop subsidizing these underpopulated areas.

  44. - wordslinger - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:29 pm:

    –Because more government means more taxes, more programs, and more people dependent on the democrat party.–

    Yeah, all those bedrock Democratic small Downstate counties.

    Was that a gag? If not, the joke’s on you, slugger.

  45. - Oswego Willy - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:31 pm:

    ===Because more government means more taxes, more programs, and more people dependent on the democrat party. You need a fiscally minded democrat from Chicago.===

    Angry, white, rural is never a good look…

    Democrat Party… c’mon, you’re better than that.

  46. - Skeptic - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:40 pm:

    If only we had term limits, we could bring jobs back to those counties. Or was it redistricting? I forget.

  47. - Glengarry - Friday, May 10, 19 @ 3:42 pm:

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Calhoun County disappear.

  48. - Anon - Wednesday, May 15, 19 @ 4:37 pm:

    Can a County File for Bankruptcy Protection?
    I assume a City can but not the State from past discussions?

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