The Winnebago County Board Chairman is trying to decide if merging the County Clerk and Recorder offices is a good idea. Many counties in Illinois already combine the two. Others are moving in that direction. So what’s going on?
The office of County Clerk administers elections and vital records like birth certificates, marriage and business licenses. The County Recorder of Deeds administers a library of land records and real-estate transactions, including information needed for deed and title searches such as tax liens and mortgages.
Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney is straightforward about why he’s thinking about consolidating the County Clerk and Recorder offices.
“Winnebago County has a multi-million dollar budget deficit we’re grappling with going into fiscal year ’18, which starts on October 1,” Haney said. “The city of Rockford, our largest municipality inside Winnebago County, is projecting, I think, an $8 million deficit. We don’t have the choice but, number one, to work together. Number two is to look to find efficiencies.”
Consolidating county-wide elected offices could be one of the ways to accomplish that. For Haney, the idea is just part of a bigger push to modernize the structure of the county’s government, something he said is sorely needed.
“The comment was made back a year and a half ago that,” Haney said, ”if you looked at county government, and in particular Winnebago County government, that Abraham Lincoln, if he were still alive, would recognize it. And you know, some people chuckle, but I find that aggravating as a 21st century taxpayer.”
Haney said he’s studying the matter carefully and looking at how other counties are making it work.
“Does that mean that’s the right fit for Winnebago County? No,” Haney said. “And that’s why we’re taking a look at it and just seeing if this is something that I want to recommend to my board, the county board, 20 members elected by district, for consideration. And if they vote in the affirmative -- if I recommend it -- then it would go and be put on the ballot in November of ‘18.”
Haney admitted to leaning in the direction of recommending a merger of the two offices, based on what he’s seen and heard so far. He remembered a conversation he had about Circuit Clerk, County Clerk and Recorder.
“One of the foremost experts here at Winnebago County was talking to me the other day,” Haney said, “and they said, at the end of the day, those three offices push paper. Now it’s important paper. It’s important to taxpayers. It’s important to how our community runs. It’s important on so many levels.”
But with modern technology, Haney said, potentially all that could be done more efficiently with fewer people – including fewer elected officials. And the savings could be significant. That, Haney said, is the question he’s trying to answer: Will this help the county provide the same, or better, service for less money?
Many smaller Illinois counties, as well as somewhat more populous ones like DeKalb County, have combined the two offices for decades. Several others have gone down that route in recent years. Recorder’s offices were consolidated in 2011 in Tazewell County, in 2012 in McLean County, and in 2014 in Peoria County. Cook County, the largest county in the state by far, elected to do so last year.
McHenry County will be asking voters if they want to do the same. The county board put the question on the spring 2018 ballot, with the full backing of both the county clerk and the recorder. In fact, the McHenry county recorder campaigned for the office in the last election with the promise that he would work for its elimination. It also received enthusiastic support from County Chairman Jack Franks. Like Haney, he said it’s a bottom-line issue – even an existential one.
“We can no longer have business as usual and conduct our government like we’ve done in the past,” Franks said. “It’s unsustainable. As we’ve seen it with our healthcare costs, our pension costs. And now, the real crisis is our property taxes. In McHenry County, for instance, we’ve lost population six of the last seven years. People are voting with their feet. They can’t afford to live here.”
Franks and the board have pledged to reduce those property taxes by ten percent. Like Haney, Franks said the merger of the Clerk and Recorder offices is just part of the larger effort. But, again like Haney, he says the results could be significant.
“We’ll have more efficiencies,” Franks said. “The technology has gone leaps and bounds in the last few years, and so we’re able to do more with less. Hopefully have fewer employees. Do more online. Use less space. And I met with the recorder just the other day on his budget and looking at the people he’ s trying to hire to implement some of this, and I think we can save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year going forward.”
So are the present moves all about the money? Haney said there’s no question fiscal woes are driving changes right now. But this and other reorganization efforts also are part of a bigger pattern, a shift that’s affecting how governments in general, and county governments in particular, do business. That’s according to Kurt Thurmaier, Chair of the Department of Public Administration in the School of Public & Global Affairs at Northern Illinois University. He said the number of elected offices in county governments reflects an age-old dilemma.
“There’s a tension that’s enduring in government in general,” Thurmaier said, “where voters really are holding onto accountability. They want mechanisms to hold officials accountable. And that tension is in line with another countervailing force, which is, they want to have the same or more services for lower cost.”
Thurmaier said, in addition, county offices, generally low-profile and with low-information campaigns, have often been seen as ways to bring someone into politics.
So how does a county executive achieve a good balance between accountability and a desire for efficiency these days?
Thurmaier said in the past, there was a lot of paper, and different systems for each type of office, such as recording deeds, or collecting and distributing tax revenues to cities, schools and other units of government. Each had their own person in charge, often an elected one, to provide the accountability the public wanted.
But, Thurmaier said, people are beginning to realize that a structure set up in the 19th century, if not earlier, is not necessarily the best way to run a government any more. It can be more professional and still satisfy one of their main reasons for having an elected official before.
“We absolutely don’t want to give up accountability,” Thurmaier said, “but that accountability now is available in a different form, which is transparent electronic transactions, which, as we know, even the Russians can know what they are, right? So, it’s an opportunity for government to become more effective in how they deliver services while being more transparent as well as more efficient.”
Thurmaier said, in theory, the new systems could allow one treasurer or other office to do transactions for several counties at once.
“As long as your taxes are collected, and collected in the right amounts,” Thurmaier said, “and given and distributed in the way that it’s supposed to, why does it matter whether there’s a Republican, or a Democrat, or Green or Purple Party person doing it. It makes no difference.”
It’s something, he says, that’s already happening on the municipal level, as communities share resources and services.
Haney said in Winnebago County, at least, it’s not about personalities, or parties, even though that’s how the system is set up. It’s about providing better service. Franks said that certainly was true in McHenry County. Thurmaier said, again, it reflects a shift, in both government and those governed, toward more professional management of resources.
Next spring in McHenry County, and perhaps the following fall in Winnebago County, voters will get their say on consolidating the offices. If approved, both mergers would take effect in 2020. Given what’s happened elsewhere in Illinois, they may not be the last.