Drawing The Line On Providing Local Services

Jan 22, 2014

Credit WNIJ

Privatizing government services is a recurring topic in an era of tight budgets. From lottery systems to garbage pick-up, agencies have explored ways to save money. In some cases, turning over ownership of roadways has been discussed. That debate is happening in a northern Illinois community.

The Chicago suburb of Long Grove is a village of more than eight-thousand people. Incorporated in 1956, this Lake County community is known for its affluent neighborhoods and annual festivals celebrating foods like chocolate and strawberries.  

It also has a history of running a minimal government. Village president Angie Underwood says that philosophy is echoed through its tax base.

“We do not have a local property tax, so our sources of income in Long Grove are very limited,” Underwood said.

That’s especially been the case in recent years, as revenue from building permits dwindled and commercial development never materialized. Underwood says they are now dealing with a nearly one-million dollar funding gap for roads.

Finding a solution

One way to reduce that gap is to transfer the responsibility of road maintenance to residents. A while back, Underwood says, the village saw the writing on the wall and declared that any new roads built should be private. Over the course of time, as the community added more residents and infrastructure, there was a gradual shift in the percentage of ownership.

“So we have a situation now where 70-percent of our residents live on private roads, and 30-percent of our residents live on public roads,” Underwood said.

With the exception of main thoroughfares, the village wants the remaining 30-percent of people living on public roads to financially support the maintenance of those roads. Underwood says that would come through what they are calling special service areas.

“The residents that live in that special service area would be responsible for the financial upkeep of those roads, but they would remain public. The village would still own those roads, but the funding to maintain them would be private,” Underwood said.

Underwood says they are now trying to work out agreements with various subdivisions where extra charges would be added a homeowner's tax bill. Residents also have the option of creating new HOA’s to take ownership of the road in question. That second option would require a super-majority approval from village trustees. Underwood says they plan to take that vote as the process unfolds. There is a November deadline to get all of this done.

Despite their privatization efforts, Long Grove will still try to get a property-tax referendum passed this spring. That would go only toward maintaining busy streets the village still wants to own. Officials decided to go with a scaled-back tax proposal, after residents complained about paying for roads in other neighborhoods, when they’re already subsidizing their own streets.

Dangerous precedent?

Kurt Thurmaier is a public administration professor at Northern Illinois University. He calls what’s happening in Long Grove a slippery slope. Whether its splitting up how residents fund infrastructure, or voters not willing to support a community-wide tax for a particular service, Thurmaier says it points to what he believes is a growing distaste for funding basic community needs.

"The question is: Are people willing to contribute as they were in the past, something from their pocket to the common good? And increasingly, people are saying no," Thurmaier said.

Thurmaier says local governments can avoid these scenarios by building a more reliable tax base. He says that should include a property tax, as unpopular as it may seem.

Darryl Lindberg is the mayor of Loves Park. He also serves as president of the Illinois Municipal League. Lindberg says while Illinois law allows local governments to vacate responsibility of certain roads, he cautions against it.

"They're fine when they're new. But when it comes to resurface or doing other maintenance, it's such an expense that their homeowners association didn't really anticipate. And that's when they usually come to us and ask us 'can you take our roads?'" Lindberg said.

Lindberg's city also doesn't have a local property tax. But he says they've been aggressive in identifying other ways to pay for road maintenance. He says it's a service residents should expect from their local government. But he understands that smaller communities, like Long Grove, have their hands tied -- especially when revenues are hard to come by.

As for setting precedents, Long Grove President Underwood doesn't view this as a move against community-minded thinking. She says her village is a unique situation where it is already used to having residents be responsible for a key part of infrastructure.

"From the get-go, the village was founded on the idea that people would be self-sufficient," Underwood said.

Whether or not residents still agree with that sentiment will be borne out in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Underwood notes that it’s miraculous they have gone this far without a property tax. She says if residents truly feel that local government should be the one in control of roads, than they need to embrace such a tax so it can still carry out that service, even if it’s on a limited basis.