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posted: 12/29/2012 12:29 PM

Cronin: Consolidation, roads top issues for 2013

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  • DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin discusses his vision for the coming year.

       DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin discusses his vision for the coming year.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 

The story of Timberlake Estates Sanitary District exemplifies how difficult it is to eliminate any of the state's 6,968 governmental entities.

The district stopped providing sanitary service to a small area in southeast DuPage County years ago after the county's public works department took over its responsibilities. But while the entity doesn't levy a property tax, it still shows up on homeowners' tax bills.

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And even though 55 percent of the residents living within the district agree it should be eliminated, legal experts have advised DuPage that it needs permission from at least two-thirds of the residents before asking the courts to disband the entity.

"We want to get rid of it," DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said. "But it's not so easy to get rid of something that does nothing."

So it should come as no surprise that Cronin's top priority for 2013 is to convince state lawmakers to give DuPage the authority to consolidate some of the county's more than 400 taxing bodies.

Cronin has been championing consolidation as a way to save money and improve services since before he took office in January 2011.

As board chairman, the former state senator has been trying to build momentum for eliminating some of the local governmental bodies overseen by boards and commissions that he appoints.

In the wake of separate financial scandals involving the DuPage Water Commission and DuPage Housing Authority, the county hired a public accounting firm to analyze two dozen taxing bodies, including fire protection, sanitary and mosquito abatement districts. Cronin then unveiled an initiative aimed at reforming those agencies and making them more transparent and accountable.

"We've made progress," Cronin said. "We have measurable results. We've saved money. There's still more work to do."

The plan calls for the 24 agencies to explore consolidation opportunities. For example, Cronin says there are so-called "paper" fire districts that are "ripe for consolidation." Paper districts levy property taxes to pay a neighboring fire department to provide fire protection and ambulance services.

But it's legally very difficult to eliminate a taxing body, even if it's found to be financially unstable, duplicative or unnecessary. Some entities can be dissolved only with voter approval.

That's why DuPage has drafted proposed legislation it plans to pitch to state lawmakers.

"If we want to dissolve the Timberlake Estates Sanitary District, we need legislative authority," Cronin said. "If we want some of these fire protection districts to merge, we need legislative authority."

While the proposed legislation is limited to DuPage, it could end up part of a larger consolidation effort. In the fall, the state's local government consolidation commission is expected to recommend ways to trim the state's huge number of local governmental agencies, most of any state in the nation.

Cronin said his preference would be to have DuPage become the test case for the rest of the state.

"Give us our piece first," Cronin said. "Let's get a couple of early successes. Let's develop some momentum."

Another issue Cronin wants to address in 2013 is the ongoing debate over how the Regional Transportation Authority should divvy up so-called "discretionary" funds to Pace, Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority.

Most of the sales tax money the agencies receive is determined by a state formula giving the CTA 56 percent, Metra 32 percent and Pace 12 percent. However, the RTA can independently dole out the discretionary revenues.

After a recent funding dispute, it was determined the CTA will get 98 percent of the $184.8 million in discretionary revenues for 2013. Historically, the CTA has received about 99 percent.

Cronin says that has to end because the need for public transportation has grown in the suburbs. "We have more demand on our public transportation than ever," he said.

Cronin said he's planning to partner with leaders in other counties, including McHenry and Lake, to "fight for our fair share of public transit dollars."

When it comes to DuPage's infrastructure, Cronin says the county is in line to receive about $3.6 million in state money to help pay for various road projects. He said Gov. Pat Quinn has "some ambitious plans" for capital projects.

"We're collaborating with him and working with the administration because we have a lot of need for road projects out here," he said.

One challenge facing communities in northern DuPage and southern Cook counties is raising $300 million to pay the local share of a planned $3.4 billion extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway.

Cronin said he remains "hopeful and confident" that local officials will be able to secure the $300 million through a combination of in-kind contributions and federal grant money.

The Elgin-O'Hare project involves extending the expressway east to O'Hare International Airport and then building a bypass around the western boundary of the airport. The bypass would link I-90 to the north and the Tri-State Tollway to the south.

With a toll increase already funding $3.1 billion of the cost, Cronin said the extension will be built. The only question is whether it's going to be a $3.4 billion project with all the access points and other features that would most benefit the communities along the expressway.

"We do not realize the full potential of this roadway if it's not a $3.4 billion project," he said.

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