Editorial: Merging county offices deserves, requires carefuly study

When it comes to government offices, consolidation is always an interesting word. Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be a good word.

That mindset should apply to any consolidation proposal, and it certainly is worth remembering as Cook County voters get set to consider merging the recorder of deeds and clerk's offices, with voters in Kane County possibly not far behind.

On its face, the Cook County proposal offered by Chicago Democrat John Fritchey seems naturally appealing. The primary functions of both offices are the keeping and monitoring of public records, so why wouldn't it follow that all the data should be overseen under one system?

County Board member Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican, suggests the move could save county taxpayers $1 million a year. That's no insignificant sum, though admittedly in a county budget measured in the billions and facing, as President Toni Preckwinkle forecast just last week, a deficit of nearly $175 million, it's not a game-changer.

Nor, for that matter, is it a slam dunk. While efficiencies can often be obtained by eliminating duplications within similar offices, it's also true that combining two operations - especially in a county as prone to empire building as Cook - can result in one large bureau that's harder for the public to monitor and control.

Much depends in all cases on the individuals in charge, which can be an argument both for and against consolidation. In the case of Cook County, Clerk David Orr long has maintained an efficient and responsive operation, and in her first term on the job, Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough has been praised for instilling a once-bloated office with a new, professional ethos and cut expenses by more than $2 million. Both are elected officials, and at least ostensibly, must answer to voters if they don't perform well. Would removing one of them from the equation justify the reduction in accountability the current system provides?

Maybe. But also maybe not.

In Kane County, where the Cook proposal spurred interest in a similar merger, officials say the recorder's office is almost entirely funded through fees, not taxes. Would assuming all those fees into a merged clerk's office guarantee they would be applied wisely and help reduce overall costs?

Possibly. But again, possibly not.

We, like most taxpayers, appreciate the idea of consolidating governments, so we're certainly intrigued by a possible opportunity to wring some added efficiency out of extravagant operations. But we're going to use the next few months before Nov. 8 to make sure that what sounds like a good move will in fact offer more accountability and lower cost.

We encourage voters to do the same.

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