Why township road district merger is proving difficult

Voters in April approved a merger of township road districts in Naperville and Lisle that was thought to be the first of its kind in the state.

At the time, the move was pitched as a prime example of how government entities could be combined to provide equal or better services while saving taxpayers money.

Now, two months later, it appears the process of combining the districts over the next four years will be anything but simple — and the coming debate could serve as a cautionary tale for other governments that consolidation might sound good initially, but also can quickly go wrong.

The problems started when two Naperville Township officials who supported the consolidation — Supervisor Rachel Ossyra and Highway Commissioner Stan Wojtasiak — were ousted in the spring election. Those elected in their place — Supervisor Eddie Bedford and Highway Commissioner Richard Novinger — say they think the road district merger will cost taxpayers more than it will save and be a disservice to residents, especially in Naperville Township.

Novinger canceled an agreement between the two road districts that had them cooperating on services since mid-August 2016 and now says he wants to restore his office to how it functioned before February 2016, when consolidation talks first surfaced.

Novinger and Bedford have stopped short of calling for a new referendum to overturn the results of the April vote, in which 56.5 percent of voters in Naperville Township and 54.5 percent in Lisle Township approved the consolidation. But they say they fear that, among other problems, there are hidden costs involved in turning two road districts into one.

“I think there's going to be a lot of problems down the road that the average voter out there had no idea were going to happen,” Novinger said. “Had they known, I'm convinced the referendum would not have passed.”

Staying independent

When Novinger took office, he said he initially supported the agreement his predecessor signed with Lisle Township Highway Commissioner Ed Young. It called for the Lisle district to provide services for nearly 15 miles of roads in the Naperville district's jurisdiction under a $275,000 deal that was supposed to last 10½ months.

Then he started digging into the finances of his office and began to think otherwise.

The agreement was inefficient, he says, and it was expensive, starting at roughly $22,000 a month and including extra bills Novinger didn't expect.

Wojtasiak, who signed the deal that took effect Aug. 15, 2016, knew of its imperfections but felt he had no choice in the wake of a $544,325 budget cut approved three months earlier that left him unable to pay all his salaries.

“No, it was not an efficient agreement, but it was the only one we had,” Wojtasiak said. “We had to do that agreement in a hurry and it was impossible to get to all the issues.”

The deal, for example, required two equipment operators employed by the Naperville district to report to work at the Lisle Township garage and be assigned to projects each day from there. The two facilities, at 31W331 North Aurora Road in Naperville and 4719 Indiana Ave. in Lisle, are roughly 7½ miles apart.

Novinger said his district was losing up to 10 hours of work a week because of the extra driving required for the two employees to punch the clock in Lisle, drive nearly 30 minutes back to Naperville, do their work, then leave a half-hour early to clock out in time back in Lisle.

But if employees of the two districts truly were to function as one combined workforce, Young said that was the only sensible way to track their time and make assignments.

Further, Young said, the additional bills assessed to the Naperville district — three invoices this spring totaled $12,332 — covered services not included in the agreement.

Novinger said the two sides also differed on how employee vacation time should be handled, and Novinger didn't think the Naperville workers were being treated fairly.

Young said the Naperville employees were allowed to take days off and were treated according to the Lisle Township road district employee handbook.

Novinger canceled the intergovernmental agreement at the end of May — one month before its scheduled June 30 expiration date.

“The primary reason was the inefficiencies,” he said. “It was in the best interest of Naperville township residents to cancel this agreement because of the inefficiencies and my perception of the working relationship.”

Combined future

The intergovernmental agreement was to be a starting point for forming the merged road district. Without it, officials say they need to research possible next steps to find a path forward.

So far, they see no option but to negotiate through their differences and find a way to combine efforts.

“I know no mechanism to undo the consolidation,” Young said. “I'm not sure another referendum is provided for in the state statute.”

But new Naperville Township leaders say they're concerned about some of the hidden costs of forming a new unit of government, such as establishing new banking, insurance and legal services and forming multitownship political organizations to choose each party's candidate for the new single highway commissioner's office.

“You have to basically reinvent the wheel,” Novinger said. “That costs money.”

Former Lisle Township Supervisor Rick Tarulis voiced those same concerns before the election and remained neutral on the consolidation. He didn't support it, despite early projections showing taxes would go down roughly $24 a year for the owner of a $300,000 house in Lisle Township and up about $3 a year for comparable homeowners in Naperville Township.

The consolidation has been projected to save about $800,000 to $1.4 million a year overall on services such as snow plowing, street sweeping and collection of brush and leaves.

But those savings would come partially from the sale of assets, including equipment and quite possibly the Naperville district's garage.

Novinger said uncertainties about when such sales might take place leave him unsure how to handle vehicles and equipment that might need to be replaced. Why replace a truck now, he says, when he might have to sell it in a year?

Young says he'd like consolidation talks to begin as soon as possible, and he thinks it makes the most sense to use the facilities and professional services in place for his district to streamline the process.

“Assuming you consolidate and put all the operations over here, basically all you're doing is adding three or four people to your payroll, getting the name changed on your insurance coverage and things like that,” Young said.

Novinger disagrees.

“They wanted control yesterday,” he said about Lisle Township officials. “And as far as they were concerned, we were the smaller of the two to be gobbled up and they were going to be in charge.”

Whatever happens, new Lisle Township Supervisor Mary Jo Mullen said it's important to keep taxpayers informed because — one way or the other — their vote in April is forcing the wheels of consolidation to remain in motion.

The referendum vote that required the consolidation was binding and it says the two districts must combine in time for voters to elect one highway commissioner for the new unit in spring 2021.

“It's going to be interesting,” Naperville Township Supervisor Bedford said, “because there's no direction.”

Lawsuit dismissal means Naperville Twp. road budget dispute is over

  Naperville Township Highway Commissioner Richard Novinger says he opposes the mandated consolidation of his road district with the Lisle Township road district. He says the process of combining, which is required after voters approved it in a referendum this spring, will lead to hidden costs and be a disservice to his jurisdiction's residents. BEV HORNE/
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