This article was co-published with Emerging Local Government Leaders.
As someone who works in local government, it's safe to say that I'm not always looked upon as a model member of our society (yet....changing the world's perception takes time). And as a local government worker in Illinois with our rich history of corrupt governors (don't forget that we're also the Land of Lincoln too!), I get even less respect from the public. But when you add to all of that that I work for a "special district," well, let's just say that I sometimes draw a lot of strange looks from my fellow local government peers, especially when I leave the comfort zone of parks & recreation in Illinois.
Now in everyone's defense, I understand that special districts can seem a little odd. In case you aren't aware, special districts are government districts that exist independently from general purpose local governments such as county, municipal, or township governments, and as the name implies, usually exist for a special or specific purpose. Often, they were formed to fund services that general purpose local governments could not (or did not want to) pay for. Of course, years after they have been formed and the citizens have long forgotten that these special districts were created by the voters themselves, they can take a beating by some politicians, university professors, the public, and other local governments as being fragmented, duplicative, and wasteful.
Illinois special districts are under fire right now as the state and other local governments are trying to find a way to tighten their purse strings. And everyone inside and outside of the state likes to throw around the statistic that Illinois has the highest number of local government districts in the country with a total of 6,963 according the 2012 Census of Governments. But before you grab your pitchfork and jump on the special district doubter bandwagon though, it's important to take a few moments to think about what that number really means.
Illinois may reign in the total number of special districts and overall number of local government districts, but when you exam the number of local government districts per capita, it's dwarfed by many states and is only 14th in the country. Additionally, if you look at the number of state & local non-educational government employees per capita, Illinois falls even further down the list to #47. Yes, you read that correctly...#47. Illinois, the state of "big government" has one of the lowest percentages of government employees in the country.
In the community that I work for, residents pay taxes to several general purpose and school districts, but also to multiple special districts, which on the surface may seem ridiculous in a jurisdiction that is literally less than five square miles. It's important that we're honest where some of this distaste for special districts comes from. It's rooted in the fact that people see additional local government districts negatively because they see local government in general in a negative light and that's a problem for all governments to deal with, not just special districts. There are even some of us that work in local government have to admit that we still hold on to a bit of that ourselves. Don't worry, I forgive you Ron Swanson (apologies for the gratuitous Parks & Recreation tv show reference), but hope you'll keep reading.
However, in our community with all of our special districts (and a municipal, township, and county government), we also have some of the best partnerships and sharing that takes place within our boundaries - much more than I often witness between many general purpose governments - not because we're any better, but just out of necessity. Without the mission or ability to be "everything to everyone," special districts often are forced to do what they do well and then work with others to make sure the rest of citizen needs are carried out by those that do them best.
One could also argue that special districts like our park district, give citizens the ability to control the amount of spending dedicated towards its parks and recreation services without as much worry that politics or inter-department budget battles will close their swimming pool or cancel their child's dance class. Additionally, by operating as a smaller, more focused organization, I would also argue that it often allows our park district to be more nimble and responsive to our residents' needs or big challenges like the recent recession.
And it seems that the data would actually agree with me. In a study by the University of Illinois:
- 88% of Illinois residents indicated that they were satisfied with their Park Districts;
- When asked to consider the issue of consolidated government, 90% of those surveyed felt that park and recreation services are best provided by a Park District;
- Nearly 75% felt that Park Districts allow the greatest opportunity for community input compared to services provided by a city or village government;
- When asked specifically about consolidation, a majority of respondents believed that park and recreation services would suffer if consolidated with city, village or county government; and
- Only 10% of residents felt that park and recreation services would improve with a consolidated government.
Now I'm not trying to say that the goal should necessarily be to create more special districts, nor am I campaigning for a "Hug Your Local Special District Employee Day" (although that would be nice). And of course, there are exceptions of dysfunctional special districts still operating in silos and I know some amazing park & recreation departments that operate within municipalities. However, the next decade should definitely be an interesting one for local government as citizens and politicians outweigh a distaste for what they believe is "more government" versus some of the funding opportunities that can go along with the creation of special districts.
Instead, I encourage you to not let the naysayers on either side win. No matter what type of government your work for or have in your community, this should never be an "us vs them" situation because ultimately we are all trying to make our communities better places.
Work for a general purpose government? Reach out to your counterparts at a local special district to introduce yourself and see if there are any commonsense ways that you can partner or share resources. Their areas of specialization might help propel your agency forward in ways that you couldn't do on your own.
Work for a special district? Why not invite someone from your local municipality for coffee and show them what you do? It's amazing how many conversations that I have had with colleagues at municipalities started with a misconception about the bureaucracy of special districts that have ended with a twinge of jealousy about what a special district can accomplish when all staff are heading in the same direction.
Are you a resident? I know sometimes our websites aren't the most customer-friendly, but keep trying to get involved - we need you too.
Maybe someday together we can even turn that statistic of 6,963 units of local government in Illinois from a point of embarrassment for some into an actual point of pride. Hey, a girl can dream, right?