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Gov. Rauner signs bill giving Lake, McHenry counties gov’t consolidation powers

A bill that would allow the Lake County Board to eliminate a handful of small units of government was signed into law Friday by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

House Bill 229 grants to the Lake and McHenry county boards the same power that the General Assembly granted DuPage County three years ago under a pilot program aimed at whittling down some of the state’s nearly 7,000 units of local government. The bill allows a county board to eliminate a taxing body for which it appoints a majority of the trustees, provided its boundaries are completely within the district.

State Rep. Jack Franks, who fought for years to get such a bill passed, called it another step in the right direction when it comes to aiding beleaguered taxpayers.

Under the new law, county boards must cite a legitimate reason that concludes that the body proposed for elimination provides either unnecessary or duplicative services. Citizens in the body’s boundaries can petition the county clerk to force the proposed elimination to a voter referendum.

However, the bill does not apply to fire districts with full-time employees, and exempts conservation districts. The latter became a sticking point that held up the bill for a year and caused friction between Franks and Sen. Pamela Althoff, who signed on as the bill’s chief Senate sponsor.

While House Bill 229 passed the House in April on a 61-40 vote, it stalled in the Senate. Althoff, R-McHenry, said she was concerned that the bill could empower county boards to eliminate bodies created by voter referendum, such as the McHenry County Conservation District and the McHenry County Mental Health Board. The conservation district shared the concern, and publicly opposed the bill.

Franks accused Althoff of deliberately sponsoring the bill to keep it from advancing, which she denied.

The bill was resurrected in the final weeks of session this year, with a Senate amendment to exempt conservation districts. Franks grudgingly agreed to the exemption, given that he passed legislation that would empower McHenry County voters, if they so wished, to ask for a referendum to make conservation district trustees popularly elected rather than appointed by the County Board. An attempt by the Senate to exempt mental health boards fell flat.

Franks said this first step could lead to others, such as expanding the power to eliminate governments should McHenry and Lake counties make good use of this new ability.

While DuPage County wanted the power, and Lake County asked Franks to add it to his push to give it to McHenry County, the McHenry County Board has been somewhat cool to it.

Franks, who has pushed a number of consolidation bills in the past, was tapped by Rauner to be a member of a task force on consolidating local governments and easing their burden of unfunded state mandates. Franks was chairman of a similar task force under former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Several other local lawmakers, including Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, co-sponsored the legislation.

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