For years, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin led a quixotic struggle to reduce taxes by cutting Illinois’s enormous roster of local governments — nearly 9,000 publicly financed entities, by one count, far more than any other state. In DuPage, Cronin eliminated or absorbed seven: underutilized fire districts and water sanitation agencies, a dedicated street lighting office, an election commission, and an authority devoted to helping put on the county fair.

Those moves will save taxpayers more than $100 million over 20 years, the county estimates. Even so, political interest in slimming local government is waning. And that mystifies Cronin: “If all 102 counties in Illinois abolished seven units of government, it would be significant. But I’m not optimistic there are going to be meaningful conversations about this.”

Anyone who gazes at a property tax bill realizes Illinois is awash in local government: townships, school and park districts, road and bridge agencies, community colleges, police and fire departments, and a collection of water, housing, cultural, cemetery, and even mosquito abatement districts. The Cook County treasurer’s website lists eight taxing districts for Chicago, 11 for Winnetka, and 10 each for Norridge and Hodgkins.

There are so many entities that even the experts differ on their number. The Civic Federation, which charts government spending and claims to have done the most exhaustive search, says Illinois has 8,923. That’s higher than the 6,032 tally from the Illinois Policy Institute and the 6,918 listed in a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report — 2,000 more than second-place Pennsylvania.

“You can tell this is a big problem when nobody can agree on the full number,” says Austin Berg, vice president of marketing for IPI, a libertarian think tank that backs government consolidation. “When there are so many units of government, you inevitably have inefficiencies.”

How did we get to this point? Illinois has long empowered residents to start governing bodies. The 1848 state constitution gave voters in every county the right to form townships to manage local finances — and most counties did. As the state grew, local populations sought to further control their fates by forming municipalities and special units, such as library or water usage districts. Now that many of those units have outlived their usefulness, those same laws serve as deterrents to getting rid of them.

An oft-cited example of excess: Illinois has 17 townships with boundaries identical to their cities, meaning residents are taxed for both, even though township functions could be handled by cities. When the entities are combined, it can save taxpayers money. Evanston cut nearly $800,000 annually after absorbing its township in 2012, taking on its roles of providing assistance to the indigent and helping residents appeal property taxes.

The plethora of school districts, each employing its own staff and support system, is another point of superfluity. Halving Illinois’s 859 school districts would save taxpayers up to $170 million annually and ultimately relieve them of nearly $4 billion in public pension costs over 30 years, the IPI contends.

In 2017, Bob Anderson won a seat on the McHenry Township Board by running with a slate seeking to dissolve the township there and shrink local government. The now-85-year-old retired barber had heard customers beef for almost 30 years about their property taxes. But his attempts never got anywhere with fellow board members, and Anderson left after one term. “I don’t see how you can have tax savings without consolidation,” argues Anderson, who senses lawmakers are moving on from his pet issue.

He may be right. In addition to Cronin, who is retiring in December, several key officials who championed government contraction are no longer in the game: State senator Tom Cullerton of Villa Park was sent to prison this year for fraudulently receiving salary and benefits from a labor union; Jack Franks, formerly a state representative and chair of the McHenry County Board, left public life; and Lake County state representative Sam Yingling lost a recent primary bid for the Illinois Senate.

Initiatives to shake up the status quo will also have to proceed without the help of Transform Illinois. Founded in 2014, in part by Cronin, the collaborative of elected officials, research organizations, business supporters, and civic activists advocated legislation and regulatory efforts favoring government efficiency. That group went dark once the pandemic hit as members focused on more pressing matters, leaving behind only a website.

As for backing from Springfield, lawmakers seem to prefer their government consolidation laws à la carte. There’s no appetite for a stronger, wide-ranging bill that would trigger mergers and dissolution efforts throughout the state, advocates say. When he was a state senator, Evanston mayor Daniel Biss got a law passed allowing Evanston Township to vote itself out of existence, but that was after his bill allowing any township that option was lobbied to the ground by the Illinois Township Association. “There’s no one-size-fits-all,” contends Susan Garrett, a former state lawmaker from Lake County and cofounder of the nonprofit Center for Illinois Politics. “What works in Evanston may not work anywhere else.”

Furthermore, history shows that such efforts often invite opposition from those who work for or benefit from the targeted entities. State representative Rita Mayfield, a Democrat from Waukegan, proposed legislation to reduce the number of Illinois school districts by 25 percent. Her bill is getting pushback from school administrators and labor unions, who fear disruptions and job losses.

Don’t expect to hear local government consolidation as a rallying cry during the current race for governor. Neither J.B. Pritzker nor Darren Bailey has put forth any such plan. They may be missing out on an opportunity to connect with voters, activists say. “Shrinking the size of government is an issue that a lot of Illinois residents desperately want,” says Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, which lobbies for ethics and efficiency in government.

Meanwhile, DuPage County’s Dan Cronin is planning for life after politics. He’s going to work at his law firm, and maybe take a European vacation. He also intends to mentor young policymakers, hoping they’ll pick up the smaller government crusade, even if it means tilting at windmills.