Government Waste

Zombie Government Bodies Spread Nationally; Occasional Victories Require Difficult Budget Shot


Zombie bureaucrat
Martin SoulStealer

We all know how intrusive, bloated and expensive the federal government is—the not-really-a-shutdown provided us a glimpse of just how far the beast on the Potomac has extended its tentacles into everyday life. But local government often flies under the radar, spreading its reach, hassling its subjects and outliving its usefulness while we remain largely unaware of the growing problem. It's the attack of the zombie government agencies, and victories against them are rare and hard-fought.

At Bloomberg, Tim Jones and John McCormick write:

Across the country, there are 38,266 special purpose districts, or government units distinct from cities, counties and schools, each with its own ability to raise money. Since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that government "is not the solution to our problem—government is the problem," their numbers have jumped 32 percent.

Among such bodies is "a mosquito abatement district in suburban Chicago that spends three-quarters of its budget on pay and benefits—and more on pensions than insecticide. The districts have been around since the 1920s, when they were created to fight malaria." Illinois, overall, is tits-deep in these pointless but expensive local agencies, with "almost 7,000 units that tax, spend and drive up debt in a state struggling to pay off vendors and cover almost $100 billion of unfunded pension liabilities." The agencies often duplicate each other's efforts, sharing overlapping responsibilities and jursdictions—and still not accomplishing their assigned (and often archaic) tasks, while failing to do so with full staffing and spectacular costs.

Spectacular costs? The South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District spent $2.3 million last year, most on salaries, pensions and the like, with only $100,000 going to pesticide. The Wheaton Sanitary District pays its head $146,000 per year—more than Illinois' lieutenant governor, treasurer, or comptroller take home.

The special districts are almost impossible to kill, since they have entrenched defendes in the form of patronage hires and their own lobbyists, while most taxpayers don't know they exist.

These seemingly unkillable government bodies do take an occasional head shot.

In Lee County, Florida, the Lee Soil and Water Conservation District, established in 1947 as a New Deal-era effort to keep the Oklahoma dust bowl from replicating itself in…Florida? Anyway, decades later, it had been reduced to expending its budget on sprinkler inspections at a cost of $500 each. As a result, reports WINK News, "An agency in local government has abolished itself, because its directors realized: it had nothing to do. So, the Lee Soil and Water Conservation District has gone out of existence after more than 60 years."

Lee Soil and Water Conservation Commission
Lee Soil and Water Conservation Commission

But…There was more to it than that. More in the form of years of hard work as local libertarians worked to win a majority on the District board and to rein it in. Writing in the News-Press, one of those activists, Kim Hawk, describes the process:

It was springtime in 2004 when the federal, state and local budgets were spiraling out of control and Jack Tanner, at the tender age of 70, was looking for a way that even one person could make a difference.

He set his sights on the Lee County Soil and Water Conservation District board, got himself appointed to fill a vacancy. Come election time, he got elected and realized that after several 4-1 votes against the idea he needed help.

In the spring of 2006 Jack asked fellow libertarians Tom Clark and myself to join him and create a 3-2 majority. I was lucky to run unopposed and Tom won by a solid margin, setting the stage for the first big showdown. …

As layers of government over the years rendered the districts obsolete, they became bureaucracies in search of a mission. Many districts, including Lee's, decided their new mission was to offer "free" inspections of lawn sprinklers. No adjustments or repairs were allowed. Jack Tanner was furious when he realized the cost of each visit was $500, consuming $200,000 in taxpayer money in Lee County every year.

Jan. 11, 2007 dawned clear and cold. I was nervous and excited as I entered my first meeting and found the room full of important looking bureaucrats. The board moved quickly to the discussion of the termination of two employees and the sprinkler check-up service. Amid vehement protests and declarations of retribution we voted 3-2 to end the program.

You'll notice that victory was in 2007 and final dissolution came last month, in 2013. The years in between were spent returning money to taxpayers, successfully battling to end other sprinkler-inspection programs and fighting to have the District dissolved so nobody else could win control and restart the patronage machine. The whole process took nine years.

One down, 38,265 special purpose districts to go.

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  1. Is Lou Reed still dead? Matt?

    1. “Are ye Mary Queen o’ Scots?”

      “I am.”

      *sounds of pitched battle and fighting*

      “That was the exciting conclusion of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ on BBC Radio One…”

      I am.

  2. Finally a happy story out of Florida.

  3. Without government, who will inspect lawn sprinklers?

    One thing I’ll say for Maryland and Virginia is that they’re not heavily dependent on special districts. Of course, those states have their own problems with the structure of local governments. Also, Illinois is an outlying data point, with by far the greatest number of local governments of any state in the union.

  4. So my home state of Illinois has 7000 of the 38,000 taxing units ? Nearly 20% in just one state. Way to go Illinois !

    Seriously, where I lived in suburban Chicago, there was a local road district. Over the years, the roads all became state highways, municipal streets, or county highways. They had a commissioner, a board and about 5 miles of road that were still in their purview. Which they contracted with the county to maintain, as they had no equipment to do so themselves.

    The only reason I became aware of this ghost commission is that one of our town council members got voted out in a controversy, and she then ran for this road commissioner office…because not having some sort of power was a death sentence for her. Then she appointed her husband to the commission….just a total slap in the face to productive people, and yet, nothing was done.

    1. Illinois has 6,963 local governments of all types, of which 3,227 are special districts. The country has 90,056 local governments, comprising 38,910 general-purpose governments, 12,880 independent school districts, and 38,266 special districts.

      1. Only 8.5%. Whew! Bankruptcy is a little less imminent.

  5. Up the revolution! Today the Soil and Water Conservation District, tomorrow the school board!

  6. It took 9 years to dismantle a tiny government bureaucracy with a relatively tiny budget in just one tiny corner of the country. This should tell you that the only thing that will abate the other 36,000ish bureaucracies is economic necessity. They won’t get off the ship until they sink it.

    1. But on the other hand, it only took three people to do it.

  7. It is rational self interest. The people who benefit from these districts get their livelihood from it. So they will fight to the death to create them. Meanwhile, the people who pay for them only pay a small amount of money, and thus don’t have an interest in fighting as hard to end them as the people who want to create them have. I would hate the local mosquito district too. But what would it cost me if I lived there? A few dollars a year? Am I really going to spend thousands of hours fighting to get my hundred bucks back? Maybe if I am a real hard nosed gadfly. But more than likely I have better things to do with my time and I just pay the hundred bucks and forget about it. Rinse and repeat this process thousands of times and we have the situation we have now.

    I don’t know what you do about it. One solution would be to make these sorts of things collectively a statewide issue. The total effect of them would get people’s attention. But that is a long hard road and I don’t see how you keep new ones from being created.

    1. Rinse and repeat this process thousands of times

      And Thousands of those thousands are in one state. Illinois politicians are the best.

      1. This is why I hope that state governments like California and Illinois go bankrupt and their state gets dissolved, because then all these little craptastic moneywasters will all go down in flames at once.

    2. I fully intend to be like Jack Tanner, and spend my retirement being a giant asshole and trying to destroy the petty bureaucracies of my local government.

      1. That is why even local politicians generally don’t fuck with old people. Old people have nothing else to do and really will spend thousands of hours getting their money back out of spite. You fuck with working people and people with families who have better things to do.

        Anyone with any experience in local government will tell you “don’t fuck with old ladies in tennis shoes”. You can’t win.

        1. Old people have nothing else to do and really will spend thousands of hours getting their money back out of spite. You fuck with working people and people with families who have better things to do.

          This is so true. I often don’t have time to correct minor errors over the course of the day (correct change, receipt, etc.) Old People have also lived long enough to be vindictive/vengeful about every slight as they’ve accumulated through the years.

    3. Sunset laws would certainly help. Pass a state constitutional amendment that forces a sunset provision for most laws and state created agencies. The agency is automatically dissolved after X years if not specifically renewed by the legislature in a single item bill. (No lumping them all together and just passing them all each year – although in Florida, even if they could do that, the Governor could pick them off one by one with the line item veto.)

      Ideally, the legislature should be spending more time deciding which laws to keep, rather than coming up with new ones.

      1. I believe Texas has some version of this.

        1. It does. Even TxDOT is subject to sunset review.

      2. One way to prevent lumping renewals together is allow individuals to sue to overturn defective laws, such as internally inconsistent, inconsistent with respect to other laws, incompatible with the parent constitutions, inconsistently enforced, etc. And if that lawsuit wins, the entire law is thrown out. No judge-made modifications because judges weren’t elected and do not epresent the people.

        So if they combine laws for renewal, it makes the new single law a much mroe tempting target.

  8. But who will keep us safe from malaria?

    I read that Bloomberg story this morning. Makes you proud to know enterprise is alive and well in America. If you consider political fiefdoms and tax funded slush funds “enterprise”.

    1. You know, I would think that HOAs and other convenant bodies would have the legal authority to contract with private enterprises to spray neighborhoods with everything from DDT to homeopathic remedies, given the local makeup of the board.

    2. Reminds me of this bit in a hilarious recent NYT article:

      The breakdown of the federal Web site could emerge as a test of Mr. Obama’s philosophy, with potentially serious implications for an agenda that relies heavily on the belief in a can-do bureaucracy.

      “Can-do bureaucracy.” LOLWUT?

      Most of the article is hand wringing about how Obamacare’s poor rollout might somehow give people the wrong impression that government is inefficient.

      1. Typical leftist press. They’re not the least bit concerned that government is a huge money suck, they’re concerned that Obamacare will demonstrate that fact to people and thus cause their fellow travelers to lose power.

    3. The best part of the article is that despite all the mosquito abatement spending, Illinois has a lot of West Nile virus, and even local mayors have gotten it. Your local government at work!

  9. There are 4000 in Colorado. I plan on running for one this spring (May elections). The vast majority are a cancer and must be removed. My favorite target is Golf Courses.

  10. “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

    1. You should try switching to Civilization 5.

  11. Sprinkler inspections?

    “Yup. There’s water comin’ out of that sprinkler. Pass.”

    1. That’s worth every penny of the $500.

    2. Only if the sprinklers happened to be on while they were driving their truck past the place.

  12. I would think that HOAs and other convenant bodies would have the legal authority to contract with private enterprises to spray neighborhoods with everything from DDT to homeopathic remedies, given the local makeup of the board.

    In the Bloomberg article, somebody pointed out that mosquito season lasts about three months and asked what those clowns do for the remainder of the year. I’m reasonably certain some private enterprise could be found to spray three or four times a year, and cost the municipality not one fucking cent otherwise.

    1. But that would be the evil of Privatization, and my prog friends assure me that it’s a terrible thing that never works.

    2. Yes, but then where would their idiot cousins work?

  13. $500 sprinkler inspections have a stimulative effect. Trust me: you stop the the sprinkler inspections, and the next thing you know, your salary drops or you get fired because of declining aggregate demand. Just get used to a ~30% tax rate and paying for bullshit. Trust me: we’re all better off.

  14. Looks like the Leon County (Florida) Soil and Water Conservation District already has at least one board member who’ll vote for a dismantling:…..ation-race

    1. Uh, buddy, that’s from October of last year.

    2. Shit, my bad. That’s Leon County. I know a couple of those people, I think. Seems like two of those people were people I sorta know who were running for the same seat.

      1. Oh yeah, I thought I remembered coming across another commenter here who lives in Tallahassee. That’s Cool (more or less).

        Anyway, the LCSWCD is what immediately came to mind when I read this article. I don’t even really know what they do, but I can’t imagine it’s all that useful, and I know at least once I’ve looked into what I would have to do to run (and how much shit I’d have to deal with if I actually won a seat), but those details escape me at the moment. But from the article, it certainly sounds like Bertsch is just waiting for a couple of (quasi-) libertarians to join him and start the self-destruct sequence.

        1. No idea why I capitalized “cool”.

  15. Silly to criticize agencies on the proportion they spend on pesticides. When you pay privately for an exterminator, how much of that is for pesticide as opposed to labor?

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