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A narrowly divided City Council, sitting as Trustees of the Township of Evanston, voted to place a referendum on the March general election ballot that would allow voters to decide whether to dissolve the Township. The vote was 5-4; the referendum, if passed, would be binding. Concerns over the continued provision of General Assistance weighed heavily on those voting no while proponents touted a potential savings to the City of between $500,000 and $700,000 a year.

The vote came as part of an ongoing Council inquiry into inefficiency and overspending by the Township, begun at the Human Services Committee in the early spring and brought forward to full Council as part of the Township’s budget process in mid-summer. As part of the inquiry, Council asked the City’s legal staff to advise them about possible dissolution.

Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, who said legal staff has spent in excess of 100 hours studying the issue, created what he called “a belt and suspenders” approach. Staff advised generating referendum language to be placed on the March primary election ballot while at the same time lobbying our elected representatives in Springfield for state law relief either in the form of new Township legislation or legislation allowing the City to distribute General Assistance.

Council quickly rejected the belt, but stuck with the suspenders. “This would be a major lobbying effort,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, and probably not the City’s “top priority” in Springfield. Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, agreed, but added, “I’d like for us to continue exploring what feels like a consolidation of services.”

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, weighed the savings against the effort required to achieve dissolution. He cited savings of about $85,000, mostly from duplication of services. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, estimated the savings to be more like $700,000 a year. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz estimated savings of “at least in my mind” $500,000 a year, and Council seemed to settle on that figure for the rest of the debate.

The $85,000 could be saved by reaching efficiencies in current Township operations, he said. Overhead in the form of rent and personnel costs push the savings number to at least $500,000, he and others said.

Despite an impassioned plea by Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson, Council quickly determined that her office’s functions could be easily absorbed by either the City or Commissioner Larry Suffredin’s office. The provision of General Assistance, however, was another matter.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, called it “irresponsible” to even discuss Township dissolution without having a plan in place for the distribution of assistance to the City’s very neediest after the Township was gone. Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, agreed, saying it was “a waste to pursue something when we don’t have a plan.”

But Ald. Rainey and Mr. Bobkiewicz pointed out that with the severe reduction in overhead costs the City may actually be in a position to provide more assistance than the Township currently provides. [General Assistance currently provides about $300 a month to its wards.] Mr. Bobkeiwicz said, “I don’t think it would be a difficult thing to come up with a plan as to how we deliver General Assistance,” saying that the City’s Community and Economic Development department would be a likely place for it.

When it came time to vote, alds. Fiske, Tendam, Grover, Rainey and Burrus voted to place the referendum on the ballot, while alds. Wynne, Braithwaite, Wilson and Holmes voted no. Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City would return with a plan at a special Township meeting in late November. “I can be persuaded,” said Ald. Homes.

For now, it appears that the Township citizens will get the opportunity to decide its fate in March. But that could change after the late November meeting.