The headline may come as a surprise. The governance of Evanston Township has seemed a disaster over the past several years. There are two parts to Township government in Evanston, whose borders are coterminous with the City’s: the Town or Township office and the Assessor’s office.
The Township Assessor helps people appeal the property taxes the County Assessor has levied. The Town or Township, whose mission has almost been drowned in the tsunami of litigation costs and other negativity, exists to serve the most vulnerable residents of the Township of Evanston. It is that aspect of the Township we address.
A Township exists, first and foremost, to help those among us who need help the most: those who have nowhere else to turn, the poorest of the poor, the unemployed and perhaps unemployable, those who really have no other options, no advocates, no support network, no hope – and no voice.
Through all the background noise, that is the Township; that is what the Township does; those are whom the Township serves.
Many factors led this newspaper to support a resolution seeking township dissolution. Time, circumstances, and a shift in Township personnel have caused at least some of us to reconsider.
Since the resignation of Township Supervisor Gary Gaspard earlier this year, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz became acting Township Supervisor, essentially appointing himself with the rubber stamp of a willing City Council that mostly just wants the Township problem to disappear as quickly as possible. So whether the City can perform the Township’s functions remains an open question.
Mr. Bobkiewicz assigned the day-to-day operations of the Township to the City’s Public Health Director, Evonda Thomas-Smith. She is the perfect person to run Township operations. She understands the role the Township plays, and she truly believes in its mission. This newspaper has complete confidence in her ability to run the Township more effectively than the previous two elected regimes. Regrettably, she is not an Evanston resident and therefore, under the law, cannot be Township supervisor.
Even more regrettable, however, is that the City seems uninterested in the Township, evidenced by the fact that the City scheduled a “Township open house” at a time when Ms. Thomas-Smith was on vacation, resulting in blank stares for anyone at the event who asked a substantive question.
Like Ms. Thomas-Smith, the Township staff, for the most part, remain steadfast in fulfilling their mission despite the turmoil surrounding them, and despite weekly calls from seemingly all quarters seeking to abolish their livelihoods. Staff deserves praise and support in continuing to serve our neediest residents. They do far more than just deliver General Assistance checks to the rotating list of 30 or so unemployable clients the Township serves. Township staff interviews potential clients, finds them assistance, gets residents job training, determines who needs emergency housing assistance, and completes all the state required paperwork necessary for each of their literally hundreds of cases per year. Staff is overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated but that does not diminish the hard work the Township staff does on behalf of the neediest.
The City is the City, though, and the Township is the Township. The City provides a plethora of services to all residents – from water, trash collection, street repairs, parks and social services funding, and on and on and on. All of these services compete for resources in a crowded, tortured City budget. Absorbing a Township that serves a narrow and specialized purpose into the politically-driven City budget process is not what is best for the City’s poorest and most vulnerable.
As an example, residents should look to the Evanston Public Library. Several years ago, the City, facing budget crises, radically cut library funding, and those cuts continued year after year after year as funding went to more popular City programs and services. Everyone knows the Library outcome: as a result of ever deeper City-imposed budget cuts, the Library, following State law, eventually split off from the City in order to gain budget control and taxing authority. The Library, and its vital function to the City, could no longer continue losing funding in the competitive City budget process. Illinois law allowed the Library to take matter into its own hands.
If the Township gets permanently folded in to the City, a similar outcome is possible. There is, however, a floor below which the City/Township trustees cannot go –a minimum of assistance required by the State. While the Council – or trustees, if the Township remains – cannot wholly cut funding to the Township, they can pare it down to the State minimum. They can also cut all of the other programs the Township offers, such as the Job Club, work site training, the 50-50 work program, job counseling services, and other offerings designed to help the unemployed, and unemployable, get back on their feet.
The Library example is instructive for another reason: cost to the taxpayers. The Township costs property owners very, very little. A glance at a property tax bill shows the stark truth: the Township portion is less than a fourth of the Library’s, and both are dwarfed by the school districts. The savings realized from Township consolidation amount to only about $90,000.00 per year – less than a drop in a $253 million budget.
What Evanston needs is competent, driven and impassioned Township leadership, not Township abolition. For this reason, the City Council, sitting as Township trustees, should focus not on delivering Township services, but instead on finding new Township leadership. The Township code requires the Trustees to appoint a supervisor when one resigns. City Manager as Township Supervisor should be a temporary solution at best.
Voters should vote to keep the Township. A responsible Board of Trustees should be searching, even now, for a qualified, engaged, visionary candidate that they can appoint as our new Township Trustee. And residents of Evanston should be searching for a qualified candidate to run as Township Supervisor – one who is willing to help the frailest of our residents, working on a tight budget and a small salary but with a mission to help the poor and a dedicated staff to assist.