On March 18, voters will be asked to vote whether or not to dissolve the Township of Evanston. Here is how the question is phrased: “Shall the township organization be discontinued and abolished in Evanston Township?”
A “yes” vote is a vote to abolish the Township government, and a “no” vote is to have the Township continue as its own form of government.
Over the past several decades the question has arisen whether to abolish the Township government. On the March 20, 2012, ballot, voters were asked whether the Township trustees should continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township. That question was “advisory,” in that the results would show the sentiment of the voting public but would not bind the authorities to any action. The response in 2012 was 2-1 in favor of continuing to pursue abolishing the Township government.
The question on the March 18 ballot is a “binding” referendum question. That is, whether the referendum is approved or not, the Township trustees will be bound to honor the voters’ wishes.
Under legislation enacted in Springfield more than a year ago, the residents of Evanston were given the right to decide in a referendum whether to abolish the government of the Township of Evanston.
That same law requires that if voters decide to dissolve the Township, the City of Evanston must take on the duties and responsibilities of the Township.
On Oct. 28, 2013, the Township Trustees decided, by a 7-2 vote, to place the question on the March 18, 2014, ballot. Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, and Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, cast the two no votes. Their constituents are the most likely to be affected.
The Township’s Role
The City of Evanston and the Township of Evanston have the same boundaries. While there are two distinct governments, the people who constitute the ruling bodies are the same for each. They are called “City Council members” – the nine aldermen and the Mayor – when dealing with matters of the City, and “Township trustees” when dealing with Township affairs. They are the same group of people; they change their hats depending on whether they are acting for the City or for the Township.
The Township of Evanston has two main functions. First it provides General Assistance (GA) and a workforce training program, which are mandated by State statute and funded by the taxpayers of Evanston. The Township provides assistance up to $500 a month to persons who are not eligible for any other state or federal assistance programs and who do not have income or resources to provide for their needs. There is a long list of additional requirements to qualify for General Assistance.
As part of the state-mandated GA program, Evanston Township has a community workforce training program. It also provides “necessary” medical payments for GA clients.
The Township also provides Emergency Assistance, which is available to any Evanston resident experiencing incidental economic hardship. This is not a State-mandated program, but townships are permitted to provide emergency assistance to persons who meet income and asset guidelines established by the state and who are facing an “emergency” or “life-threatening” situation, such as eviction, utility disconnection or lack of food. The assistance is limited to $1,500 per year, according to Novak Consulting Group. Novak was hired by the City last year to perform an efficiency evaluation of the Township.
The second main function of the Township is to assist property owners to file property tax appeals. This program is not required by State statute.
Two elected officials oversee the functions of the Township: the Township Supervisor, who administers the GA program and associated programs, and the Township Assessor, who helps with property tax appeals. The two functions of the Township have operated independently.
Currently, neither person elected to those positions in the most recent election is serving. One person died, and the other resigned. Last fall, the Township trustees appointed Bonnie Wilson, who served previously as Township Assessor, as interim Township Assessor, and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz as interim Township Supervisor. Evonda Thomas-Smith, director of the City’s Health Department, is now overseeing administration of the GA programs.
In fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, the Township’s budget was about $1.6 million, with 78% allocated to the GA and related programs.
The Stated Plan
If the Township Is Dissolved
Questions have been raised about what dissolving the Township government will mean to those who benefit from its services and whether taxpayers will save money if the Township is abolished and its functions consolidated with the City.
The short answers are that the City will assume the duties and responsibilities of the township and that some savings have already been realized. Because new GA clients have been added, however, some costs have increased.
The law that allows the residents of Evanston to vote on abolishing the Township also mandates that, if the Township is abolished, the City must assume the duties and responsibilities of the Township. Thus, State law will require the City to provide GA, medical assistance and workforce training – at least at the minimum levels provided by State law. It does not appear, though, that State law will require the City to continue to provide the Emergency Assistance program or to assist taxpayers with filing property tax appeals.
In an Oct. 22, 2013, memo to the Mayor and City Council members, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “It is my plan that General Assistance and Emergency Assistance will continue at the same level as provided by the Township.”
He added, “As these functions are now under my responsibility, I will work now with Township staff to identify ways to partner their exiting work with work done in our Health, Community Development, and Parks, Recreation and Community Services Departments to provide more comprehensive assistance to Township residents in need. The City would work to enhance the General Assistance and Emergency Assistance services without expending additional resources.”
He proposed that the GA and Emergency Assistance programs become part of the City’s Health Department, and that the City consider creating a Human Services Division within the Health Department. Until a few years ago, the City had a Department of Health and Human Services.
Mr. Bobkiewicz added that the Township’s role of helping taxpayers with assistance in appealing their property tax assessments would continue. “One staff member would be assigned to continue the property tax assessment advocacy work currently provided by the Township Assessor. … I anticipate that this work would continue at approximately the same level as current,” he said.
As far as cost savings, the Township recently moved its offices to the Civic Center, which saved money for taxpayers. Mr. Bobkiewicz said in the Oct. 22 memo that he would attempt to identify savings in overhead and administrative support costs. While he did not spell out other cost savings, he said “I anticipate that there would be additional savings identified through further sharing of overhead and administrative costs.”
On Oct. 22, he estimated the total cost savings, including those associated with the move to the Civic Center, at approximately $225,000 per year.
Concerns About Dissolving
It seems that a main objection to dissolving the Township is based on lack of trust that the City will continue to provide the services at the current levels. There is a fear that the City may find that applicants for general assistance are not qualified, that it may reduce the amount of GA provided, that it may terminate the Emergency Assistance Program, and that it may terminate assistance to taxpayers in filing property tax appeals.
These are risks. The risks, however, may be the same whether or not the Township is dissolved. The same people who sit on City Council also sit as the Township Trustees. If City Council wanted to reduce or eliminate programs, it could do so sitting as Township Trustees, should the Township continue.
A second concern, expressed by the ad-hoc group “Friends of Evanston Township,” is that there has already been a reduction in the number of persons working on the Township’s programs. The Friends group says it considers the staff reduction to be a sign that Township programs will be reduced if the Township is dissolved.
Mr. Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable that the Township is currently operating with 6.5 full-time-equivalent positions. This compares to 7.5 when the Novak report was issued last April.
If the referendum is approved, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, 2.5 clerical positions would be eliminated, reducing to 4.0 the number of full-time-equivalent positions assigned to Township services: two GA counselors, a GA office manager and a deputy assessor. Some job functions previously handled by Township employees would be picked up by City employees, among those, managerial, accounting and human resource services.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said service levels have increased since October, when he and Ms. Thomas-Smith assumed managerial responsibilities for the GA program. The number of GA clients has increased from 170 to about 200, and the GA clients have been connected to Erie Family Health Center, which gives them access to more comprehensive health care.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he estimates this measure alone will save $200,000 in medical costs.
In addition, he said, the City has been able to be more helpful to residents in need of emergency assistance, because there is better communication between City staff and GA counselors. He added that the City’s Youth and Young Adult staff has been able to connect more than 20 youth in need of assistance, ages 18-25, with the Township for services.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he thinks there are more possibilities to provide housing and health assistance to residents in need.
Another concern of the Friends is that clients’ trust in the Township may be lost if services are transferred to the City. In addition, the Friends say they believe the Township Supervisor and Township Assessor should be elected rather than appointed, that the Township Assessor should be “certified and credentialed” and that the assessor’s office should be kept independent of the City.
The only qualifications for Township offices are that the persons seeking those positions be “legal voters” and be one-year residents of the Township.
Early voting has begun, and Election Day is March 18.
“Shall the township organization be discontinued and abolished in Evanston Township?”