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A request for an update on how the General Assistance program is faring under City administration since the township government was dissolved turned into a discussion of human services funding and may result in the creation of a new budgetary fund.
At the Sept. 3 Human Services Committee meeting, Health Director Evonda Thomas-Smith gave an update on the kinds of services offered through General Assistance, a state-funded program administered through the City of Evanston’s Health Department now that the local township government has been dissolved. General Assistance provides individuals with “money and limited medical care to take care of themselves when they do not qualify for other cash programs,” Ms. Thomas-Smith said.
Since taking over the administration of General Assistance Ms. Thomas-Smith has expanded the reach of services. Now General Assistance clients receive services through partnerships with nearly a dozen local agencies: financial literacy workshops through the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, library cards from the Evanston Public Library, stop-smoking workshops through the American Lung Association and GED testing and classes from Oakton Community College, as examples.
Ten individuals scored “very high” on the test to participate in the GED program, said Ms. Thomas-Smith, and they will be able to take the Oakton GED class offered at the Civic Center.
“People are getting better services since the General Assistance fund has been folded into the Health Department. People couldn’t have dreamed it would be that good,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. He said assessor’s services are also provided at the Civic Center. He added that updates are provided quarterly to the Administration and Public Works Committee.
“It’s very much business as it was with the Township,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “We have one staff person [who] takes appointments. My understanding is it’s been pretty seamless.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, asked whether there is any information at the former Township office, in the strip mall at Main Street and Dodge Avenue. She said she had heard that “some people are still going there.”
Ms. Thomas-Smith said that, since the space is now occupied, there is no longer a sign on the door, but there are fliers in the other stores there notifying people that services formerly offered by the Township are available at the Civic Center.
Ald. Holmes then asked about other items paid for by Township money, such as emergency assistance for housing and utilities, the handyman program for senior citizens, veterans’ flags and the West End Market. Ms. Thomas-Smith said between the beginning of January and the end of June, 122 persons had received rental assistance. The maximum is $200 per month per client, she said.
Ald. Holmes and Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite both said they are concerned about how those services will be addressed in next year’s City budget. Mr. Bobkiewicz said such programs had been funded through the Township’s Town Fund, not through General Assistance. Thus next year they would be funded through the General Fund and City Council would determine the level of funding. “These won’t be General Assistance expenses. The Town Fund is gone. We’re going to continue to provide everything we’ve provided,” he said.
At present in the tentative budget they are lumped together as a “community action program,” said Ms. Thomas-Smith.
Mr. Bobkiewicz distinguished between General Assistance funding and the other services provided by the Township. Those other services, he said, will be funded through the City’s General Fund, its main operating budget. The level of funding for those items, he said, would be determined by the City Council.
“Some of the ‘community action’ expenses were sort of a grab-bag, and I think we want to be very clear that that ‘grab bag’ is now in the General Fund, and as long as the Council views it this way, [the] ‘General Assistance’ [category in the budget] is going to be the traditional General Assistance and emergency assistance only. Things that were in the Town Fund budget [in the Township] are now part of the General Fund’ Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “I think for a while the Township budget was kind of viewed as a separate pot [of money] for some of these other services. It is now part of the General Fund,” where services are in competition with each other for funding.
“So it’s up to the Council ultimately what you fund with the whole budget, of course.” Mr. Bobkiewicz added. He also said that these services that are now part of the General Fund would be “appropriately labeled,” he added.
“I’m not real comfortable with that,” said Ald. Holmes, “because when you get into the arena of the General Fund with some of these little things – $20,000 for the handyman program, $750 for the veterans’ flags – it’s peanuts in the General Fund, but it gets lost. It troubles me.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz said “And we need even more money for the handyman [project] and it’s for the Council [to decide]. … If you want General Assistance to be more than the traditional General Assistance – as a home-rule community we’re making this up kind of as we go along. General Assistance is no longer tied officially formally to Township law. It’s tied morally, because I think Council has made it very clear we’re going to continue that program absolutely pursuant to state law – but the amount … is at the discretion of City Council.”
“I hear that,” said Ald. Holmes. She said she wished to recall “our words that we said to the people: that we could still provide to the community the services offered by the Township. We said that.
“Some of you don’t hear the feedback we hear from the community in terms of we’re not keeping our word in terms of what we said we’re going to do,” Ald. Holmes said, adding, “When I’m pushing for things, it’s because people are asking.”
“And that’s part of our reason for not supporting the dissolution of the Township,” added Ald. Braithwaite. “We were speaking specifically for the … demographic that the Township serves.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz reiterated, “The General Fund we are operating as we’ve always operated. … if the Council wants to create a small fund within the General Fund that’s a ‘community services’ fund, that is funded by the General Fund, that’s fine. But this is in no way, shape or form trying to change in any way the delivery of the services. …We’re trying to make sure that we have enough money for all this. … The General Fund of the Township will continue to fund General Assistance with the City – and that’s not changing.”
Last November, Mr. Bobkiewicz said in a memo to the City Council: “It is my plan that General Assistance and Emergency Assistance will continue at the same level as provided by the Township.”
Changes, if there are any, would come in the funding level for the other services, which City Council will decide in their deliberations on the upcoming budget.
“These other services – if Council wishes to aggregate a sub-fund in the General Fund so that everyone in the community sees how these other programs that were funded by the Township [will be funded], that’s fine,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.
He also said, “If the Council wants a separate fund for these social services, we can … do that. I mean, there are any number of ways we can do that, but [these services] were never part of the General Assistance fund. … I prefer that Council look at items and say what’s important rather than argue about which fund will pay for it.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz appeared to settle things when he said, “As I’m standing here before you, I think we just need to create a … [new sub-fund]. … We’ll create a human services fund that is funded by the General Fund, and we’ll attach all of the Town Fund costs – assessor services, community purchased services [social services from local agencies], overhead and maybe a handful of other things, and we’ll create a fund. … And the General Fund will take money from one pocket and put it into another pocket, but if that assures the community that we’re doing what we’re doing … It’s one more page in the budget, but that’s pretty long anyway – so that’s something we can do.”
“And it’s clear,” said Ald. Holmes. “This makes it a little clearer.”