An important vote for Evanstonians in the upcoming election is the binding referendum question about dissolving the government of the Township of Evanston, also called the Town of Evanston. Here is how the question is phrased: “Shall the township organization be discontinued and abolished in Evanston Township?”
Thus, 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.
The City of Evanston and the Township of Evanston are coterminous, that is, their boundaries are the same. While there are two distinct governments, the legislators, or policy-makers, 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.
The Township of Evanston has two main functions: to provide financial assistance – called General Assistance – to unmarried individuals who have no other means of support, personal, family, state, federal or other; and to help property owners review their tax bills and appeal their property tax assessment.
A third Township function is providing emergency assistance for shelter, food, payment of utility bills and the like. This function was originally provided by the City and transferred to the Township several years ago.
Two elected officials oversee the functions of the Township: the Township Supervisor, who administers the General Assistance and associated programs, and the Township Assessor, who helps with property tax appeals.
At present, neither person elected to those positions in the most recent election is serving. Sharon Eckersall, who was to take the office of Township Assessor in January of this year, died last fall. Gary Gaspard resigned last summer, just weeks into his tenure as Township Supervisor. The Township trustees have 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 the administration of the General Assistance programs.
Over the past several decades the question has arisen of whether to abolish the Township government. Most recently, a similar question appeared on the March 20, 2012 ballot. This question, advisory only, asked whether the Township trustees should continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township. The response was 2-1 in favor of continuing to pursue abolishing the Township government. Under legislation enacted in Springfield more than a year ago, the residents of Evanston were given the right to decide whether they in fact wish to abolish the government of the Township of Evanston.
Some questions have been raised about what abolition of 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.
First, 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, whether or not the Township government is abolished, the General Assistance program will continue, as will help with property tax appeals.
Second, the level of General Assistance, now $500 per month, is not determined by the Township Supervisor. It is the Township trustees (City Council members) who determine the level. A certain minimum level, $100 per month, is mandated by State law, so the present allotment could be reduced. But any decision about the level of General Assistance will be made by the same people who sit as Township trustees and City Council members, regardless of whether or not the Township is abolished. The only difference would be whether these people would be wearing their “City Council” or their “Township trustees” hats.
Third, the taxpayers of Evanston may see some cost savings and efficiencies with the dissolution of the Township government. Some savings have already been realized with the return of the Township offices to the Civic Center. The only other possible savings are operational, and they are dependent upon the amount of staff and other resources needed.
Fourth, the referendum has nothing to do with Evanston Township High School. The high school would not have to change its name, and no one in the district would be denied admission if the Township government is dissolved.
Mr. Bobkiewicz has drawn up a plan for transferring the duties and responsibilities of the Township to City government. Some members of the community are wary of the plan, because so much power has already been concentrated in the City Manager’s office. However, under the plan, the General Assistance and emergency assistance programs would be administered by the City’s Health Department.
Still, there are those who say they just do not trust the City to do the job. Conversely, there are those who feel that the persons who have been elected to Township positions have not always performed their functions well and efficiently.
There are also those who feel that consolidation of the functions into a single government entity is a sign of efficient government, eliminating the duplicative governmental structure.
The Central Street Neighbors Association held a debate about the referendum on Feb. 19. The League of Women Voters will hold a forum at 10 a.m. on March 1 at Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave.
Early voting begins on March 3.
Whatever the result, we hope for a strong voter turnout.