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Thursday, June 7, 2018 12:14 am

Should township merge with the city?

Township board asks the wrong question.

 Advisory referendums are good for our democracy, but only if the right question is asked.

For years people have talked about the inefficiency and absurdity of two different governments serving the same geographical area, like the City of Springfield and Capital Township. But no legal mechanism existed to abolish the township or merge it into the city.

That changed in January, with a new law allowing townships having the same boundaries as a city to be abolished by referendum, with their functions absorbed by the city.

I went to this year’s Capital Township annual meeting and urged the township to save tax dollars by following the lead of similar townships, which had dissolved. Most township functions would be taken over by the city of Springfield. Other Capital Township voters expressed similar views. Citizens Club President Bob Gray advocates abolishing Capital Township. The Better Government Association (BGA) and the Chicago Tribune also advocate such reforms.

The Capital Township Board responded with a non sequitur. The board did not begin the public hearing process, required by the new law before putting a binding referendum on the ballot to abolish the township. Instead, the Township Board unanimously voted in May to put an advisory referendum on the November ballot asking: “Shall Capital Township pursue a full merger with Sangamon County?”

The board did this even though the new law mandates that if Capital Township is abolished, its functions and taxing authority go to the city. So the only way the township could be merged into the county would be for the city to enter into an intergovernmental agreement to do this. But Mayor Jim Langfelder is opposed to this, except for the township’s tax assessment and collection functions, already done by by county officials acting ex officio as township officials.

It makes no sense to merge Capital Township into a county with 25 other townships which are not merging into it. Capital Township has more than $2.1 million in reserves, paid by Springfield taxpayers. Why should these funds be deposited in the county’s treasury? Similarly, the county would pick up the authority to impose the same property taxes the township now levies on Springfield residents, but it would be the county board levying the taxes on city property owners, not the city council – taxation without representation.

Finally, the township has proved very inefficient at its only real function – welfare. The township employed six people to administer General Assistance in the last fiscal year, spending almost 50 cents in administration for every dollar of benefits. That’s way more than a leading authority on charity expenses allows. Charity Navigator says no more than 33.3 per cent should be spent on administration and, according to the charity rating organization, even that’s high.  The average is typically much lower.  Since county officials view the county and township as already being merged, if they actually do merge this inefficiency would likely continue.

If the city absorbed the township’s welfare function, it would likely put it in the Community Relations Department, which already provides some welfare services. Director Juan Huerta says he could likely handle the new responsibility with only one additional employee, making it likely taxpayer dollars would be saved, as they were when the city of Evanston absorbed Evanston Township, saving almost $1 million a year.

You can’t get the right answer if you don’t ask the right question. If the Capital Township Board really wants its constituents’ views, it would ask two questions: (1) Shall Capital Township, which has the same boundaries as the city of  Springfield, be merged into the city of Springfield?; and (2) Shall Capital Township, which has the same boundaries as the city of Springfield, be merged into Sangamon County?

Former Ward 5 alderman Sam Cahnman is an attorney. He has also served on the Sangamon County Board.

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