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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 12:05 am

Township tug-of-war

City, county leaders spar over Capital Township

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, left, discusses Capital Township with Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter, right, with Kent Redfield, University of Illinois professor emeritus, center, moderating.
Photo By Lee Milner

 

Sangamon County board chairman Andy Van Meter and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder agreed on at least one thing during a debate last week sponsored by Citizens Club of Springfield.

Capital Township, the elected leaders agreed, is a relic, an archaic form of government born in the 19th century and last reshaped by the state legislature in 1908. And it is best, the leaders agreed, that the township be eliminated. Disagreement lies over whether the county or the city should take charge.

Owing to state legislation passed when Theodore Roosevelt held the White House, Capital Township’s duties are unique among the state’s townships, which, generally speaking, maintain roads, provide financial help to the needy and assess property and collect taxes. Capital Township stands alone as the only township where, thanks to their status as elected officials, the county treasurer is automatically the township supervisor and tax collector and the county clerk is automatically the township assessor. Separate from the township, Sangamon County assesses property and collects taxes, with county offices that perform those tasks being partially funded with a portion of township tax revenue. Which brings up an inevitable question: If the city maintains roads and the county assesses property and collects taxes, why do we need Capital Township?

“Everyone’s in agreement on two things,” Langfelder said at last week’s Citizens Club gathering. “One, it’s time to have the consolidation. Two, how do we maintain the level of service for individuals in need?”

It’s largely a question of money. Since the county already has administrative functions in place to handle property assessment and tax collections and the city has a public works department to take care of roads, the fight largely centers on whether the county or the city is the best entity for helping the poor. Beyond that, there are efficiencies, and so Van Meter and Langfelder clashed on whether the county or city would be best stewards of public dollars.

Capital Township each year collects slightly more than $2 million in property taxes, not much in the governmental scheme of things – Langfelder has proposed a $126 million budget for the city, the county’s 2019 budget is slightly more than $50 million. Both Langfelder and Van Meter said that their respective governments could save money and improve efficiencies.

“That’s the bottom line: What’s in the best interest of taxpayers?” said the mayor, pointing out that the city hasn’t raised its property tax rate since the 1980s.

Capital Township also has a history of not raising property taxes. Indeed, the township’s tax rate dropped 33 percent between 2000 and 2017, according to township documents. The township says that between 2006 and 2016, township taxes on a $150,000 house within city limits decreased from $51.08 to $44.15, a reduction of nearly 14 percent. By contrast, the city of Springfield collected $31.54 more on that same house, a 7.5 percent increase, while the county’s take rose by $61.94, an increase of more than 20 percent. Tax collections by the city rose, even though the city hasn’t raised its tax rate, due to a so-called multiplier applied uniformly to properties throughout the township because aggregate assessed values were below a percentage of fair-market value specified in state law.

Van Meter pointed to a history of savings realized since the 1990s due to consolidation and elimination of city departments. The merger of the city’s election department with the county’s election division that took effect in 1996 is saving $500,000 a year, Van Meter said, and the elimination of the city’s health department due to consolidation with the county in 2005 is saving $1.3 million. If the county took over the functions of Capital Township, closing down township headquarters and basing operations at the county health department, savings would total $685,000 a year, he predicted.

Van Meter also pointed out that 74 percent of voters who cast ballots in an advisory referendum last year favored merging Capital Township with the county. Since the county already collects taxes and assesses property, a merger already is partially accomplished, he said, and so it makes sense to finish the job with a wholesale consolidation with the county

“It’s a unique situation in the entire state,” Van Meter said. “When we ask the voters about consolidating government, they get it, even if the politicians are slow to get it.”

Langfelder said that the city has identified $500,000 in savings that could be realized if municipal government takes over Capital Township. But money isn’t everything, the mayor said. Capital Township boundaries are nearly the same as the city’s, the mayor noted, and so it makes sense that leaders who run the township would be elected by people who live within city limits and pay the bills through their property taxes.

“These are tax dollars that impact Springfield residents,” the mayor said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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