Talks will focus on what defines a community

A yearlong effort at defining community will begin Thursday in Urbana, with a talk examining whether specialized governments lessen the sense of community by isolating citizens.

"We're not going to tell anybody the answers," said Tina Gunsalus, president of the Champaign County League of Women Voters, which will host the first of a series of programs that will focus on what defines a community.

The league will host a public meeting at noon Thursday at the Urbana City Council chambers to begin the discussion.

University of Illinois law Professor Laurie Reynolds will talk about how local governments have shifted over the decades.

"There's no doubt that when I am in a plane at night and I look down at Champaign-Urbana, I see an entity. There's no difference; it's all part of one entity," she said. "I think no one really cares about that at this point."

"Our social connections are disintegrating" for a number of reasons, Reynolds said. She wants to consider whether citizens' connections with government also are disintegrating because of an increasing specialization in government, with the creation of taxing bodies to tackle specific issues and the passage of specific taxes to cover specific expenses.

"If you look at the last 40 or 50 years, we have created in this country a tripling of these local governmental bodies that do one thing," Reynolds said. "That sort of spins off the local government's plate who's looking out for the community. ... There's no one looking out for the general welfare."

She said user fees and specific taxes have meant "we're losing sight of the big picture. We're being nickel-and-dimed to death by these fees that reinforce you get what you pay for."

Reynolds said taxpayer revolts at the ballot box, a shift in spending priorities of the federal government and a shift in attitude toward development as a source of costs rather than income have played a role as well.

She cited arguments for a nursing-home tax increase in Champaign County that urged a yes vote "because some day you or someone you know may need this nursing home."

"I didn't hear, 'We're an affluent community and we have a responsibility'" to provide the service, she said. "We need to make this other argument; it doesn't all come down to dollars and cents." Similarly, using tax-increment financing to pay for improvements within a specific area limits who pays for the improvements, she said.

Speaking of changes to downtown Champaign, she said, "it's not entirely clear to me why all of us shouldn't be paying for that. It's not clear why the North Prospects of the world shouldn't be contributing to that."

She acknowledged that the transient nature of the population in Champaign-Urbana makes a sense of community more difficult to maintain.

Gunsalus said the League of Women Voters has made the issue of community its topic for the year.

Other issues related to it during the year will include mass transportation, voting machines and other election issues, public health matters, education and city sign laws, she said.

"It's a way to step back and maybe develop a common vocabulary, maybe a common set of concepts as they relate to government and the community," said Gunsalus.

"I've lived here all my life," she said. "For me, (community has) a very large component of having had a lot of people invest in me, and the giving back."

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