General assistance fund needs no aid, official says; voters will decide
CHAMPAIGN – General assistance payments in the City of Champaign Township lag behind other comparable Illinois communities, but the township supervisor says the fund is the healthiest it has been in years.
Township Supervisor Pam Borowski said the general assistance budget, which in 2007 was running out of money, began to stabilize after her predecessor's switch to a different program. The fund has continued to solidify after her election to the position in April 2009, she said.
A proposal whose placement on the ballot was approved by township voters in April 2009 will be put to a November referendum. It will ask residents if they support a property tax rate increase of up to $25 for a median-value home to bolster the general assistance fund and bring it in line with four comparable Illinois townships.
Borowski has said that she does not support the nonbinding referendum.
"Property taxes in this town are high enough, and we don't need to raise them," she said.
But documents obtained through News-Gazette requests under the Freedom of Information Act show that general assistance payments and property owner contributions to the fund in the City of Champaign Township are lower than the other four townships.
Borowski said the township each month serves about 25 clients, each of whom receives a maximum payment of $212, under what is known as a transitional assistance program.
The program is a form of welfare that fulfills a state mandate that townships provide general assistance to their residents. General assistance is basic welfare that provides clients with a cash payment each month to purchase essential life needs.
The City of Champaign Township program requires that its beneficiaries be physically or mentally incapable of working.
City of Champaign Township clients are often bipolar, said case worker Barbara Nailon. Some others have post-traumatic stress disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among other illnesses.
"Many of them can't be around crowds, and they're not capable of working in an environment with a lot of people," Nailon said. "We have severely ill people that are on the ropes."
The monthly check can stretch when a client is living only on basic needs, Nailon said. Soap, toilet paper and clothing are among what recipients might buy with their cash payments from the township, she added.
The clients, often accompanied by their mental health caseworkers, come to the township office with no income.
"I think you could make it if you budgeted correctly and manage it correctly," Nailon said. "It could stretch."
Nailon said clients also typically receive assistance from other sources: food stamps for groceries and subsidized housing, for example. Some clients live with friends or family and pay no rent at all.
Cunningham Township, which serves Urbana, provides a higher monthly payment to a wider scope of clients, said Carol Elliott, the township supervisor there. The township operates under a broader general assistance program, which is income-based and does not require its clients to be incapable of working.
Cunningham Township served an average of about 70 clients during each of the last 12 months. Each of those clients received a maximum payment of $243 per month.
In June, 79 clients drew money from the township's general assistance fund. The client numbers have started to rise recently, and Elliott said it could be because unemployment benefits are beginning to expire.
Cunningham Township property owners also paid more for general assistance: the owner of a $150,000 home would pay about $41 toward the fund, compared to about $17 in the City of Champaign Township.
Elliott said the contrast in the numbers is the result of a difference in political philosophies.
"You can make it difficult for people (to qualify), or you can help them," Elliott said.
Property taxes allocated to the general assistance fund in three other townships that will appear in the November question are also higher than City of Champaign Township's $17. In Peoria, the owner of a $150,000 home would pay about $42. In Springfield's Capital Township, the owner would pay about $35 and about $25 in Bloomington Township.
D'Anne Winston, the Democrat who ran against Borowski in the April 2009 election, said the township is not doing enough for its poorest residents.
"The township supervisor has the option to change the program to the point where it meets the needs of the community," Winston said. "However, with the recession going on, those needs aren't being met."
A tax increase would be the "sure way" of having funds available to help families, but Winston said that is not the only way. A "vigorous pursuit" of federal grants is the other option.
"It's not getting any better any time soon, so I think the city overall needs to loosen the purse strings because the people you help may be your neighbor," Winston said.
But Borowski said the fund is far more stable now than it had been during the past few years. The $212 that the City of Champaign Township gives to most of its clients is higher than it had been before the switch to the transitional assistance program with stricter requirements.
As the township ran out of money in its general assistance fund in 2007, benefits were cut to a maximum $100 per month. After the switch to the more limited program, officials were able to restore it to the previous $212 level.
Borowski said it is unlikely that she would return to the broader general assistance program.
"If I opened it back up like that, I would just have a flood of people coming in," she said.
If the township stays under budget for the next few months, Borowski said the monthly payment could be increased to $225.
"I just want to make sure that I do have enough money for people when they come in here and they do qualify," she said.