Assessor's action sparks inquiry

Assessor's action sparks inquiry

There's a bigger issue involved in the Cunningham Township controversy than just the questionable dismissals of two employees of the assessor's office.

If Wayne Williams was looking to make a big splash in his new role as the assessor of Cunningham Township (which covers the same area as the city of Urbana), he certainly succeeded.

If he was trying to make a positive impression on the public he serves, well, that's another story.

Acting like a bull who carries his own china shop around with him, Williams last week fired two veteran office employees for no discernible cause, requested the appearance of Urbana police to witness the discharges in the apparent expectation that order needed to be maintained and then hired in their place Joe Meents, a former Champaign County employee who faces criminal charges accusing him of stealing taxpayer funds by using his government credit card to buy personal items. Three days later, Williams announced he had fired Meents effective at the end of the month.

Needless to say, Williams' action generated considerable negative commentary. That's why Mayor Diane Marlin and council members have scheduled a special Monday night meeting to question him about his decision.

It should be interesting to watch council members delve into the issue, although it's hard to imagine Williams will be expansive in his explanation.

But there's another, more-substantive issue council members also suggested they will address, one that has implications for Champaign County and the rest of the state.

Alderman Eric Jakobsson said it's time for council members to discuss abolishing the township and folding its duties into city government.

"And at this moment, if this was before me right now, I would go for it," Jakobsson said, suggesting the question could be put on the November ballot.

Hurrah!

Township government is a blight on the state of Illinois that ought to in some cases be abolished and in other cases be dramatically reduced. It's a throwback to government of 100-plus years ago when society was far more rural and transportation much more limited.

It survives in its current form for two reasons: Change in government is hard, and township assessors, supervisors and board members are effective lobbyists for maintaining a status quo that serves their preferences.

How many people even know what Cunningham Township government is? How many realize that Champaign County, just one of the state's 102 counties, has 30 townships?

Township government helps explain why Illinois leads the nation in the number of local units of government (nearly 7,000). It's a morass that contributes to the high property taxes that, among other things, are driving people from the state.

Last year, at Gov. Bruce Rauner's behest, the General Assembly passed new legislation that makes it easier for local elected officials to abolish or consolidate township government in Illinois. It's one of the few areas where the Democratic Legislature was willing to indulge the governor's reform agenda.

They did so because it's inarguable that the state needs to reform its size and structure of government in a way that reduces costs to property-tax payers and enhances efficiency.

That's why it's important to encourage Marlin and council members to give this issue serious study and not be intimidated by the political pushback that will result.

At the same time, it's equally important for members of the Champaign County Board and the Democratic and Republican candidates for the new county executive post to speak to this issue.

The longest journey begins with but one step. That starts Monday night at the Urbana City Council Chambers.

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Pointblank wrote on January 07, 2018 at 11:01 am
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The township provides direct emergency assistance to the poor and maintains property values. It would be a mistake local government thinks it can add these vital services to its already long laundry list of duties. 

rsp wrote on January 07, 2018 at 2:01 pm

The problem in Illinois is disfunctional government. What we just witnessed was disfunctional government. Township offices provide many services to the poor that are required by law. Just dissolving the office doesn't create functional government. Those same services need to still be provided.

pattsi wrote on January 07, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Here might be a starting point--each township is supposed to handle the assessments within the township and then turn that information over to the county assessor. Many townships are too small to afford an assessor, many townships contract for this service, many township just do not do the work so this falls on the county assessor, and many times the assessing work turned in is not accurate so must be redone by the county assessor. In light of verbal movement about Illinois having way too many forms of government, maybe a conversation place to start is how to aggregate all property assessments to be done within the county assessors office. Obviously the staff would have to be expanded. Even having to do that, the potential for taxpayer dollar savings is within reach. But more importantly is the issue of consistent and accurate property assessments done in a timely manner so any challenges can go to the Board of Review also in a timely manner and not at the end of the window of time. Last, but not least, with an across the board accuracy additional property tax dollar might be generated.

The smaller township have very little money for public aid purposes. Champaign township does not use money for such. Cunningham township does receive in the order of 3M annually.

pattsi wrote on January 07, 2018 at 9:01 pm

Here is a useful paper about Illinois having way too many governments and what this means for townships—includes list of coterminous Illinois coterminous townships.  cgs.niu.edu