Guest Commentary: Independent, elected township is best bet

Guest Commentary: Independent, elected township is best bet

By DANIELLE CHYNOWETH

Cunningham Township is an essential, independent form of government serving the residents of Urbana since 1928. The office consists of two divisions: assessor and supervisor, headed by leaders elected by and directly accountable to Urbana voters. A similar structure exists in the City of Champaign Township. The assessor follows specific laws and procedures to ensure the property tax burden is fairly distributed across property owners. The supervisor provides a last safety net the poorest of the poor in Urbana and coordinates services for any resident in need. In addition, we provide essential grants to social service agencies such as Crisis Nursery, Family Services and Courage Connection.

Township taxes come to about $2 per resident per month in Urbana, depending on the value of their home. About $0.60 of that pays for general assistance — a type of community insurance policy that residents can access, or can direct others to access, if they have the misfortune of struggling to find employment or becoming disabled. Our office helps landlords and tenants by helping to keep working people in their homes when they fall behind on rent — these situations are nearly always due to illness or a family emergency.

We help those who lost their jobs to receive training and find new employment. We provide life-saving help to the homeless to stay off the streets and out of the cold. We help people who become disabled survive while they wait the one to two years it often takes to be approved for disability payments.

I would like to share two stories to show what our office does every day:

Mary and her two children recently walked into the Cunningham Township with no place to sleep that night. Mary worked, but because of a medical issue, she got behind in rent and lost her home. As township supervisor, I immediately assessed her case, and because there was no emergency shelter available for families, was able to provide her a motel room for five days (at a cost to the public of $130) and then helped her and her family move into a permanent apartment. As a result, Mary's children never missed a day of school.

Jim was working a decent job when he started having seizures. He lost his job, and his marriage dissolved. His doctor believed he qualified for Social Security disability, but it would take a year or more for him to be approved. Jim walked into the township office, in total despair, one week away from eviction. My office was able to review his qualifications and quickly approve him for general assistance payments. We also worked with a local agency to access a housing voucher to keep him in his current home.

Without the township, would these two Urbana residents be alive today? What would it cost the public if their emergencies went unaddressed?

Some have called for the abolition of the township. If they succeed, who would assess your property and would they be fair? Who would support the poorest of the poor and would they be effective? If assessments were performed by a larger taxing body, such as the city, they could be tempted to fill their budget holes by raising property assessments — and thus your taxes. If the city ran emergency support for the poor, it would be weeks, if not months, before cases were processed and payments made. City staff are required to go through layers of authorization and bureaucracy that I do not have to as elected supervisor with a small office focused solely on poverty alleviation.

Before replacing something, it is important to understand what it does.

Cunningham Township has stabilized, strengthened and dignified thousands of lives. We return significant value at a low cost to taxpayers. This integrity is worth maintaining.

Danielle Chynoweth of Urbana is the elected supervisor of Cunningham Township.