CHAMPAIGN – Facing a budget shortfall, City of Champaign Township Supervisor Linda Abernathy won tentative approval Tuesday night to use reserve funds to pay for the township's burgeoning general assistance caseload.
The township board, who are also members of the Champaign City Council, voted 8-0 to indicate they could support the $228,000 in budget amendments that Abernathy says she'll need to get the township through to June 30, the end of the fiscal year. A formal vote is expected to come at the Nov. 1 township board meeting.
The budget amendments will draw down the township's general assistance reserve fund from $285,000 as of July 1 to a projected $11,000 by next June 30.
Abernathy said she'll need the budget transfers from reserve funds to pay for general assistance cash grants of $212 per month, plus basic medical coverage, for indigent city residents.
General assistance is the "aid of last resort" for the poor who don't qualify for other forms of assistance. Single, poor adults without dependent children who do not qualify for disability programs are typical general assistance recipients.
Abernathy gave a lengthy presentation explaining how, since she took office May 16, the office's caseload has jumped from an average of 21 people per month from January through April, to 60 clients in May, 75 in June, 96 in July and 102 people in August.
Asked how such a dramatic increase could have occurred, Abernathy said she was at a loss to explain why, except that she said she has "changed the attitude in the office" to one that treats the poor with dignity and respect.
"We are not giving away the store," she added. "People are eligible when they get approved for assistance."
Township board member Vic McIntosh asked how the numbers could increase so quickly.
"Is this a case where by June you're going to have 300 clients?" he said. "If this trend continues, we, this body up here, has a huge problem."
Abernathy said she is required by state law to provide general assistance to city residents who apply for it and are eligible. She later said she expects the caseload to stabilize at about 100 clients.
Abernathy described the township's budget problems as "a perfect storm," because the growing caseload occurs when the township is taxing at 3.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and can't raise that tax rate substantially due to property tax caps. Tax caps limit taxing bodies to inflationary increases in their tax levy.
Abernathy said she expects the township will have to become a "state receiving unit" next year, with the state Department of Human Resources taking over providing assistance to the city's poor when the township's money runs out.
When that occurs, general assistance is ended and replaced with Earnfare, which recipients can receive for only six months and for which they must work for the township. Earnfare awards clients $294 per month, but that amount includes any food stamp assistance. That means if someone received $100 in food stamps, the person would get a cash grant of $194, Abernathy said.
If the township becomes a receiving unit, disabled clients awaiting determination if they are eligible for federal Supplemental Security Income would receive transitional assistance of only $100 per month, she said.
The town board could decide to put a referendum question on the ballot to raise the tax rate to a level sufficient to support the township's general assistance caseload, Abernathy said. She said she thought November 2006 would be the appropriate election for such a referendum, if the board decides to go that route.
Board members gave no indication where they stand on a tax referendum.