Restoring Champaign’s Safety Net for the Poor

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WOULD YOU VOTE FOR a tax increase if you
didn’t know what it was for? If you live in
Champaign, this is exactly what you’ll be
faced with on Election Day unless you read
on. You may regret voting “No” once you
understand what’s at stake.
On Election Day, November 4th, Champaign voters will
be asked to vote on the following referendum: Shall the
limiting rate under the Property Tax Extension Limitation
Law for City of Champaign Township be increased by an
additional amount equal to .02% above the limiting rate
for levy year 2007 and be equal to .0550% of the equalized
assessed value of the taxable property therein for levy
year 2008?
Unless you educate yourself beforehand, just the first
four words will be enough to throw you off (what’s a “limiting
rate”, let alone a “Property Tax Extension Limitation
Law” or “equalized assessed value”?). Yet, it’s crucial to
understand and make an informed vote on this referendum.
A “No” vote will
neglect Champaign’s
already threadbare safety
net of last resort for the
city’s poorest, most vulnerable
Though it’s far from clear
in the referendum’s wording,
the increase requested
is quite small—about $10
for a home with a market
value of $150,000, the
approximate median home
value in Champaign. By
comparison, the same
homeowner would pay about $3300 in property tax overall.
The Champaign City Township’s share of overall property
tax is tiny, at about three tenths of one percent.
Champaign City Township Supervisor Linda Abernathy
has said the additional funds would allow her to help
reverse drastic cuts that had to be made in a financial aid
program for the poorest of the poor called “General Assistance.”
This state-mandated program is the primary function
of Abernathy’s office. It provides financial assistance
to Champaign residents who are living in abject poverty
(less than $3000 in annual earned income), who are
unable to qualify for any other state or federal aid. The
maximum monthly aid under this program is typically
around $200, though currently the maximum is $150 in
Champaign, due to the lack of funds. In fact, the funding
shortfall is so serious that Abernathy had to completely cut
off more than half of the program’s clients last year, a desperate
situation that prompted the pending referendum.
How did things get to such dire straits? There is a long and
complicated history here, but it’s mainly due to a combination
of three conditions.
First, the Champaign City Township property tax levy is
artificially low—radically lower than comparable townships
in the state. For instance, while Champaign’s levy
stands at 3.5 cents per $100 assessed value of one’s home
(”assessed value” is essentially 1/3 of market value),
Urbana’s rate is about 5 times higher, at 19.3 cents. Among
all comparable townships in a 100 mile radius of Champaign,
Bloomington City Township is probably the most
similar. Bloomington’s levy is 23 cents per $100, which is
over 6 times higher! Champaign City Township’s profoundly
inadequate tax levy is a legacy of years prior to Linda
Abernathy’s tenure as Township Supervisor and it’s regrettably
been stuck there ever since, due to property tax caps.
The second contributing factor is that in recent years
there has been a significant jump in demand for “General
Assistance” in Champaign City Township, largely due to
Abernathy’s efforts to better serve the poor by being more
receptive and helpful, fulfilling campaign promises made
when she originally ran for the office in 2005. For a while,
Abernathy was able to meet the previously hidden need
using reserve township funds, but as those funds dwindled,
the artificially low property tax levy began to severely
strangle General Assistance funds.
The third and most consequential factor in the current
predicament is the enactment of PTELL, the Property Tax
Extension Limitation Law (commonly known as “property
tax caps”) at the county level back in 1996. PTELL acts
to set hurdles that must be cleared to enact property tax
rate increases. In the Township’s case, PTELL’s hurdles are
prodigious. Not only must any increase in the township’s
property tax levy be approved by voter referendum, the
wording on the ballot may not provide any indication of
the levy’s actual purpose. It may only indicate the magnitude
of the increase in a strict, pre-determined boilerplate
format imbued with technical jargon. The upcoming referendum’s
arcane wording is expressly dictated by PTELL.
Since PTELL requires that the voters be asked for a tax
increase with no justification and using perplexing technical
language, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a
prior attempt to pass a property tax increase referendum
for the Township failed
decisively. In November
2006, voters were asked to
decide on an increase of 5
cents per $100 of assessed
value, which would have
fully funded the General
Assistance program (the
upcoming referendum
only asks for 2 cents per
$100 in the hopes that the
lower figure may pass).
Since the failed referendum,
there have been
efforts to educate the community
about this issue. Through the efforts of local citizens,
an advisory referendum was put on the Primary
ballot earlier this year to educate and directly gauge the
support of Champaign voters regarding the restoration of
General Assistance aid to the poor. The referendum read:
Shall the voters of the City of Champaign Township ask
the Township Trustees to restore the level of general assistance
funding by actively pursuing any and all means
available to them in order to preserve the health and wellbeing
of individuals, children, families and adults living in
extreme poverty in our Township?
This passed with 71% in favor, showing that when
Champaign voters are told what they’re voting for, they are
in support of restoring General Assistance. Earlier this
month, the 5th annual Unity March focused attention on
this issue, as citizens gathered at the Township Supervisor’s
office and then marched through downtown Champaign
to raise awareness of the upcoming referendum.
The need for General Assistance will likely become even
more urgent in the coming months. A sharp increase in
local unemployment coupled with ongoing hikes in the
price of essential goods such as food, energy and utilities as
well as rising foreclosures and an overall deteriorating
economy will likely intensify the need for aid to the most
needy. The hope is that the combination of a lower requested
tax increase, in combination with a years-long effort to
educate and survey the community will finally result in at
least a partial repair of Champaign’s tattered last-chance
safety net for the most impoverished among us.

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