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Questions linger over proposed township bill

State senator says consolidation legislation is "poor" as written

It's likely House Bill 4637 – proposed legislation that could give residents in McHenry and Lake counties the power to abolish townships at the polls – will go to the Illinois Senate floor for a vote this week, but the opponents fighting it contend the current draft could use more work before it gets near the governor's desk.

"It’s poor legislation," said State Sen. Craig Wilcox, a former District 4 Representative on the McHenry County Board elected to his new Springfield seat on Nov. 6.

To Wilcox, there are too many questions the proposed legislation does not answer. The biggest question, he said, is this: What will happen to the general assistance programs townships use to help residents in financial crisis?

If approved by the governor, House Bill 4637 would allow officials in McHenry County’s 17 townships to put a binding referendum on the ballot asking voters whether a township should be eliminated and its responsibilities rolled under the umbrella of county government; but the legislation, as it stands, does not address what will happen to general assistance programs.

Voting to abolish a township, Wilcox said, may mean abolishing the general assistant program.

"Ultimately," he said, "residents need to be fully educated on what abolishment would mean."

State Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, the senate sponsor carrying the bill on the floor this week, is confident the bill will pass as written – but he is open to trailer legislation that will improve it in the coming session.

"I’d be willing to work with them on a trailer bill," said Link, who is aware of the criticisms centering on the future of general assistance programs. "That’s one of the things we could possibly address in the trailer."

In May, Gov. Bruce Rauner received a letter with the signatures of more than 20 McHenry County Board members opposing the bill.

“We respectfully request that H.B. 4637 be permanently put on hold until our county can minimally address the financial burden to McHenry County, its municipalities and, most importantly, the taxpayer, prior to ever passing this legislation,” read the letter, signed by 21 of the board’s 24 members.

On Nov. 6, McHenry Township voters found a referendum question on the ballot that gave them the power to eliminate the township road district – and they rejected the notion in an overwhelming fashion: More than 68 percent of them voted “no."

While pleased with the outcome, organizers behind Citizens for Facts First – the grass-roots group that campaigned for a cost study to prove taxpayer savings before a referendum could empower residents to slash local governments – were surprised.

"We didn't think we were going to win," said Tina Hill, the former County Board Chairwoman who helped spread the group's message. "Then the people spoke and they said we want to keep it."

Citizens for Facts First plans to stay together, Hill said, in case House Bill 4637 passes and voters get a chance to eliminate townships.

"They haven't thought it through," Hill said. "There's no study. There's no plan. People are grasping at the lowest hanging fruit they think will solve the problem [of high taxes], but they don't know if it will."

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