The downside of merging RF Township with village

Opinion: Columns

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By David Boulanger

State Rep. Chris Welch (7th) is proposing legislation that would allow elimination of River Forest Township (RFT) by merging its functions into the Village of River Forest. RFT currently has a longstanding Intergovernmental Agreement with Oak Park Township to provide key services.

Over 10 years ago, Oak Park Township (OPT) and River Forest Township (RFT) merged their senior services functions to become Oak Park and River Forest Townships Senior Services, and their youth services to become Oak Park and River Forest Townships Youth Services. The action brought all administration, staffing and programmatic responsibility under the well established and well regarded two OPT divisions — Senior Services and Youth Services. 

The RFT board maintained its governance role through approval of the RFT portion of the related budgets and the RFT supervisor's communication with the OPT supervisor and her service, along with other River Forest representatives, on the Senior Services and Youth Services advisory committees. The two committees, which include appointed Oak Park residents as well, meet with the two unit directors, Desiree Scully-Simpkins and John Williams, and directly advise the OPT and RFT boards on policy matters, budgets, programs and grant-making decisions.

The RFT fully retained four services for River Forest residents: 

Funding and administration of general assistance for the unemployed 

Mental health funding through an appointed Mental Health Committee 

An assessor's office with elected assessor to advise and assist residents on property tax matters, and 

Governance of the River Forest Civic Center Authority, which leases space in its building to the River Forest Community Center and other community activities.

The relationship with the RFT has been one of frequent and productive consultation and mutually supported projects to promote efficiencies and cost-savings. The primary example is, of course, the full merging under OPT administration of the two major program areas described above. Other examples are sharing the common, annually updated publication, "What Does Your Township Do For You?" and shared funding of grants to OPRF High School and other agencies providing activities for at-risk youth. 

The possible merger of RFT functions into the village of River Forest, as I understand it, is not intended to eliminate services that the RFT currently provides. Specifically, the part-time staff positions of general assistance, mental health funding, and the assessor's office would need to be retained in some fashion, as well as the assessor. 

The only other compensated positions, the RFT supervisor and clerk, together comprising 20 hours and five hours, respectively, per week, would be eliminated. The supervisor is the "workhorse" of RFT: performing her statutory roles as chair of the board, treasurer over all finances, and executive over all township activities and general assistance. This includes recruiting and appointing committee members and attending numerous meetings. 

Oak Park Township provides these same functions in Oak Park and, together with RFT, has ensured citizen representation, responsive administration, and quality services that are sensitive to emerging needs. 

The OPT relationship with RFT has worked well in addressing our common human services mission. OPT, if retained in an Intergovernmental Agreement, would need to fit its human services role into the village of River Forest's broader agenda, policy, program, and budget concerns. The challenge of this arrangement was highlighted in the recent economic recession when the village of Oak Park had to reduce staffing and budgets by 20% at a time of growing need by our most vulnerable citizens, and, I expect, the village of River Forest came under budget pressure as well. Oak Park and River Forest townships, working jointly, were able to maintain and expand staff and services, as needed, due to the stable property tax support by our residents — about 2.5% of their property tax bill. 

In conclusion, River Forest Township has represented River Forest residents well in its Intergovernmental Agreement with OPT, which has ensured quality human services for seniors and youth. Elimination of RFT appears to provide a small cost savings but with diminished elected representation in these important service areas. 

David Boulanger is the Oak Park Township supervisor.

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