East St. Louis Township exists solely to help some of the neediest people in the state. Now that its former supervisor, half the trustees and a paid consultant to the township face or have pleaded guilty to criminal charges, what will happen?
New appointed Township Supervisor Tommy Dancy said he is committed to the mission of helping people.
“Under my leadership, I will ensure that the community’s needs are adequately addressed. I believe the township exists to help every citizen of East St. Louis,” Dancy wrote. “I will comply with all state and federal laws regarding the fiscal responsibility of the township. I will partner with the city of East St. Louis and other local agencies and organizations in unison to maximize our efforts so that the essential services are provided timely to our citizens.”
Townships have a state mandate to assist the needy. Many townships in the metro-east maintain highways or sewers, but East St. Louis Township’s only role is public assistance. Of the city’s 27,000 people, about 46 percent live below the poverty line.
But under former Supervisor Oliver Hamilton, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, the township only spent about 18 cents on the dollar for general assistance. Most of the rest went to salaries and administration. The township has operating expenses of $1.4 million.
Illinois law is clear: Townships can provide up to $245 a month to residents who are not seniors or children, who don’t have an income or don’t receive any federal or state aid. This bars the township from helping many people, including single mothers raising children, who are receiving aid from other sources.
Andrew Theising, an associate professor and chair of the political science department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Urban Research, estimated that there are fewer than 5,000 people that fit that classification in East St. Louis Township, whose borders are contiguous with the city.
The township can also give money to non-profits who have programs to assist residents.
“There are some great non-profits working in East St. Louis,” Theising said, noting SIUE operates a Head Start, Upward Bound, Latchkey and other programs that assist with child care, Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, Emerson Park Development Corporation, Catholic Urban Charities, and the Christian Activity Center.
A Belleville News-Democrat investigation found that more than $280,000 was spent on a taxpayer-supported American Express card over four years. Hamilton used the card to buy construction materials, take Las Vegas trips, purchase gas for his private vehicle, and buy dinners and gifts for political friends.
Dancy responded in writing to questions submitted by the BND about the future of the township.
However, he did not address specific questions about whether the township hired Hamilton’s wife, Belynda, her salary and job description; whether the township would continue to issue credit cards to top officials, or whether the township would continue to employ consultants George Laktzian and June Hamilton Dean, who each receive a $33,000 annual salary.
Hamilton-Dean, Oliver Hamilton’s sister who also carried a township American Express card, was charged earlier this month with making a false statement after prosecutors said she wrote a false letter of employment. Dancy declined to say whether she continues to have access to the township’s credit card or is still being paid as a consultant.
Township Board of Trustees members Edith Moore and Michael Roberts also face state criminal charges. Moore, 68, faces three counts of forgery and voting violations stemming from a political battle for Democratic precinct committeeman in the 20th Precinct, where Moore was defeated. Roberts, 70, was charged with “official misconduct/personal advantage” for allegedly accepting airline tickets to fly to Las Vegas with his wife and the Hamiltons.
Theising said improving lives in impoverished areas is about providing service.
“I think about it in terms of what things cost. A fire truck is probably $500,000. A decent playground is about $50,000. A police car is probably $40,000. A street light installed is probably $4,000,” he said.
There are three well-documented and accepted barriers to overcoming poverty, according to Theising. They are reliable housing, reliable transportation and reliable child care.
There are ways to combat this, Theising said. Free child-care programs before and after school, free breakfast and dinner programs for kids, a dedicated bus route from East St. Louis’ residential centers to employment centers that doesn’t require transfers, transit-oriented development, putting child-care centers close to MetroLink stops, carpooling and offering a livable wage to pay for it all, Theising said.
Financial instability keeps people from being outraged when local government misspends tax dollars. When families struggle to care for their children, get to work and keep a stable living arrangement, there isn’t time to pay attention to local government, Theising said.
Dancy said he wants to restore confidence in the township’s leadership.
“I plan to do that by providing honest communication and by being a true public servant. I have strong ties in the city of East St. Louis and I plan to bring all of my skills and abilities to bringing the township back to what it was established to do, which is serve the poor, disenfranchised and especially the senior community,” Dancy wrote.
“I will do that by first identifying the weaknesses and our strengths. Once that evaluation is done, I will develop a strategic plan to identify and implement the best service for the community.”