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Three Township Government Proposals, Few Solutions

Former Township Assessors' Office

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

If any of three township government proposals now before the Indiana General Assembly passes, it could mean more vacant offices like this one in the Monroe County Courthouse.

Several bills filed this legislative session focus on reforming or eliminating government at the township level. But lawmakers appear divided on what reforms should be made and, in some cases, whether they should happen at all. Bloomington State Representative Matt Pierce said the general assembly is showing very little enthusiasm for the possibility of township government reform spawned by the Kernan-Shepard report.

“You’ve got the governor pushing the Republicans in the Senate that are in his party to do something and you have the Democrats in the House saying, ‘Well, maybe we should do a little bit of something here, advance it somewhat,’ but there’s no one that’s got a critical mass of what should be done on that local government front,” Pierce said.

Still, a lack of direction hasn’t stopped chatter about nixing township government. Legislators have narrowed the number of possible solutions to about three: abolishing township government completely, getting rid of township boards but keeping elected trustees in each township or letting a voter referendum decide on the changes. But perhaps the most intractable problem for state leaders seems to be finding a solution that fits the needs of all 1,008 townships in the state.

The debate began when Indianapolis Representative Ed Delaney authored a bill aimed at siphoning money out of township governments which regularly hold millions of dollars in reserve. Delaney says that stands as proof that township governments aren’t operating as they should be, saying those dollars—especially in today’s economy—ought to be put to work.

“The league of Women voters did a very thorough study of the central township in Montgomery County, Crawfordsville, where Wabash College is located,” Delaney said. “There the reserves were in the range of 10 times as much as the annual expenditure.”

But Dan Combs, Trustee for Monroe County’s Perry Township, says that’s not the case where he works.

“We have in our reserve at Perry Township exactly what I’ve always been told we need in reserve which is a half a year’s budget,” Combs said. “We get a Dec. 31 tax draw, we get a June 30 tax draw and that’s what we fund our services out of. So what we get in Dec. 31 needs to carry us to June 30. The report that they’re referring to with this $200-million surplus is dated Jan. 1 of 2007, which is the day after every township in Indiana got their draw for six months.”

Delaney admits his bill isn’t getting much traction and says that’s because House members are worried a vote against township government would mobilize a grassroots effort by township trustees that could kick some of them out of office, but Pierce said Delaney’s bill isn’t getting much support because it reflects issues specific to certain areas—most notably Marion County.

Indianapolis-Marion County Council president Ryan Vaughn said he knows his own township is holding more than 250-percent of its annual budget in reserve, meaning the township could continue operating for 2-and-a-half years without levying a tax.  It’s township finances like that which led Senate Local Government Committee Chairwoman Connie Lawson to advocate getting rid of trustee advisory boards and charging county councils with township budget oversight.

“ I’ve heard from many township trustees who’ve said we don’t need the advisory board. I have a good budget; I’m not worried about going before the county council. And I would say that the people that are afraid are the ones who have the excess balance,” Lawson said.

But Matt Pierce said what’s really happening is a last-ditch effort by state Republicans, including Governor Mitch Daniels, to pass useful legislation based on the much touted Kernan-Shepard report on local government.

“You know the governor’s just kind of flailing around looking for something he can point to as an accomplishment of this so he came up with this idea of eliminating the advisory boards which to me is completely nonsensical because the advisory boards were put in place when people complained that the trustee didn’t have enough oversight and could essentially single handedly spend all the money,” Pierce said. “So, they want to get rid of the advisory board which would closely over see that and then say the county council will approve all these township budgets and the county councils have their hands full just trying to keep county government operating.”

Which is why, Pierce explains, some statehouse leaders have turned to the idea of a referendum vote, hoping the public will shoot down the reforms.  But the last such vote, on whether to keep assessors in the state’s 43 most populous townships, led to the creation of a patchwork system where only a few townships have such a system.  Lawson said that means a public vote could create inefficiencies, instead of eliminating them.

“I’m worried that if we did the trustee township by township it’s very possible that the county would have to have a county trustee for maybe half the townships in their county which would still be very uncoordinated and not be very efficient at all,” Lawson said.

Lawson said the end result of a referendum could be more costly, as counties hire employees to oversee of the needs of townships whose legislative bodies have been axed, all the while still paying for those township governments whose constituents chose to keep them.  For Ed Delaney, whose bill started the debate, it’s a solution he calls a “fig leaf” – meaning it could scarcely cover the needs of the state.

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