INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation that would force small townships to merge with larger neighboring townships is moving through the legislature after facing challenges resulting in providing guidance in consolidations and creating a possible summer study committee.
“The motivation behind this legislation is to provide the most efficient, fiscally sound local government possible at the township level,” State Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, said.
“We owe this to the taxpayers of our state. We certainly owe it to the next generation of our state,” Ziemke said.
Her House Bill 1005 would require townships with a population of less than 1,200 to develop a consolidation plan with one or more townships within the same county by 2023. The bill passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee and now goes to the House floor.
Rep. Steve Davisson, R-Salem, voted against the measure, saying, “I represent six rural counties with several small townships. I’ve gotten contact from a lot of my township folks. They are opposed to this bill and I have to represent my district.”
Rep. Robert Cherry, R-Greenfield, voted for the bill but said he didn’t see where costs would be saved unless all township units were reduced.
Ziemke, however, has the support of the Indiana Township Association which represents about 600 to 700 of the state’s 1,005 townships. The association had previously fought against forced consolidations but had worked with Ziemke over the last year.
“I have been working closely with the Indiana Township Association to come up with a bill that consolidates small township operations, but maintains the same township services and transparency Hoosiers expect,” she said.
Earlier this week, nearly two dozen amendments were proposed to alter the bill. Changes added to the bill included limiting the salary of an elected township advisory board member to $7,000, up from an initial $5,000 cap.
“I did hear back from one of my township trustees and he expressed that in some of the bigger counties, there’s much more work so they probably needed to have a salary amount that was higher,” Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, said.
Township trustees, who generally are paid more than board members, are primarily responsible for issuing poor relief, maintaining cemeteries and providing fire services particularly in unincorporated areas.
The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance would also be the lead agency in providing guidance to township facing mergers.
Additionally, the committee amended the bill to urge an interim legislative committee to study better mechanisms to fund township firefighting services. That committee would consider whether fire services should have a minimum funding level or tax rate.
“House Bill 1005 includes additional provisions that improve township government accountability and services,” Ziemke said. “It would empower citizens denied township assistance with the option to appeal the denial to the county board of commissioners. This legislation would also cap township board salaries at $7,000 per year and require all townships to develop a capital improvement plan if their capital fund exceeds 150 percent of the township’s annual budget estimate.”
On Monday, some Indiana newspapers published a column about township government written by Larry DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
He estimated that 312 townships had populations under 1,200. He calculated per-resident costs and found that operating costs were higher in small townships.
“The small townships budgeted about $73 per person in 2017, while the 692 larger townships budgeted $57 per person,” DeBoer wrote. “The difference is in the general fund. Small townships budget $27 per person for operating costs; larger townships budget $10 per person. Per-person budgets for fire protection and poor relief don’t differ very much between small and large townships.”