The Indiana General Assembly has failed to pass bills to initiate township reform prescribed by a bipartisan commission in 2007
In a chamber of commerce meeting a year ago in Muncie, state Rep. Kevin Mahan asked the 100 or so attendees whether they knew their township trustee.
"Five people raised their hands," recalled Mahan, a Republican from Hartford City.
That sparse reaction dovetails with the findings of a CNHI News Indiana survey of 561 Hoosiers, in which 82 percent said they did not know their township trustee's name, reflecting low engagement between townships and the people they're supposed to serve.
Back in 2007, Mitch Daniels, then Indiana's governor, convened a commission to study local government in Indiana and make recommendations for improvements. The bipartisan commission was led by former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard.
The resulting Kernan-Shepard report characterized township government as antiquated and inefficient, and advocated for its elimination through transferring duties to a county executive, effectively eliminating township trustees and their three-member boards, all elected positions.
At that time, townships' primary responsibilities were fire protection, poor relief, maintenance of abandoned cemeteries and property tax assessment. This last responsibility was soon turned over to counties.
Otherwise, despite repeated legislative efforts, townships in Indiana remain much as they were before 2007 -- and they cost Hoosiers $389 million a year.
"How is it that we have lawmakers and organizations that cannot sit down and have an honest discussion about this?" Mahan asked. "We don't know who the township trustee is, but we are so dead set about keeping the status quo with townships. It makes no sense to me."
Hoosiers might not favor township reform, such as mergers, without having local financial analyses detailing how the cost of townships hit them, Mahan acknowledged.
"I think what needs to happen ... when you're sitting down in whatever county and in whatever township and say here's what your township system of government is costing you in this area and here's what it will go to if you at least merge," Mahan said. "I think we've got to do a better job of being able to show what the actual cost savings is."
Debbie Driskell, president of the Indiana Township Association, doubts county government could do the work of townships any better or at lower cost.
“I’d like somebody to show me how this is going to work and save any money or make it more effective," she said.
In Bartholomew County, Ohio Township Trustee JoAnne Flohr is willing to see the county take over the duties of her post, including poor relief and cemetery maintenance. Firefighting services could be handled by creating a taxing territory between Ohio and neighboring Jackson Township, an arrangement that is being explained to residents in public meetings.
"We're in the 21st century, for heaven's sakes," said Flohr, who did not seek re-election in November. "We need to be a little bit smarter on our money and how it's used."
'GIVING IT A LITTLE THOUGHT'
Next door to Ohio Township, Jackson Township Trustee Bruce Bartells supports creating a two-township territory for better fire protection. But he wants to keep intact the grassroots form of government for his 950 residents. He believes transferring such services as poor relief to the county would turn the process impersonal.
"We're the closest thing to our neighbors," Bartells said. "I know everybody out here. So when I have people who need assistance ... they're not talking to a stranger or secretary. They actually come in here and talk to me."
Some legislators are unsure what the next step might be in changing township government, or even whether it should be changed.
"We’ve been working on this since 2006 or '07, and it’s very clear that in some particularly rural communities that the township form of government is the only form of government, really the only governmental officials, that the local community relates to," said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis.
"So there has to be a more strategic move on this, perhaps some incentives for the townships to consolidate, and so we’re giving it a little thought."
One of the possibilities, he said, is to develop a way for townships to consolidate without a time-consuming referendum process.
A measure in the last session of the General Assembly would have required townships with fewer than 1,200 residents to merge with a neighboring township. That bill had the support of the Indiana Township Association, but it became bogged down in committee.
"In the 2018 legislative session, the Indiana Township Association shared some ideas and started some good conversations on how townships can best serve citizens," Gov. Eric Holcomb said. "I hope they continue to do that, and I’m eager to work with them."
PUSH FOR REFORM
In the CNHI News Indiana online poll, conducted last spring, 71 percent of respondents agreed with the 2007 commission recommendation that township government services be transferred to counties.
However, 11 years after the panel's report, it's rare to find a legislator willing to mandate the recommendations for fear of running into opposition from strong township defenders.
Mahan, who chairs the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform, has pushed for changes. He authored a state nepotism policy that bars some trustees from hiring relatives and co-authored the bill last session that would have forced mergers for small townships.
One of the reform commission recommendations in 2007 was to shift trustee responsibilities to a county executive.
"I think for some counties, it absolutely makes sense to have one county executive," Mahan said. "But it may not be the case for all 92 counties. I’m kind of a local control guy when it comes to that."
The CNHI online poll also showed that 62 percent of respondents had not used township services for at least a year.
Defenders of township government believe the system is closest to Hoosiers and can’t be replaced by mergers of townships or by county government.
“If they take it away, I don’t know where they’re going to put it,” said Driskell, who is a township trustee in Hamilton County. “At one time, when they had county welfare departments, you had the infrastructure. I don’t think they have the manpower now; they would have to hire more people.”
WHY TOWNSHIPS STILL EXIST
State Rep. Cindy Ziemke, a Batesville Republican who is considered one of the legislative leaders in township reform efforts, authored the consolidation bill in 2017. She had read the Kernan-Shepard report before she ran for office in 2012, and she plans to pursue more reforms in the next legislative session, beginning in January.
Her focus will be the $453.6 million in cash balances Indiana townships had sitting in their coffers at the end of last year. That's enough to fund Indiana's townships for an entire year with money to spare.
"I'm just trying to put forth ideas to make our local government more efficient to free up the resources to fund what we need," Ziemke said. "I think with technology as it is and with business models as they are, we're just not moving forward as we could be."
Despite numerous bills aimed at reform over the past decade, township government operates nearly untouched more than a decade after the Kernan-Shepard report.
Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, explains why.
Nearly $400 million is pumped into townships annually, but the money comes in mostly modest amounts from taxpayers -- perhaps $55 to $85 for the owner of a $100,000 property.
So, while mainstream Hoosiers are unlikely to mount a protest over such small portions, those who make money from townships -- trustees, contractors (often relatives of trustees) and other officials -- stand to lose thousands of dollars each if townships are abolished.
These folks are heavily invested in the system and highly motivated to defend it.
"Very few of us know what the costs of it are," Hicks said. "We don't know how much the township makes. We don't notice it because we're paying our property tax with our mortgage. Unless you pull off that tax form and scour it, you have no idea what's going on, and so it just flies under the radar."