David Hoppe

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:: Townships' time to go

Daniels has it right

By David Hoppe

Let's take a vote: All those in favor of creating a government office where the officials run mostly unopposed, are free to hire family members, can decide on their own whether they want to spend the tax dollars they receive, and don't even have to list an office number in the phone book - raise your hands.

Hello?

Anybody there?

My guess is that most of us would consider this proposition ludicrous, if not downright crazy. But it's a reality in Indiana. We call it township government.

Here, at last, is something Gov. Mitch Daniels and I can whole-heartedly agree on. Weird, I know, but there you have it.

Daniels was among the speakers last week at a gathering called "Policy Over Politics: A Forum on Township Reform" at the Indiana History Center. The room was full of politicians of both parties, business leaders and concerned citizens. It was really kind of extraordinary. Here was a group of people, representing about as wide a variety of political and social philosophies as you'll find in Indiana, all of whom were interested in trying to fix a real problem.

That problem is township government.

We've had townships in Indiana as long as we've been a state (since 1816, in case you're wondering). When Indiana was first formed, its population was small and far- flung. Townships were created in order to provide people with a connection to government they could reach within a day's ride on horseback.

Time, of course, has passed since then. Today, many more Hoosiers live in urban areas than in the countryside. New forms of state, local and county government have arisen in order to address the changing character of Indiana life.

The trouble is that while new forms of government have been added, old ones, like townships, have been allowed to hang on, claiming tax dollars and operating pretty much under the public radar. Can you name your elected township official? Do you even remember voting for him or her? I don't, either.

The Indianapolis Star has been undertaking some useful research regarding township government. At the end of 2009, combined township cash balances equaled $294 million, up from $207 million in 2007. In a sample of almost 500 townships, 226 finished 2009 with cash balances at least two times what they spent that year. And here's the kicker: the primary purpose of township government is what we in Indiana quaintly call "poor relief," providing emergency financial support to people in need. While the townships' cash balances were going up between 2007 and 2009, the number of people they were helping dropped, from 350,266 to 258,283.

What's wrong with this picture? In 2008, the country experienced the worst financial crash since the Great Depression. Hoosier unemployment spiked and has yet to recover. More people in Indiana are out of work, unable to make house payments, pay their heating bills or put food on the table than at any time in recent memory. But the townships, supposed dispensers of "poor relief," have millions socked away.

For what?

Well, for starters, here in Center Township, the township government apparently owns four buildings. Louis Mahern, another speaker at last week's forum, and a former member of the bipartisan Kernan-Shepard Commission that, among other things, recommended abolishing township government, told the History Center audience that two years ago Center Township spent $400,000 on utilities for those four buildings. Mahern added that he could only speak in terms of two years ago because Center Township has not reported its expenditures since then.

Why Center Township should own four buildings is a question in itself. But, as Mahern pointed out, what makes this situation really egregious is the fact that Center and other townships are hoarding tax dollars and spending them with little or no accountability at the very moment vital public services, like our libraries, are having to lay off workers, cut hours and contemplate closing branches due to budget shortfalls brought on by property tax caps.

Did I mention that township governments get their money from property taxes?

Money going to townships could be helping to put more buses on our streets, improve our parks and pay for a few more cops. As for folks in need, Patti O'Callaghan, a spokesperson for the Indiana Coalition For Human Services told The Star that counties are in the best position to help. "That way people know where to go for assistance and rules would be more standardized." Right now, in Marion County alone, there are nine different sets of township guidelines for providing help to the needy.

The township system is democracy at its most dysfunctional. It serves itself above all and, in the process, feeds the disillusionment so many people have with government of any kind. But fixing this situation will be hard. You can help by calling or emailing your state legislator. Go to www.in.gov/legislative to find out who your legislator is and how best to make contact.

The township system has passed its sell-by date. Mitch Daniels is right about that - and it doesn't give me heartburn to say it.