Environment and Government and Philanthropy

From blankets to burials, trustee work never ends:

November 20, 2006

You can turn to a township trustee for help if a fire leaves you homeless or a hospital stay leaves you penniless.

You also look to the office if a dog devours your livestock or you need a fence dispute resolved.

Indiana's 1,008 trustees make up the state's largest single group of elected officials, and their lengthy list of duties ranges from the conventional to the odd.

Some are charged with destroying "noxious weeds" and "rank vegetation," according to the state's township manual. Many provide burial assistance and care for abandoned cemeteries. Others operate parks and small-claims courts. In smaller towns, they serve as assessors.

The list of trustee responsibilities is so long that the state manual doesn't include them all due to space constraints. Most trustees focus on two things: fire protection and helping needy township residents-what was once known as poor relief.

"We are what you consider the last funding resource," said Lynn McWhirter, assistant trustee in Marion County's Wayne Township.

The trustee's office is supposed to see that the basic needs of township residents are met by the most economical means possible, said Deborah Driskell, president of the Indiana Township Association and trustee of Delaware Township in Hamilton County.

That can be done many ways. In Marion County's Center Township, it includes passing out more than 2,000 blankets every winter to homeless people sleeping under bridges and overpasses.

Center Township also helps residents build resumes and find jobs, which fits with Trustee Carl Drummer's motto of giving people a "hand up, not a hand out." He said his office aims to get people "back into society, where they can pay their own bills and provide for their own families."

Many townships run food pantries and shelters. They also provide vouchers to cover food, clothing or utility costs.

The trustee's office often fills gaps for people awaiting state or federal aid. As Driskell noted, waiting "several weeks to get your food stamps or medicine or whatever it may be ... doesn't work."

Once someone requests help, the trustee has 72 hours to decide what to do. Employees check credit and police records. They also review any income the applicant received in the previous month, trying to figure out where it went.

Trustees also check to see if anyone else, like family or charity, can help. Referrals are a big part of business.

Tax revenue fuels this philanthropy. The trustee's office can levy taxes with the approval of a township board, but it doesn't take a big bite of your tax bill.

Statewide, townships account for less than 2 percent of all property taxes, Driskell said.

Indiana's townships date back to the 19th century, and they've become the focus of consolidation debates in recent years on both state and local government levels.

"Those who advocate change say, in an urban area, that form of government's time has passed," said John L. Krauss, director of the Indiana University Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at IUPUI and a former Indianapolis deputy mayor.

Indeed, livestock deaths might not crop up often in urban townships like Center or Calumet in Lake County. But many say the trustee's office remains relevant because it knows township residents, and it knows how to deliver help quickly.

"There are articulate arguments on both sides," Krauss said.


Trustee Carl Drummer's office delivered aid worth more than $2 million to Center Township residents in need last year. Such assistance is a trustee's main job.
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