Township Government and Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: State can't afford to keep townships

October 23, 2010

Yogi Berra said it best: It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Indiana lawmakers are gearing up for another legislative session, and as IBJ reporter Francesca Jarosz reports on page 1 this week, township government reform will return to the lineup. We hope proponents can finally hit a home run.

We have made the case against township government here more than once, and the evidence keeps piling up. With property-tax caps putting a strain on local government—and estimated savings that surpass $400 million a year—Indiana simply cannot afford to hang on to this bureaucratic relic of the bad old days.

Townships collect tax money and deliver hyper-local services, including emergency poor relief. But that has a very real cost. The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance has said Marion County townships, for example, spend $1.32 for every dollar provided. That kind of overhead is unacceptable.

Then there are other, less obvious costs. As IBJ has reported, in Marion County’s Center Township—where about a quarter of residents live in poverty—the trustee’s office owns a $10 million portfolio of mostly vacant properties, keeping them off the tax rolls.

Townships also have drawn criticism for accumulating cash reserves—unspent taxpayer money. IBJ reported in 2008 that Center Township’s surplus over the previous seven years ranged from $4 million to $10.4 million, depending on expenses. In 2009, the other eight Marion County townships had a cumulative cash balance of $41.3 million; Center’s total was not available.

Eliminating township government would free up funding for cash-strapped counties. Sure, they’d pick up some expenses along with the township duties, but consolidating services almost certainly would allow for some savings. Just ask the for-profit businesses that tout “economies of scale” when gobbling up competitors.

Indeed, a 2007 statistical model estimated abolishing township government would save near $425 million a year. How can lawmakers say no to that?

Sadly, they have found a way in the past. Despite vigorous debate and some incremental progress, widespread reform has failed several trips through the General Assembly.

Apologists tout townships as the unit of government closest to the people they serve. Still, even the most involved citizens likely would be hard-pressed to identify their township trustees—let alone members of the paid advisory board—despite the fact that they’re elected.

This is an example of politics getting in the way of common sense, of politicians being more concerned about keeping one another happy than making the best use of taxpayers’ money. That may have been acceptable in the days of smoky back-room deals and two-martini lunches, but it’s not OK now. Legislators need to step up to the plate and swing for the fences.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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