Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Democrats go nuclear to defend township

May 21, 2011

Louis MahernFor over 20 years, Center Township has provided school uniforms and winter coats to indigent children by sending them to a monopoly vendor, Doris Outlet Apparel, located within a township-owned building next door to the offices where the clothing vouchers were issued.

The vouchers were good only at Doris. The store was open for the four-month back-to-school period only and not to the public. That this monopoly provider overcharged township taxpayers has been well-documented. The other eight Marion County townships give indigent families vouchers good at a number of retail outlets.

Last August, the Center Township trustee announced that he would not be providing school uniforms or coats for the upcoming winter. Center Township poor kids would have to fend for themselves. The excuse given by the trustee was a budgetary one. He claimed the township could no longer afford to provide the clothing.

The fact that the township had entered into a development agreement to build affordable housing and would raze the building where Doris was located was merely coincidental, the trustee insisted. The decision was strictly “budgetary.” The decision had nothing to do with the fact that the trustee could no longer use his sole-source vendor.

According to annual reports at the end of 2010, Center Township had more than $7 million in reserves. In fact, Center Township had over $900,000 more in reserves than it had at the end of 2009. For the past several years, the township had averaged between $750,000 and $900,000 in expenditures for children’s clothing.

If the decision to not distribute clothing vouchers was the result of a feared budgetary shortfall, how did township officials get it so wrong? Did the township chief financial officer merely, in the words of George W. Bush, “misunderestimate” the fiscal condition of the township?

The decision not to provide clothing to indigent children was not announced until nearly two-thirds of the way through the year. Surely, with seven months behind him, the CFO would have had a better handle on township finances.

The township CFO, a CPA and former employee of the State Board of Accounts, is paid $85,000 a year. It is highly unlikely he would have made such an elementary mistake. The fact is, the trustee decided that since Doris couldn’t benefit, indigent children wouldn’t, either. Budgetary constraints had nothing to do with the decision.

There was legislation in this past General Assembly that would have placed budgetary oversight of Marion County township government with the City-County Council. So when a trustee decided at the last minute to not provide a clearly affordable benefit, members of the City-County Council could have made inquiries. They might even question the whole Doris monopoly arrangement.

The legislation failed by one vote in the Senate with not one Democrat in support. In the House, where the conference committee report passed by one vote, only three Democrats supported it. Democratic opponents to township reform branded it “racist” and by implication those who supported it racists, as well.

Incredibly, one House Democrat in floor debate referring to the Marion-County-only nature of the bill compared the legislation to the Holocaust by invoking “First they came for Marion County … ”

Samuel Johnson famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Shouldn’t we add ethnicity?

It must be understood that Democrats even implying that other Democrats are racist is much worse than Republicans calling one another socialist. Branding another Democrat a racist is the nuclear weapon of debate. Even worse, it debases the term when used to combat the all-too-real racism that continues to exist in dark corners of our society.

If supporting this rather modest and incremental reform is racist, what does that make former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Mayor Bart Peterson, both of whom supported much more robust township reforms?

What will it make Melina Kennedy if she supports township reform?

Or will it dissuade her altogether?•

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Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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