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Tough times didn't spur spike in poor relief

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Heading into the 2008 recession, Center Township sat on $10.5 million in cash, but sky-high unemployment and rising poverty over the next four years failed to drain those funds.

In fact, the township’s spending on poor relief, its main taxpayer-supported role, declined from 2008 to 2010, the same period in which the township’s unemployment rose from 13.7 percent to 20.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

A similar, puzzling pattern is found in three of Marion County’s eight other townships. Critics of township government say it’s not surprising.

township-chart.gif“I think it speaks to the fact that many citizens don’t know where to go to the trustee, but they do know the Salvation Army is here, or a soup kitchen’s nearby,” said Mark Lawrance, senior vice president at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has lobbied for eliminating township government.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who also has favored township elimination, noted that trustees operate under a different set of rules from private-sector charities.

Their role is emergency relief—one-time rent checks or utility payments.

“They have a very limited scope to deliver aid, so, yeah, it’s not surprising they don’t give much out,” he said.

The Center Township Trustee’s Office processed about 5 percent more requests from 2008 to 2009, but spending dropped from $2.6 million to $2 million, annual reports show.

The township’s unemployment crept up from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 20.9 percent the following year, but township assistance fell by nearly half, to $1.15 million.

Former Trustee William Douglas, who served from early 2009 through 2010 after longtime Trustee Carl Drummer stepped down, said he doesn’t remember any change in policy, or any change in demand.

“I don’t recall a lot of decisions that were made back then,” he said.

A state audit suggests past Center Township officials weren’t especially strict in overseeing operations.

Among the findings of the report covering 2009 and 2010 and released last summer: A number of employees, including former Chief Financial Officer Alan Mizen, were compensated from the township assistance fund but didn’t do any assistance-related work.

The auditors produced a supplemental report on Mizen’s pay, which totaled $173,236 in 2010, though his stated salary was $92,295. Mizen collected overtime, though he was in a salaried position, the report said. He also cashed out comp time and paid time off, against township rules, according to the report.

Mizen reported working more than 12 hours a day on 107 days in 2010.

“We would have expected to see a corresponding amount of output/work generated from the hours being charged,” the auditors wrote. “Several items that were the responsibility of the CFO were either not performed or were incomplete.”

Mizen, who’d been earning extra compensation since 2005, stated in his official response that he only appeared to collect overtime because township time sheets didn’t have a place to record comp time, which he was allowed to take. He argued that the auditors misinterpreted the rules about comp time, and that cashing out was permissible. He said the trustee had verbally approved both comp time and the excess paid time off.

Center Township Trustee Eugene Akers, whose salary is $92,249, said he wants to be more helpful to residents in need of assistance than his predecessors were.

“The word on the street was, there’s no sense in going to the trustee’s office because they’re not going to help,” he said.

The office has spent $1.7 million on poor relief each of the past two years.

Trustees give a number of reasons for the seeming disconnect between spending and local conditions.

One is the process they have to follow before spending taxpayer funds on rent, utilities, food and funerals. Case workers spend hours vetting applications, which can be denied for not meeting income guidelines, lack of documentation, or other reasons.

That doesn’t mean applicants walk away empty-handed, Washington Township Trustee Frank Short said. The township makes referrals to about 30 not-for-profits, and the benefits those organizations provide are often worth more than direct aid.

“I figure, every time I send them somewhere and don’t spend any money, I’m ahead of the game,” Short said.

Washington Township actually ramped up its spending in 2009, to $361,112, a 37-percent increase over the prior year. Unemployment in the north-side township rose from 5 percent to 8.4 percent in that period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

As the recession took hold in 2008, Decatur Township Trustee Steve Rink said he expected to be flooded with requests. “I thought it might be more than we were capable of doing.”

Requests rose about 10 percent, to 1,233, and the township spent just a few thousand dollars more on poor relief, $44,031.

Those additional requests came mainly from middle-class families that had never set foot in the trustee’s office, Rink said. Other residents who were already subsisting on low wages seemed less affected, he said.

Quirks in township operations seem to have as much impact as the economy.

Wayne Township, which is second only to Center in the demand for poor relief, spent slightly more in 2009, $948,246, then saw a dramatic drop.

Director of Operations Lynn McWhirter said the office saw fewer applicants after it temporarily moved in July 2011 to High School Road, which was less accessible by bus. The office moved back to Washington Street after renovations there wrapped up last August.

Wayne Township’s assistance dropped to $518,467 in 2011, though the west-side township’s unemployment rate remained in the teens.

Lawrence Township Trustee Russell Brown said he aimed to administer poor-relief guidelines more fairly after he won election in September 2009. The denial rate declined, but demand has tapered off since 2010, when the township spent $313,258 on poor relief.

Brown said he recognizes the township office is not the first place people look for support.

“People aren’t coming through our doors,” he said. “How do we make sure we impact the places they are going?”

Brown is working on a land purchase and plans to build a refrigeration-equipped food pantry, which would be operated by a private not-for-profit.

While the trustee’s role is emergency relief, Brown said, the township also has resources to support the ongoing work of not-for-profits.

“The trustee’s office should help foster an improved social services network in the community,” he said.•

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