EYE ON THE PIE: Too many governments plague state

Keywords Government
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Have you read the Ke r n a n – S h e p a r d report? Don’t feel guilty, few have. Its more formal name is, “Streamlining Local Government; We’ve got to stop governing like this.”

It’s a very strong, readable statement for reforming local government. Unfortunately, it does not get to our root problem: Local governments are creatures trained for obedience by their master, the Indiana General Assembly. Although the report does not say it, there will be no reform at the local level unless the General Assembly adopts the Kernan-Shepard recommendations into legislation. What has been done thus far is only the partial elimination of township assessors, an easy target.

But what about school consolidation? Is the General Assembly ready to tackle that one? Even further, the Kernan-Shepard report did not dare go. There is no discussion of the consolidation of counties or the elimination of cities and towns.

Indiana has 92 counties and 567 cities and towns. Are they efficient or meaningful units of government? Let’s start with Marion County. Why do 12 cities and towns continue to exist in and around Indianapolis in a county that supposedly has Unigov? Is there a reason for the continued existence of Homecroft (population 741), Meridian Hills (1,734) and Rocky Ripple (706)? The last is not named for, nor has it inspired, an ice cream.

If the Kernan-Shepard commission recommends consolidation of school districts that are too small to be effective, why not apply the same idea to other units of government? Indiana has 452 cities and towns with 5,000 or fewer citizens. Some may have good reason to exist, but which could be eliminated with what benefits for efficiency?

Is there a reason for the existence of Riley (155 persons) in Vigo County? How about Darmstadt (1,500) in Vanderburgh County? Clifford (304) in Bartholomew County?

There is no suggestion here to wipe these places off the map of Indiana. Rather, the idea is to examine the justification for governmental units that may serve little, if any, purpose. Size alone is not the issue. Some of our towns are nothing more than residential enclaves that seek to escape the taxes of adjacent cities. If we can force consolidation of school corporations, surely we can do the same with parasitic housing developments.

At the county level, how do we justify the continued existence of Ohio County? This smallest of the state’s counties has fewer than 6,000 persons on just 87 square miles. Why not combine Ohio with either Switzerland or Dearborn counties?

Benton County has 8,800 people, while adjacent Warren County has 8,500. The Kernan-Shepard commission recommends intergovernmental compacts for the joint provision of services. That’s a charming idea, but it does not resolve the underlying issue. We have more counties than we need, just as we have more cities and towns than we need.

If we are to reform local governments, they truly must be formed differently. But does the Indiana Legislature have the courage to make changes that are really significant? There is no evidence that our representatives and senators can be expected to make meaningful changes, except to subsidize special interest groups like homeowners.

If we are to reform local government, it will take the bold leadership of an innovative governor to propose and champion radical reform. It will take citizens who are serious, rather than parochial, to support true reform.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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