As we approach the final stretch in this year's election season, it's easy to get desensitized to the political rhetoric. Sometimes, though, there's an issue that transcends the partisan divide and deserves to cut through the clutter: Local government reform is such an issue.
Indiana's Constitution created a multilayered system of county, township and municipal government in 1851. This might have been appropriate when most travel was by horseback, but today it's left Hoosiers to support more than 3,000 units of government and 10,000 elected officials.
Through the years, our democracy has evolved when the times demanded it. Since the 1850s, African-Americans and women won the right to vote, citizens were allowed to directly elect their U.S. senators, presidential term limits were defined, and civil rights reforms helped ease racial injustice.
But through it all, Indiana government has remained stubbornly stuck in the 19th century. Township government and a host of other local elected offices remain as echoes of a bygone era, duplicating services and injecting partisanship into what should be simple administrative tasks.
Does Marion County, with our nine townships, really need 27 elected officials to assess properties, deliver poor relief and serve legal papers? Is there a Republican or Democratic way to record land deeds, audit the government's books, or file marriage licenses? It's a recipe for bureaucratic waste, higher property taxes and strained budgets.
That's why leaders from both parties have called for local government reform for more than a generation. Then-Mayor Richard Lugar, a Republican, started the ball rolling with UniGov almost 40 years ago. Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, attempted to continue this legacy through his Indy Works plan, which pushed for consolidated police and fire services across the county.
Last summer, unfair property tax bills brought public attention to the inconsistent, often error-ridden work of the township assessors. As this crisis sparked homeowner outrage, another bipartisan partnership was focusing on long-term solutions: Gov. Mitch Daniels reached out to his former opponent, Joe Kernan, and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard to assemble a commission to study ways to bring Indiana government into the 21st century.
The Kernan-Shepard Commission recommends merging township government into their counties, to bring consistency and professionalism to property assessment and to provide better, more equitable public services. It also calls for a single county executive and a county council (in Indianapolis, our mayor and City-County Council) and appointing offices like coroner and surveyor that have administrative rather than policy making duties.
These ideas have earned bipartisan support that includes the Indianapolis Mayor's Office. Like Bart Peterson before him, Mayor Greg Ballard supports reform. Both mayors have faced constituents frustrated by the maze of local government. They know we just can't afford the old system anymore.
This fall, the voters have an opportunity to make their voices heard on modernizing local government. As part of the property tax relief package passed earlier this year, the General Assembly eliminated most township assessors. But in more populated townships, assessors were left in place subject to a public referendum this fall. Voters in most of Marion County and parts of Hamilton and Johnson counties will have the opportunity to merge township assessing duties into their county assessor's office Nov. 4.
This move would bring more accuracy to property assessments, and also save an estimated $3 million-enough to put 31 new police on the streets or double the city's funding for the arts.
This isn't a partisan issue, a matter of right and left. It's a matter of right or wrong, and local government reform is the right choice for Indiana. I hope you'll join me in supporting the consolidation of the last of the township assessors and encourage your legislators to take action on the other Kernan-Shepard recommendations in 2009.
Smulyan is chairman of Emmis Communications Corp. and serves on the board of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.