‘Works’ proposal would overhaul Unigov: Yesterday’s system isn’t keeping up with current makeup of Marion County

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Three decades ago, before Republicans conceived the local government consolidation they called Unigov, Indianapolis was the sleepy burg folks drove through on their way somewhere else.

Once city and county government began working together, Indianapolis enjoyed dynamic growth. Today’s vibrant, modern metropolis is consolidation’s direct legacy.

But in 35 years, Unigov has ossified.

Most Marion County residents now live outside the old city limits. Yet the tax structure maintains the fiction they don’t. Old city residents shoulder the burden of paying for most downtown agencies and amenities, a cost that stymies development-or, in many cases, makes it hard to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, even if they never venture outside their own neighborhoods, suburbanites can’t afford a parochial mind-set. Crime is on the rise where they live. But Marion County, deep in deficit, can’t afford to hire more cops. Statistics bolster Sheriff Frank Anderson’s frequent claim that, “It’s about need, not greed.”

Political realities prevented full consolidation at Unigov’s inception. That’s why the Indianapolis Police Department remains separate from Anderson’s force; why townships and the airport maintain their own fire departments; and why, even now, Unigov’s excluded cities and towns, like Lawrence and Beech Grove, want to maintain their independence.

Yesterday’s system can’t keep up with current funding demands for public services. Problems swept under the rug throughout Unigov’s history have left city and county agencies, from the prosecutor and public defender to the cops and the courts, desperately short of cash.

Unchecked, it will only get worse.

So, many believe it’s time to take consolidation’s next step. Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, calls his proposed Unigov overhaul “Indianapolis Works.”

Behind closed doors, Peterson developed his plan for months.

“What we need is a Unigov for this generation,” he said in August. “And that is precisely what I am proposing today: dramatic steps to further consolidate local government to make it smaller and leaner, less expensive and more accountable.”

Peterson wants to merge local police into one countywide force. His plan also would consolidate local fire services, rolling eight township fire departments and the airport fire department into the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Financially, maintaining fire departments is township government’s largest function. Once that’s removed, Peterson argued, it’s logical and more efficient to move other services to the county level, too. Under Indianapolis Works, that means one county assessor would replace nine from the townships and two poor relief offices would do likewise.

Indianapolis Works would also establish a new governing authority for the city’s massive unfunded obligation for police and fire pensions, now earmarked at $470 million. And it would place local budgetary authority for all agencies except the courts and the public prosecutor under the city controller, who would become the Office of Finance and Management director.

Fully implemented, Peterson promises his plan would save local taxpayers at least $35 million annually.

Its numerous supporters call Indianapolis Works a no-brainer. But there are plenty of opponents as well.

Since it would increase the mayor’s authority, some call the plan “Peterson’s power grab.” More than one Republican questions whether Indianapolis Works actually strikes at the heart of local financial problems or whether its chances are realistic in the General Assembly.

Just about anybody related to township government is taking a stand against Indianapolis Works. Peterson says they’re simply trying to protect their jobs. But their practical concerns are based on their belief in small government.

It took a unique alignment of political stars to broker Unigov originally. Next year will tell whether the constellations are equally aligned for Peterson.

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