Residents to decide fate of township assessors

November 3, 2008
Flip over your election ballot Tuesday and you'll find Question One: "Should the assessing duties of the elected township assessor in the township be transferred to the county assessor?"

The question might not get politicos riled up the way the presidential or governor's race has. But both sides in the debate say the stakes are huge, affecting the size of homeowners' and businesses' property tax bills in larger communities throughout the state.

Central Indiana's business leaders say it's about eliminating inefficiency, lowering taxes and improving property valuation. They want you to vote "yes." Township officials agree those are the issues at stake, but encourage you to vote "no."

Neither side is likely to be satisfied with the outcome of the township-by-township voting, since it's improbable all townships will vote the same way. Any townships that vote "no" will be able to keep their own assessors.

"It's impossible to predict anything aside from uncertainty," said Marion County Assessor Greg Bowes. "I'm fairly confident we'll get a majority [of townships] to consolidate. Now does it turn into all nine [in Marion County]? I wouldn't be that confident to say that."

Indiana has 1,008 townships. For years, business leaders have complained the township form of government is antiquated, wasteful and too expensive. They say companies and citizens would be better served by centralized county offices. But township officials counter that their posts are closest to the people, which they claim makes them the most flexible and responsive government offices in the state.

Last year, the Kernan-Shepard Commission recommended consolidation of all township government. But this spring, the Legislature chose to leave township fire departments and poor-relief offices alone, instead focusing on assessors.

The General Assembly shifted assessing duties to the county level in 965 Indiana townships. In the state's 43 largest townships—generally those in urban areas like Marion County and parts of Hamilton, Hendricks and Johnson counties—the Legislature passed the political hot potato to voters.

It's a major battle in the business community's campaign to eliminate township government. Groups pushing for "yes" votes include the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors and the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. And they've been funding a flurry of voter mail to press their case.

Indianapolis Chamber President Roland Dorson said business leaders have been pushing to "de-layer" township government, which he described as a 19th century relic, for a decade.

"We're interested in a more uniform, consistent and predictable assessing system," Dorson said. "It's about the way the system is set up. If you have the Babe Ruth of assessors, and he does a tremendous job, but in the next township, you have a Single A player, the folks being served by the Babe Ruth of assessors get a more accurate assessment. All that separates the two is a line drawn on a map."

Last year's property tax crisis brought questions of assessment accuracy to the forefront. The Kernan-Shepard Commission found multiple examples of nearly identical properties that received tax bills with thousands of dollar differences—despite the fact they were on the same block.

Township assessors continue to argue that they're best-trained and -positioned to gauge changes in property values neighborhood by neighborhood. They say county assessors will need just as many employees to do the job. Only it'll be harder to get a meeting with them.

"The township people are the most knowledgeable and most capable of working through problems," said Washington Township Assessor Joline Ohmart. "My main concern is that the taxpayers won't get the service we give them in the townships. They'll all have to go downtown. That office downtown will be so overwhelmed that they won't be able to take care of them in the manner we've been able to take care of them."

Marion County, with its nine townships, is the central battlefront. On Oct. 30, Republican Mayor Greg Ballard and his predecessor, Democrat Bart Peterson, appeared together at the Indianapolis Chamber's request to encourage "yes" votes.

It's possible that Bowes soon will assume property assessment duties across all of Marion County. He currently is responsible primarily for assessment appeals when property owners disagree with township conclusions. Bowes now oversees a staff of 17 people and a $1 million budget. After the election, he could add as many as 132 people and as much as $9 million to the budget.

But it's far more likely voters won't approve the referendum in every township. In Marion County, that would create a patchwork of authority for Bowes. The Legislature already moved rural Decatur Township's assessments to his office. Voters also might grant Bowes assessment authority in Lawrence, Perry and Warren townships, for example, but vote "no" in Center, Franklin, Pike, Washington and Wayne.

Bowes won't find out which permutation prevails until after Election Day, which made reorganization planning nearly impossible all year. He's not expecting any cost savings in the near term. But Bowes does hope to dramatically improve assessment accuracy in the territories he assumes.

"It could turn out very crazy," he said. "We're going to have some real scrambling to do before January."

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