Government reform effort long overdue

December 29, 2008
Critics were lined up to oppose Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan to streamline local government almost before he left the podium Dec. 19. Big surprise.

His recommendations, based on a report produced last year by the bipartisan Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, promise to ruffle many feathers—particularly those belonging to the thousands of county and township officials who would lose their jobs.

No, that's not a typo. Thousands.

Daniels cites some mind-blowing facts in making his case for change: Indiana elects almost 11,000 officials to govern more than 2,700 local units of government. Only nine states have more taxing bodies.

Local government has become unwieldy and expensive. Among Daniels' plans:

• Eliminating the state's three-member county commissions and electing a single county executive.

• Having county executives appoint other local officials that are now elected, including assessors, treasurers, surveyors and coroners.

• Eliminating township government and transferring responsibilities to the county executive.

• Consolidating school districts with fewer than 1,000 students unless they already are countywide districts.

Opponents will say—in fact, they already are—that consolidation isn't the answer. Fewer elected officials means fewer voices in the decision-making process and less opportunity for input from the public. Township government is less bureaucratic, closer to the people.

We're not buying it, not even after hitting the eggnog.

As Daniels said, voters don't elect three presidents and few—if any—businesses hire three CEOs. As anyone who ever has tried to do something "by committee" can attest, three decision-makers is two too many.

When it comes to township government, we agree with the governor that it's an "outdated legacy of the 19th century." Indiana's township system is inefficient at best, outrageous at worst.

Take Marion County's Center Township, for example. As IBJ reported in February, the trustee's office collected an average of $6.9 million in the last seven years—mostly from taxes—to help needy residents, but only $2 million reached the penniless. At the same time, Trustee Carl Drummer built up a surplus fund to a high of $10.4 million. Under Drummer's guidance, the township also accumulated a $10 million portfolio of mostly vacant properties. And not a peep from the seven-member township board—quick, can you name one?

Put simply, taxpayers can't afford such extravagance.

Even so, House Speaker Pat Bauer, a Democrat, has given Daniels' ideas a preliminary pooh-pooh, saying the General Assembly has bigger fish to fry in its upcoming session. There are no bigger fish.

Yes, passing the biennial budget is important, but the changes Daniels is recommending could make that easier in the long run.

It's the 21st century. Let's act like it.


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