Bill seeking elimination of township assessors advances to House chamber

Statehouse

Township assessors in multiple Indiana counties could see their jobs nixed by voters under a new bill passed out of committee 9-2 Tuesday.

The measure, authored by Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, heads to the full House for further consideration.

The bill would require county election boards to place a public question on the November 2024 general election ballot asking whether the county should “discontinue paying for the cost of township assessors in the county.”

“It just seems duplicative, I think, to have township assessors,” said Rep. Karen Engelman, R-Georgetown, who introduced the bill in the House local government committee on Tuesday.

Engelman has authored previous bills to eliminate the last remaining township assessor offices around the state, but none were successful.

Larger Indiana counties still employ township assessors

In 2008, Indiana lawmakers let voters decide whether to transfer to county assessor offices the duty of determining the value of buildings and land for property taxes. Resulting referendums abolished more than 950 such offices across the state.

Currently, there are 13 township assessors in nine different Indiana counties. Lake County has five of the township assessor offices that would be abolished. Allen, Elkhart, Howard, LaPorte, Porter, St. Joseph, Vigo and Wayne counties each have one township assessor office. According to 2021 figures, each of those 13 offices employs from four to 29 people, for a total of 161 employees.

The remaining 83 counties only have a county assessor.

Pressel’s bill could put those remaining township assessor offices in jeopardy, however.

If a majority of voters approve the ballot question, all funds, duties and employment positions of the township assessor’s office must be transferred to the county assessor by Dec. 31, 2027.

The bill provides that before Oct. 1, 2027, the county assessor must interview—or give the opportunity to interview—to each township assessor employee in the county who applies for a position before Sept. 1, 2027.

David Ober, vice president of taxation and public finance at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the group supports the bill, especially a provision that carves out accommodations for township employees to be offered an opportunity to apply for roles at the county assessor’s office.

“If there are nine counties that this would impact, and every single one of them adopted the aspects of this bill, eliminating the township offices, they would be free to maintain all of the employees—or none of the employees—however they see fit to run the office,” Over said.

Pushback from some counties with township assessors

But Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, pushed back, saying the bill “isn’t necessary,” noting that he hasn’t received any complaints from anyone in his district about the township assessment system currently in place there.

“I think that people who are affected ought to be the ones who make this decision, and not a countywide decision, because every locale is different,” Smith said.

St. Joseph County assessor Michael Castellon, the former president of the Indiana Township Association, added that the bill’s verbiage “misleads taxpayers” and should be changed to ask voters whether they wish to “retain or not retain” the township assessor.

“Taxpayers are still going to pay—whether you eliminate the position or the positions there—you still have to have the positions to do the job,” he said. “The amount of parcels still have to be reassessed. The complexity of the assessment process still remains, regardless of whether or not the township assessors are there.”

Castellon emphasized that if voters in St. Joseph county opt to eliminate the township assessor, he plans to keep the office open as a satellite location with the same amount of personnel.

“Overall, we think this should be sent back to the townships to be voted on, as they’re the ones that are going to be losing those services,” Castellon said.

Engleman maintained that county offices are more cost effective and fair in property assessments. She said, too, that the bill does not circumvent the choice of voters who previously decided to keep their township assessors.

“The county pays for the county assessor and they pay for the township assessors—that doesn’t come out of county money, and that’s why the county needs to vote on it because they’re all paying for it,” she said, although she entertained an idea to have townships pay for their own assessors offices if they want to.

“The whole county should not have to pay for a service that doesn’t benefit them all,” she continued.

Although the original draft of the bill stipulated that public questions should be placed on ballots in 2026, an amended version of the bill approved on Tuesday changed that date to November 2024. Engelman said that gives township assessors time “to get everything turned over to the county assessor,” if the office is eliminated.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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