TERRE HAUTE -- Alan Maroska doesn’t know the name of his township trustee, the elected official whose duties range from assisting the poor to providing fire protection.
Maroska, a retired teacher and girls basketball coach, is not an outlier. Most residents of the 1,005 townships in Indiana are unfamiliar with who runs them.
A statewide CNHI News Indiana poll found that 82 percent of the 561 Hoosiers surveyed in the spring of 2018 could not identity their township trustee.
They also favor (71 percent) moving township duties to the counties or another agency – a recommendation by a 2007 governor’s commission that went nowhere.
Maroska, 65, was not part of the online poll, but in an interview he suggested an even more sweeping consolidation, creating a single government unit like the city-county government that oversees public services in Indianapolis and Marion County.
"We ought to go to Unigov” to improve efficiency in local government without eliminating mandated services, Maroska said.
Such reform was recommended in the 2007 report by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, led by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. The commission was created by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Among 27 suggestions for streamlining government, the commission urged the creation of a countywide poor relief fund and the transfer of all township responsibilities to a county executive.
Since the release of the report 11 years ago, property tax assessment has been moved from townships to counties. Otherwise, township government remains intact. This year, $389 million in tax money and other revenue will be channeled to townships in Indiana.
Meanwhile, Hoosiers very much want the change advocated by the Kernan-Shepard report, according to the online survey conducted by Issues & Answers, an independent research firm, on behalf of CNHI News Indiana.
The level of consensus that township services should go to county government is the most surprising result of the survey, said Charles Taylor, managing director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.
"There's a large majority that said they agreed with the recommendation to transfer township services to the county," Taylor said. "If you asked me going in, I'd have probably said the opinion would have been more mixed and there might have been a lot more people that didn't have an opinion."
TOWNSHIP ADVOCATES RESPOND
Debbie Driskell, president of the Indiana Township Association, said critics of the township system might have been influenced by more than a decade of news stories detailing legislative battles.
“In the press, in the media, townships have been highly criticized more than any other level of government for the last 15 years, and so people have been exposed to that," said Driskell, whose organization represents more than 600 townships.
"If they read the paper or if they read some social media, they have seen negative things written about township government, and that sticks in the mind. So, if you’re asked a question related to townships, you’ve only been exposed to negative. There’s been very little positive.”
Larry Curl, lobbyist for the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association, agreed.
“That 71 percent probably has followed, listened to or known something about Kernan-Shepard and the outcome of that, which is absolutely to eliminate township government," he said. "That’s a heavily promoted political issue."
In the 2018 session of the state General Assembly, the volunteer firefighters association successfully fought a bill that would have forced consolidation of townships with populations under 1,200. The vast majority of volunteer firefighters in the state serve township departments.
"When you get down to where the rubber meets the road, is it better to have larger government or smaller government?" Curl asked. "There could be some benefits, but I can tell you through that consolidation there’s a chance that not all are going to stay active, not all’s going to continue to participate and there’s areas that can’t afford to pay for the services they’re now getting on a volunteer basis."
For some Hoosiers, the idea of consolidating townships seems preferable to eliminating them altogether. That includes 48-year-old Russell Johnson of Elkhart, who, like Maroska, was interviewed by CNHI News Indiana but was not a part of the online survey.
"I think they should be merged into larger townships because if you just abolish them, then there's a lot of people left out in the cold," he said. "If you merge into something else, you've got to make sure someone is responsible for the funding."
Younger respondents to the poll tended to feel more strongly that townships should be eliminated.
Among Generation Z (born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s), 81 percent agreed or strongly agreed that duties of township government should be transferred.
But in that age group, as in others, opinions aren't uniform.
"I wouldn't completely do away with them," said 23-year-old Marbella Chavez of Elkhart, who was not one of the poll respondents. "It could be difficult for people to use the services if they were taken out of their areas. I definitely think it's important to keep an eye on who is controlling the money that we're funneling in and what kind of decisions are they making."
Twenty-two-year-old Roger Howard of Sellersburg agreed in an interview.
"From what I know and what I'm hearing, they do serve a purpose and they can be helpful," he said. "I mean I can understand maybe limiting. I don't necessarily think they should be eliminated."
Contact CNHI Statehouse Reporter Scott L. Miley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-602-3650.