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Farm Bureau mission: Stop township reform

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Rep. Cindy Ziemke

Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, during Organizational Day at the Indiana Statehouse on Nov. 20, 2018. Ziemke plans to introduce a bill in the 2019 session requiring trustees to submit a capital improvements plan to the state. The plan would ask townships how they intend to spend their surpluses.

INDIANAPOLIS – Early this year, State Rep. Cindy Ziemke, a Republican from Batesville, proposed a bill backed by the township association that would have forced consolidation of townships with fewer than 1,200 residents.

The goal was to save taxpayer money and improve efficiency.

Ziemke’s House Bill 1005, which would have affected about 312 townships, reached the Government and Regulatory Reform Committee.

But then the Indiana Farm Bureau became a thorn in the side of consolidation advocates. It led a campaign producing more than 1,100 messages to state representatives.

During legislative committee hearings, Katrina Hall, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau, said there were too many questions surrounding Ziemke’s bill.

Township trustees, often in rural areas, represent farmers and provide services, such as fire protection and maintaining cemeteries, for which few agencies want to take responsibility, Hall said.

“Even though there are small townships, some of those places actually are providing very low-cost service for fire," she told one committee.

In 2017, as part of its delegate-created annual policy, Indiana Farm Bureau supported township trustees and advisory boards in their current form. Township consolidation should be left up to the voters, policymakers felt. Efficiency is fine, they said, but the reorganization of government shouldn’t diminish rural representation.

The Farm Bureau’s opposition to township mergers should be no surprise.

Since 2016, the elected president of Indiana Farm Bureau has been Randy Kron, who has served 28 years as Armstrong Township trustee in Vanderburgh County. Kron had been the Farm Bureau’s vice president since 2002.

His role as a trustee, however, didn’t drive Farm Bureau policy on Ziemke's bill, he told CNHI News Indiana.

"My personal views actually do mirror the Farm Bureau views," he said.

Kron farms land in Wabash Township in Gibson County, dominated by river bottom land and home to 30 residents. Many say the township is a prime example of why small townships should consolidate. Kron prefers keeping things as they are.

"When you say it's going be more efficient if they merge and the tax rate goes up, I don't think that's very efficient," he said.

In 2015, the legislature passed revisions to farm assessment, including a limit on increases in the tax rate. That law cropped up in the debate on Ziemke’s bill this year.

“I am struggling with the Farm Bureau and their support,” acknowledged Rep. Todd Huston, a Fishers Republican. “In 2015, we passed a major bill that gave tax relief to agriculture, which I supported … under the belief that we needed to do more to help our local farmers be more competitive."

Huston, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, contrasted that stance with the organization's position on township reform.

"Here we have a bill, the goal is to reduce a level of government that often times is outdated and unneeded," he said. "I’m struggling why an organization that comes here and asks for relief so often now comes when we’re talking about providing relief from expanded government and ... is standing opposed to the bill."

Hall said Indiana Farm Bureau members were concerned about the shifting of taxes from one township to a unified district.

Contact CNHI Statehouse Reporter Scott L. Miley at smiley@cnhi.com or 317-602-3650.