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TOWNSHIPS: ANTIQUITY OR NECESSITY?

How property assessment went from townships to counties

From the TOWNSHIPS: Antiquity or necessity? - A CNHI News Indiana Investigative Report series
  • 2 min to read
Judith Sharp and Jack Davis

Judith Sharp talks with Jack Davis at Monroe County Democratic headquarters during the general election in 2014.

BLOOMINGTON – After Judith Sharp had been in office as Monroe County assessor for just a month, she rattled decades-old traditions when she told attendees at a state conference that the township assessor system needed a shakeup.

“I wasn’t popular because I started saying early on that this system could be better, that it wasn’t working,” Sharp recalled in June.

Judith Sharp

Judith Sharp

At the time, there were 1,008 elected officials performing property assessments that varied from township to township. Property taxes in Indiana are based on assessments by government officials.

“Here in Monroe County, they didn’t work," she said, referring to the accessibility of the township assessors. "They didn’t have to be in their office. They were an elected official, so they didn’t have to be there.

“I thought, this is a lot of waste. Even though they didn’t make much money, they didn’t do a lot either.”

CNHI poll: Move services out of townships

Her comments at the state conference were made about 16 years before Gov. Mitch Daniels created a commission to reform government. One of that group’s recommendations, as related in the 2007 Kernan-Shepard report, was to shift the duties of township assessors into the already existing 92 county assessor's offices.

In 2000, 827 of those 1,008 township assessors in Indiana doubled as township trustees. But in 2009, 627 did not earn certification under new state regulations to continue as assessors. In those cases, counties took over what had been township assessment duties.

The Indiana General Assembly effectively eliminated 995 assessor positions in townships with less than 15,000 parcels of real property. That move left 43 townships with referendums, and 30 agreed to mergers with other townships to reach the 15,000-parcel threshold. Of those, 13 kept township assessors.

'A HIGH LEVEL OF CONTINUITY'

Judith Sharp

Judith Sharp talks to supporters at Monroe County Democratic headquarters in 2014.

While no studies indicate how many township trustee-assessors were hired by county assessors, an Indiana Department of Local Government Finance survey found that many "qualified" township assessors did indeed go to work for county assessors' offices, "creating a high level of continuity while consolidating the work under one roof:"

“There were 1,100 assessing officials. Now there’s 92, plus 13,” said Sharp, president of the Indiana County Assessors Association, referencing the 13 townships that still have their own assessors.

In Monroe County, there had been more than 30 assessing officials before 2009. Now, Sharp heads up a county office of 14.

In September 2009, the statewide transition was evaluated by the Indiana Office of Management and Budget and the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. Assessors were also surveyed by the county assessors association.

“Based on survey responses and objective data, we find that County Assessors have outperformed their township counterparts on timeliness, cost and quality,” read the report, which included a survey by the Indiana County Assessors Association of all county assessors in the state.

The report did find some glitches, including minor funding disputes, a lack of public awareness and a conflict caused by the fact that the consolidation period didn’t match the four-year terms of the elected township assessors. And in one county, a township assessor sent notices to his residents saying he was willing to continue helping them with filling out forms – for a fee.

One county assessor (not named in the report) noted that the cost of the township’s assessment had been about $400,000 annually. After consolidation and by hiring a private assessment firm, that township's taxpayers saved $130,000, the official said.

“It was proven to be exactly what we thought it was going to be: a cost savings, a much better assessing …" Sharp said. "It’s one group of eyes looking at it the same way. There is a ‘buck stops here’ mentality now.”

Sharp believes that, like assessment, most township trustee duties, other than poor relief, could easily be shifted to counties.

“I think we could do a lot better job of countywide fire districts,” she said.