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TOWNSHIPS: ANTIQUITY OR NECESSITY?

Township trustees: Is anybody home?

From the TOWNSHIPS: Antiquity or necessity? - A CNHI News Indiana Investigative Report series

CNHI News Indiana investigation finds widespread accessibility problems

  • 6 min to read
Township trustees: Is anybody home?

LOGANSPORT -- Trying to locate trustees’ offices in six Cass County townships in northern Indiana is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Townships Series Logo

None of the six offices have a website. None have a Facebook page. None are well-marked from the street. None have easy-to-find office hours posted.

Such findings were common when journalists from 13 Indiana newspapers checked on 94 trustees' offices across the state.

The journalists discovered the following:

  • 59 of the townships had no website and no Facebook page;
  • Just 52 had posted hours of office operation, and 22 of those were not open when a journalist visited during the posted hours;
  • 36 of the offices either had no signage or were not well marked from the street;
  • 33 didn't provide minutes from the most recent township board meeting;
  • 23 didn't produce a copy of an anti-nepotism policy;
  • 24 didn't provide a TA-1 poor relief application form.

The meeting minutes, the anti-nepotism policy and the TA-1 are all required by state law.

Indiana's 1,005 townships will rake in $389 million in tax revenue this year.

The township tax draw is earmarked for firefighting, poor relief, maintenance of abandoned cemeteries and other community services at the discretion of the township trustee, an elected official whose work is overseen by an elected three-member township advisory board.

The six Cass County townships -- Adams, Bethlehem, Boone, Deer Creek, Jackson and Miami -- collected almost $600,000 in taxes in 2017 and ended the year with a cumulative balance of nearly $1.7 million.

But when journalists checked on public accessibility at the trustee's office in each of the six townships, they often found, literally, that nobody was home. All six of the offices are in trustees' residences.

Here is a list of some of the findings at the six Cass County townships:

  • In Adams, during a regular weekday, no one answered the door at the trustee's office, and the phone number listed for the trustee on the Cass County website was out of service.
  • Bethlehem had no posted hours of operation and a voicemail left for the trustee wasn't returned.
  • The voicemail greeting of the Jackson trustee indicated office hours were from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, no one answered the door at the trustee's home (also the office) at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday, and the trustee did not respond to a voicemail message.
  • The Deer Creek and Boone townships' trustees didn't return voicemail messages seeking an appointment, and there was no answer at the trustees' doors at 11 a.m. on a weekday.

MOM-AND-POP APPROACH

Miami Township trustee's office

The Miami Township trustee's office in Cass County is located in the home of Trustee Joe Pear but no signage identifies it as a government office. The township has no website or social media presence. Together, Pear and his wife earn about $8,900 a year working for the township.

A reporter's experience with the Miami Township trustee in Cass County illuminates the mom-and-pop approach to township government.

Miami Township has no website or social media presence, but the name and phone number of the trustee are listed on the Cass County government website. A Friday daytime call to the office was answered by the wife of Trustee Joe Pear, who said Pear would be home (where the office is located) Monday morning.

The trustee's wife provided directions to their home, noting that people sometimes get lost or confused when trying to find it.

When the reporter visited the Pear home as scheduled that Monday morning, she found no signage indicating it was a government office. She was greeted by the trustee's wife, who explained that her husband wasn't home, after all.

Miami Township had a tax draw of $269,000 in 2017 and ended the year with a balance of $392,000. Most of the budget, about $170,000, goes to firefighting services.

Joe Pear earns an annual salary of $4,500 as trustee, and his wife earns $3,000 as the township clerk. They receive $1,400 for use of their home as a township office.

That's an $8,900 drop in the bucket of the statewide budget of $389 million for township government.

Michael Hicks

Michael Hicks

It's not money well spent, according to Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University and a longtime critic of the township system. He says township government has been rendered obsolete by technological advances including the way that emergency crews are called to fires or accidents.

"With the invention of the 911 system and radios, you almost didn't need that sort of thing. It was counterproductive," Hicks said.

The state legislature tried consolidating small townships in early 2018. But that's not taking township reform far enough, Hicks maintains.

"I would argue for eliminating them and having the county take over the appropriate services outside of metropolitan areas," he said.

In 2007, a special commission appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels to study local government in Indiana recommended that township government be abolished and its responsibilities be absorbed by counties. The Kernan-Shepard Commission's report said that townships were an antiquated form of government that had outlived its usefulness.

Indeed, the CNHI News Indiana research showed that the majority of the 94 townships studied are operated out of the trustees' homes and still use handwritten ledgers for accounting.

In the 11 years since the Kernan-Shepard report, legislative bills have been introduced to eliminate townships and merge services with county offices. But, other than the transfer of property tax assessment responsibilities to counties, townships have remained largely untouched.

GRAPHIC: Questions of Access

GENERAL LACK OF AWARENESS

Meanwhile, Hoosiers responding to an online survey conducted in the spring expressed a general lack of awareness of township government. Eighty-two percent of 561 adults surveyed said they either didn't know or weren't sure of the name of their township trustee.

Many of the trustees of the 94 townships investigated by CNHI News Indiana were difficult to track down.

David Brown, trustee of Pierson Township in Vigo County, has no regular in-office hours. Brown's salary is $8,875; his wife, Robin, is the previous trustee. In 2017, she earned $5,000 as the township clerk. The Browns both work jobs about 15 minutes from their home in Lewis.

A posting on the door of the Browns' residence provided his phone number to call for an appointment. When contacted, Brown said it was a bad week, that he and his wife also had a mowing business and would be busy.

A reporter suggested an appointment the following week, and Brown initially talked about the possibility of meeting at a Wendy's restaurant.

Eventually, Robin Brown stopped by the Tribune-Star's newspaper office in Terre Haute for an interview.

In another Vigo County township, Nevins, two weekday visits to the home/office of Trustee Cory Roberts found the office closed. Two phone calls to Roberts were unanswered and a voicemail wasn't returned.

When a reporter called to check on Owen Township in Clark County, Trustee Leroy Graebe said the office had no hours of operation and that he was "here all the time." When Graebe learned that the caller was a reporter, he responded that he was not running for re-election and that the reporter should call another trustee in the county to ask questions.

In Sullivan County's Hamilton Township, at a residence that's been turned into the trustee's office, an old bench with a ragged cushion sits out front. The trustee, Connie Hollon, was described by the reporter as "very responsive" and helpful.

But Hollon was unable to provide a poor relief application form or minutes from the last township board meeting. She keeps the township's books with a handwritten ledger.

'19TH CENTURY DESIGN'

The results of CNHI's survey of trustee offices aren't shocking to township advocates who push for more professionalism from the elected positions.

"Our association preaches it and preaches it," said Debbie Driskell, president of the approximately 600-member Indiana Township Association. "I want to believe that people who have heard us preach it comply. It's the people that are not members that don't pursue education. I have no answer for them."

The state has requirements for trustees who provide poor relief and operate in a township with a population of 10,000 or more. For example, they must provide for after-hours poor relief response by use of a voicemail system or answering service.

"That’s another change I’d like to make, some things for populations of 10,000 or more I think ought to be applicable to everybody," Driskell said. "As far as having an answering machine and voicemail ... I think those should be applicable to everybody, and I think there ought to be a penalty for not doing it."

The survey found 74 percent of the townships had neither a website nor a Facebook page.

"That's very much in keeping with the 19th century design of the institution," Hicks said of townships. "They don't even need rubber tires on their wagons."