For much of the past year, journalists from CNHI’s 13 Indiana newspapers have taken a deep look at township government.
What they found should trouble taxpayers throughout the state. Way too many townships still operate like they did in the 19th century.
Of the 94 offices surveyed by CNHI journalists, most operate out of trustees' homes, and many still use handwritten ledgers for accounting.
Witness the Boone Township trustee’s office in Madison County. That office, in the home of Trustee Mike Bramel, has no website, no Facebook page, no regular business hours and no sign to identify the office from the street. And no one showed up for a public hearing on the township’s 2019 budget, not even the three elected members of the township advisory board.
There are bright spots, of course.
We also found trustees like Kevin Evans of Center Township in Clinton County. Evans, whose office was recognized as township of the year in 2017, will not only help a single mother to pay her rent, he'll also connect her with resources to address the issue that caused her to need help in the first place.
Evans has taken the lead in addressing the opioid crisis in his community, and his office co-sponsors an annual Stuff the Bus campaign to provide school supplies for families in need.
But what we found overall was a broken system.
Their antiquated approach to bookkeeping leaves some townships open to abuse. Township officials have been forced to repay misspent money, and some have even been prosecuted.
Many townships also seem to be hording money. While they’ve taken in nearly $400 million in tax revenues this year, townships across the state started 2018 with more than enough money to fund their operations for more than a year.
An online survey found that most Hoosiers couldn’t name their township trustee or find the office without a map. Few claimed to know what townships actually do, and the vast majority said they hadn’t benefited in the past year from any of the services townships provide.
More than seven out of 10 respondents said they would support transferring township duties to the county or another office.
None of this should be surprising.
More than 11 years ago, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed the bipartisan Commission on Local Government Reform led by his Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Joe Kernan, and Randall Shepard, a Republican who was then chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court.
That commission offered 27 recommendations, including the elimination of township government. In a 2008 news release, the governor’s office called townships "an outdated legacy of the 19th century.”
“Many townships are just too small, in terms of area, assessed value and population, to provide cost-effective public services," the release said.
The governor's office noted that many townships were spending more on administrative costs than on actual services.
“Transferring township duties to the county would allow for more efficient planning, provide a broader tax base for funding and reduce the overall complexity of Indiana’s current system of local government,” the release said.
A decade later, the recommendation remains unheeded. It’s time for that to change.
Townships do provide needed services. They offer poor relief for families in crisis. They provide fire protection in rural areas. And they take care of maintenance for pioneer cemeteries.
But all of these services could be better provided at the county level.
The Indiana General Assembly should finally heed that 11-year-old recommendation and eliminate this outdated form of government. Taxpayers should insist on it.