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Kernan discusses government reform

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By The Staff

Editor's Note: Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan served as co-chair of the recent Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform with Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard. In the first of a two-part interview with representatives of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Kernan shares his thoughts on how the state's property-tax plight and need for more responsible local government are intertwined and why the current local government structure does not work.

Chamber: You've seen local government from different perspectives during your career (including as city controller and mayor of South Bend). How has the structure become so bloated and inefficient?

Kernan: First, you have to look at the government structure that was designed more than 150 years ago and recognize that a lot of things have changed. Second, our governments are much more complicated today than they were then. We didn't have to worry about paving roads, maintaining a parks system, providing for public safety services.

Those things together have caused local governments to grow, which they're going to have to do in order to keep pace. But, at the same time, you're growing an inefficient structure around the state, and that's what we have to fix."

Chamber: Townships seemed to make a lot of sense in the 1850s when this structure was put into place. Why is that not the case today?

Kernan: The original design for townships was 3 miles by 2 miles. That was the distance you had to have for people to have easy access to local elected officials. That clearly is not true today. Township government has become really another layer that delivers, in many cases, services that are already provided in the community.

It is a redundant form of government. I think it's confusing to people. Those services can be delivered at a different level of government, and we believe much more effectively and in a way that will be much easier for people to understand.

Chamber: We have 1,100 officials doing tax assessing. How can we gain efficiency and accountability with that type of structure?

Kernan: The Indiana Constitution says we have to have a uniform system for assessing the value of property for the purposes of taxation. When you have 1,100 people who are separately elected across the state of Indiana, that's never going to happen.

In order to do that, we have to simplify it. We believe that should be done with one appointed assessor, appointed by a single county executive, in every county - that person being accountable to the county executive and the county council for the delivery of those services."

Chamber: Property-tax reform is (a top priority) now around the state. Talk about how the structure of local government needs to be part of that long-term solution.

Kernan: If you end up passing property-tax reform but still have a system that has the responsibility to administer the expenditure of property-tax dollars, that is inefficient, and we'll pay the price as we go forward. And any of the reforms that might be enacted that have fiscal ramifications are going to have difficulty being implemented in a system that doesn't work as well as it should.

We owe it to ourselves and our children that they are not in a system, not being governed by a system, at the local level that doesn't work to the greatest degree possible. And that's where we find ourselves today. Things have changed over the course of the last 150 years. I don't believe there are any other organizations still operating today that are designed exactly the way they were 150 years ago. That's what we have in Indiana. That's what we have to change."

Chamber: The commission members are out discussing the report and its recommendations. What should business leaders and citizens be doing?

Kernan: Getting involved. The recommendations that we made, we believe they impact business, we believe they impact individuals and we believe they impact the quality of life in communities. (In) the solutions we propose, we set out to make sure they would be simple and easy for people to understand, that they would be cost effective and provide efficiencies that make it very clear who is responsible, that citizens would know who to hold accountable.

Chamber: The subtitle of the report: "We've got to stop governing like this." How did that come about? Why is that message so important?

Kernan: We were trying to figure out what to name the report and one of the recommendations that came back was: "We've got to stop governing like this." We all laughed at it at the beginning, but as we worked our way through the process and as all the recommendations came to pass, we decided that should be the subtitle of our streamlining-local-government report.

It's not fair to Hoosier communities, to citizens across the state of Indiana to be governed by a system that is antiquated; (it's not fair) for our elected officials who are well meaning, as well as people appointed within our local governments, to be trapped in a system that doesn't work well. That's what we have, and that's why we have to change it. It's why we have to stop governing like this.