Local trustees, scholars point to value of township government

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

Century-old system would end under commission's proposal

PERRY COUNTY - Betty "Mac" Labhart feels she's probably serving her last term as Union Township trustee, and if so, "I just don't want them to forget about us up here," she said Wednesday.

The Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform report released last month recommends the transfer of duties now carried out by township trustees to the county level.

"The number of local governments in Indiana combines with overlap among units to result in a structure that is simply too complex," the commission said in its report, titled "Streamlining Local Government." "Contributing to this complexity are the state's 1,008 township governments, far more units than in any other type of local government. The cumulative effect is that Indiana has three complete levels of general-purpose government (counties, townships and municipalities), one more layer than in most of the rest of the country. No other state has a universal layer of township government."

The latter assertion is contradicted by a 2005 study conducted by the Institute for Family and Social Responsibility at Indiana University, which noted 21 states have township governments providing different levels of services.

"We believe that Indiana counties are large enough," the commission continued, "to allow economies of scale in services, but not so large that they preclude sufficient access and responsiveness for citizens."

Under the commission's recommendations, a single county executive would replace the three commissioners now governing in Perry and most other Indiana counties, and among other things, would take on the responsibilities now exercised by township trustees. Those duties now include property assessment, poor relief, fire protection, emergency-management services and care of cemeteries.

"Our township doesn't have that many responsibilities," Labhart said, noting larger ones have duties she doesn't perform, such as parks maintenance. Her main concern is that Union Township cemeteries will continue to be cared for. A lawn-service company provides some of that care and Branchville prisoners help out, she said. "Just before I was elected, I went to a cemetery and the broomsage was up to my head."

She couldn't say how much time she spends on trustee duties each month, but said she fields a lot of phone calls.

"You never know what's going to pop up," she said. She also has to write reports and takes care of some cemetery maintenance on her own, she added.

She realizes she may not hold the job much longer.

"I figure this will be our last term," she said.

The Indiana University report notes many township-trustee responsibilities have been transferred to the county level over recent decades. No savings would result from transferring township assessment duties to the county level, the researchers noted, because no duplication of effort exists among the two levels. Consolidation could reduce operating costs in many counties, but those savings would vary considerably among counties, with some expected to see cost increases, they noted.

"Centralization of assessment would eliminate the closer contact with property owners that the township trustee assessor brings," they also reported, "would eliminate the useful function that the township trustee assessor provides in terms of assisting in the appeal process, and could reduce some advantages associated with close knowledge of local property markets."

Anderson Township Trustee Becky Hagedorn said that close knowledge, or the lack of it that will likely result from the elimination of her position, is what concerns her most.

"A lot of things that people don't get (building) permits for don't get picked up" on county tax records, she said Wednesday. "If you're driving down the road and you see a pole barn being put up, that means taxes. Those of us who live out here see it, and the more we pickup, the less the rest of us are taxed. I'm concerned my tax rates are going to go up because they won't see the new things going up."

The Indiana Township Association has expressed its objection to the commission's recommendations at its Web site, noting that consolidation doesn't always bring savings.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has expressed support for the commission's study - launched in an effort to address concerns about property taxes - and its recommendations.

"The Indiana Chamber has been leading the way in local government efficiency and restructuring discussions," officials there proclaimed in a statement that coincided with the release of the commission's report. They pointed to the 2004 release of the Indiana Project for Efficient Local Government study, available at www.indianachamber.com/localgov.

The recommendations in that report "are premised on a lack of knowledge of what transpires in township assessors' offices," however, according to a critique of the 2004 study by Maureen A. Pirog, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University.

"While efficiency and cost savings to taxpayers are admirable goals," she wrote, "the savings estimates presented in the Indiana Chamber of Commerce report suffer from serious methodological flaws which undermine the reliability of their estimates."

Several bills under consideration by the state legislature seek to eliminate the township level of government between July 1 of this year and 2011.

This is the third in a series of stories about the government-reform commission.