INDIANAPOLIS — After years of debate among state leaders over reworking the role of township government in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb is taking a new tact in reform efforts.
Holcomb wants township officials to take on a new responsibility by joining the state’s fight against opioid addiction.
"The drug epidemic is unlike any we've ever seen," Holcomb told a recent gathering of township officials. “I am looking, I am begging you for ideas — what works, what doesn’t work."
Township trustees administer local funds for emergency assistance for residents, maintain cemeteries and provide fire protection. The trustees are on the “front line” of seeing Hoosiers who are struggling with addiction, Holcomb said.
Earlier this year, Holcomb discussed the proposal with Debbie Driskell, president of the Indiana Township Association, which represents Indiana's 1,005 townships. Driskell presented the idea to about 300 attendees at the association’s recent fall conference in Indianapolis.
“He talked to me about his passion about the opioid crisis in our state, in our country,” she said at the conference. “What he would like to do is to see that people struggling with this horrible addiction get help."
She told township officials: “He said you are the front line and you are most likely the ones in the community that are going to see and identify people that are struggling with opioids."
As part of their legislated tasks, township trustees distribute emergency funds for medicine or housing, among other needs.
"If somebody were to come into a trustee's office and the person was very jaundiced, they would call 911 to get that help," Moore said. "They're already attuned to if there's a visible medical issue to make a referral or make the appropriate call."
Moore offered trustees suggestions in addressing people who show signs of substance abuse.
"Pupils are constricted, you seem very subdued, almost depressed, your breathing is labored. What's going on? It's just getting over that initial stigma of having that conversation," he said.
"I don't think we expect (trustees) to be substance abuse counselors or treatment providers but at least know how to recognize the signs and symptoms, then make the appropriate referrals to a hospital, to the ER if necessary, to a treatment provider, to a church that may have a program. Trustees are pretty savvy about what's going on in their communities."
Tackling the problem
Kevin Evans, serving his first year as Center Township trustee in Frankfort in Clinton County, show no hesitation in talking to people who appear to need help in battling substance abuse.
"Not at all," Evans said. "If somebody comes into my office, we're identifying why they come in. Is it an education issue? Did they never get their GED? Did they never get a high school diploma? Where are they lacking in workforce skills? ... Are they a drug addict? Our goal is to get them plugged in with a resource that will help them in that area."
Clinton County ranks third in the state for non-lethal overdoses, he said. Center Township has a population of about 17,000.
In May, Evans, a former special education teacher, coordinated a roundtable of about 40 community members to discuss the drug crisis. Among results, the role of a school resource officer was created to actively present drug deterrent solutions to students. Another person is mapping the resources available to residents who need help in addressing substance abuse. There are also discussions about a school health course addressing the effects of opioid abuse.
Last year, the Center Township trustee received 255 requests for assistance, amounting to $78,000 in benefits. Through this week, Evans had received 280 requests totaling $83,000 in benefits. Evans' office has referred 34 assistance-seekers this year to other agencies, including substance abuse treatment centers. That compares to four for all of 2016.
For its innovative approach, Center Township was named Township of the Year for 2017 by the state association.
Required drug test
In 2015, a disabled, indigent Posey County woman sued the Black Township trustee who denied her access to financial assistance because she could not take a drug test. The trustee agreed to stop the requirement and the case was settled in 2016.
"We would offer it in a different way if they were doing something illegal," said Beth Tate, who investigates about 70 claims for assistance each year for the Hanover Township Trustee in Lake County.
"I think we would kind of say you seem stressed, you seem like you might be under the influence. Is there anything we can do to help. Are you able to find help? I might be wrong but we have resources, that kind of thing," she said.
By asking trustees to expand their role, Holcomb's request differs from previous discussions about the future of Indiana's townships.
In 2007, a controversial report, charged by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, suggested in part that Indiana’s long-standing form of township government be replaced by creating the office of a county manager.
Following the report, the role of township assessors was absorbed by most Indiana county assessor offices.
However, the proposal to eliminate township trustees never gained ground.