— Although a bull's-eye was slapped onto trustees' backs and groups intent on streamlining local government in Indiana have taken direct aim for two years now, township government has so far survived intact.

Headed into an election season that could change the dynamics of state-level decision-makers, though, the storm is not yet weathered.

And despite claims that the recession has drained townships' chock-full, property tax-funded bank accounts, the evidence likely isn't strong enough to win over doubters.

In recent years, much of the criticism centered around the millions of dollars townships had tucked away in reserves. When the Courier & Press reported the excess that existed at the close of 2008, many trustees said they were spending much more in 2009 because the recession increased the need for poor relief.

Financial records say otherwise.

Telltale audits

Then, the sum of all township surpluses was $215 million, according to the State Board of Accounts. Now, the most recent audits show a surplus of $263 million.

At the end of 2008, Wilma Miley, the Barton Township trustee in Gibson County, had $231,000 in unspent money collected from property taxpayers in her rural township and socked away in a bank account.

In 2009, Barton Township collected $60,000 in taxes and spent just $35,000, boosting the surplus to $256,000.

But surpluses, which can date to before current trustees were in place, also can be seen in Vanderburgh County.

German Township collected $291,000 in taxes and spent $271,000, adding an additional $20,000 to a surplus of $164,000. Of the money spent by trustee Fred Happe, none went directly to poor relief, although he reported referring 20 constituents to other sources of help.

Center Township collected $1.17 million in taxes and spent $1.13 million, increasing its surplus by $40,000.

Perry Township collected $611,000 and spent $601,000, bumping its surplus up to $773,000.

Pigeon Township took in $2.37 million and spent $2.08 million, closing the year with $1.15 million in the bank.

Scott Township brought in $1.24 million and spent $1.17 million, ending with a $310,000 surplus.

Only Union and Knight townships spent down their surpluses.

Union Township collected $72,000, spent $125,000 and slashed its $98,000 surplus to $44,000, although most of the difference involved a capital expense for firefighting.

Knight Township collected $731,000, spent $1.1 million and reduced its surplus from $585,000 to $219,000, with almost all of the extra spending coming in the area of poor relief.

Armstrong Township, has not filed its required financial report, though the deadline has long passed.

Some townships did spend from their surpluses on poor relief. But the added spending in most cases paled in comparison to their hefty reserves.

Knight Township

Advocates of change say one needs to look no further than Vanderburgh County's Knight Township to see a need for reform.

There, trustee Linda Durham resigned under pressure in March after drawing scrutiny for her failure to post a required performance bond for 2010.

Durham was elected in 2006, defeating Knight Township's veteran Republican trustee Jim Price by 29 votes. Durham, then a little-known 28-year-old retail clerk, spent only $5 on her campaign, riding that year's Democratic tidal wave into office.

That underscores a point long made by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce: People don't pay much attention to township government.

More than 60 percent of candidates for posts in Indiana's 1,006 townships ran unopposed in their last elections, and those elected overwhelmingly represent the dominant party in their areas.

The first signs of trouble in Knight Township came months after Durham's election, when she struggled to obtain the required bond because of her pending personal bankruptcy repayment case.

Don Boerner, a member of the Knight Township advisory board, pointed also to evidence of sloppy book-keeping during Durham's tenure. He cited her use of poor relief funds to pay legal fees as one example.

Cheryl Musgrave, the Republican former Indiana Department of Local Government Finance head who is running for the Indiana House District 77 seat, called the situation another reason — "the latest in a long string" — to do away with township government.

Somewhat ironically, Knight Township was one that did significantly reduce its surplus and increase its spending on poor relief in 2009. Durham spent $320,000 on direct assistance for the poor.

Alterations shelved

Gov. Mitch Daniels, buoyed by a report offered by a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, has made the case for the elimination, or at least alteration, of township government for two years.

The Indiana General Assembly, where Republicans lead the Senate and Democrats control the House, failed to act both during their budget-writing 2009 session and in the recently concluded 2010 session.

Though township reforms are a Daniels initiative, it hasn't just been Democrats standing in the way. The Senate has not yet endorsed the sweeping changes envisioned by the governor.

However, Daniels allies say they expect the conversation to continue next year.

"I'll be a soldier in that charge," Musgrave said.

"There's been some steps forward, it's just finding that common ground," said Steve Schaefer, vice president of public policy for the Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana. "I think next year it will come back and further discussion and more steps will be taken."

In the two-plus years the fate of township government has been a part of the state's conversation, political observers have said the institutions in place now are built to protect trustees.

For example, some members of the General Assembly are former township officials themselves. Others view trustees as key allies, and to be sure, some, such as David Mosby in Vanderburgh County's Perry Township, are influential players on the local political scene.

New oversight

In the Evansville area, trustees have ruffled a few feathers.

Though the reviews are non-binding, county councils last year for the first time began examining township budgets. Council members objected when they found Mosby scheduled $500 raises for his staff members.

"We felt that county government was trying to hold the line on wage increases and felt townships should too," said Russell Lloyd Jr., the Republican county council president.

"I don't know if the pay raises were needed," said Mike Goebel, a Democratic council member.

After the council's review, Mosby decided to strike those pay bumps.

In 2010, for the first time, townships were required to file annual financial reports in electronic form — a shift from the old way, in which some submitted reports online and others mailed in hand-scribed paperwork. The change makes a side-by-side comparison of 2009, the year the new reports cover, and previous years difficult for two reasons.

First, the new forms led most townships to file more specific information than they had in previous years.

Second, because it was the first time townships had filled out the state-provided spreadsheet, the accounts they provided vary widely.

But while no specific measurement is available, the reports in total do offer clear evidence of one claim trustees made last year. The amount of help they provided constituents who needed medicine seems to have increased markedly.

Local safety net

Trustees last year pointed the finger at Daniels, whose administration had hired a team of private companies on a 10-year, $1.34 billion contract to modernize the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration's process of reviewing and approving applications for welfare benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

They said since the administration eliminated caseworkers in county FSSA offices — a move since reversed in the Evansville area — Hoosiers who needed life-saving medicine had only trustees to look to for help.

That counterweight — the one provided by a form of government that can help immediately, free from slowdowns that exist even at the county level — is the key reason some say that while some change might be necessary, township should stay.

"We're a unique form of government. I don't think it could be handled in another form of government," said Mary Hart, the trustee in Vanderburgh County's Pigeon Township, who is also president of the Indiana Township Association.

Acknowledging that cases such as Durham's have prompted questions about township government's efficacy, Hart said township officials have and will continue to work with state government leaders to discuss some measure of reform.

"We're aware there is a problem with township government," she said. "I don't think it's a dead issue by any means."

Still, Hart suggested that trustees have unfairly become a target, and said similar scrutiny should be leveled at all layers of government.

"If you're going to take a closer look at us, take a closer look at the city council members who've screwed up. Take a closer look at the county council members who've screwed up," she said.

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