INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers seeking poor relief from their township trustee would be able to apply for assistance online under a pilot program being proposed for townships.

The program could provide Hoosiers with better access to poor relief through online applications, said Wesley Bennett, Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF).

"We think that there may be a need out there for townships to be able to file these online or electronically rather than on paper. Right now, it's on paper," Bennett said. 

"With technology today, there's probably a little better way than they're currently doing it and the way it was started 150 years ago,' he said.

The DLGF, which would implement the program, chiefly reviews and approves tax rates and levies for every political subdivision in the state, including townships. Budgets are typically filed electronically with the state.

Among township trustee responsibilities is the issuance of emergency assistance for housing, food or utility payments.

In rare cases, the system has been abused, with trustees or their clerks issuing assistance to residents, sometimes relatives, without proper documentation. Some of those have resulted in welfare fraud charges.

The online process could reduce misconduct.

"It will help with internal controls, and it should directly and indirectly help with keeping people honest," Bennett said.

The pilot program is part of the massive budget House Bill 1001, which has not yet passed the Indiana General Assembly. The House bill states an appropriation of $250,000 and that the DLGF could charge a fee for program users. 

No program parameters have been set and initial township users may be volunteers, Bennett said. The online process could help also with data collection, he said.

In 2017, Indiana's 1,005 townships received 177,809 requests for assistance from 54,310 Hoosier households.

The total value of the benefits amounted to $21 million with the most, $8.8 million, going for housing. About $7.1 million assisted with utility payments and $1.1 million for food assistance.

Not all townships spend tax dollars for township assistance. In one study from 2010, 36 townships had no expenditures for assistance. That study also indicated that about 80 percent of assistance expenditure per capita was less than $6.

All but one township in Indiana levies a township assistance tax. In 2018, the average township assistance property tax rate was $0.0073 cents for each $100 of assessed value.

Calumet Township in Lake County typically has the highest expenditure with about $1.3 million. In 2017, there were 1,765 recipients. That same year, Center Township in Marion County spent $907,000 on poor relief for 7,325 recipients.

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