The above graphic shows the populations of each township in Jay County based on numbers provided by Stats Indiana, the state’s public data utility. Under a bill proposed in the Indiana House of Representatives this year, all townships with a population of fewer than 1,200 would be required to merge with another township by Jan. 1, 2023. (The Commercial Review graphic/Ray Cooney)
If a bill currently proposed in the Indiana Statehouse becomes law, that number would be reduced to eight, or fewer, by 2023.
Indiana House Bill 1005, which was submitted Monday, would require that all townships with a population of fewer than 1,200 merge with other townships.
That would affect two-thirds of Jay County’s 12 townships, and about 300 of the 1,005 throughout the state.
Information from Stats Indiana shows that only Wayne (7,871 residents), Richland (4,485), Bearcreek (1,572) and Penn (1,229) townships in Jay County are above the threshold for merger.
The other eight townships — Knox (501), Wabash (576), Noble (638), Madison (653), Jefferson (763), Pike (894), Jackson (956) and Greene (983) — would all have to merge with one or more other townships in order to reach the required 1,200 residents.
Chuck Huffman, president of Jay County Commissioners, said he believes the bill deserves consideration.
“I think in today’s world with all the means of communication and transportation, I’m not sure that township governments really offer anything that we couldn’t get with some consolidation,” he said. “I would not want a great deal of consolidation, at least at this point.”
On the other hand, Knox Township trustee Joseph Gutshall is firmly against such a change. He noted that township trustees and boards handle important local issues such as fire protection and poor relief.
“I, as a voter in Knox Township and Jay County, feel that we need to keep the local government as well as we can,” he said. “We still have the same type of work as the bigger townships, just not as much of it.
“The biggest problem that I have is, the farther the government gets from the people, the less the people can have. They need somebody close.”
Jay County Council president Jeanne Houchins said she can see the merit to both sides of the discussion. On one hand, she noted, some township trustees work hard and do a lot for their constituents, on the other, some areas could see benefits in terms of pooling resources. It would also save money in eliminating some township trustee and board positions, which are paid.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Cindy Ziemke (R-Oldenburg), is the latest effort to consolidate and/or eliminate townships in the state. It is an idea that was recommended in 2007 in a report the the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform charged by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels to offer ideas for streamlining local government.
Ziemke’s measure would require that townships agree to a consolidation plan by July 1, 2020. If a plan is not in place, the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance would conduct a survey to suggest townships that would make sense to merge together. If a final plan is not approved by Jan. 1, 2021, townships would automatically merge with the contiguous township with the largest population. (In that example, Knox Township would automatically merge with Richland Township, and Pike would automatically merge with Wayne Township.)
The result for Jay County could range anywhere between four and eight townships, depending on how local groups chose to merge.
Township trustee and board positions would be handled via the 2022 general election, with the new format to be in place by Jan. 1, 2023. (If townships agreed to move forward with the merger earlier, they would have to agree upon trustee and board members at that time.)
“We have been listening to the folks that are in these chambers tell us that if we do not reform ourselves, that they will do it for us,” Indiana Township Association executive director Debbie Driskell told Indiana Public Media this week. “So, that brought us to the table to negotiate the best deal that we could, rather than lose our township boards or township government altogether.”
Other provisions in the bill include:
•New township boards would be elected at large.
•Townships would be required to prepare a capital improvement plan and would be prohibited from collecting property taxes over a set amount if such a plan was not in place.
•Those rejected for township financial assistance could appeal to county commissioners in certain circumstances.
•Township board salaries would be limited to $5,000 beginning in 2019.