INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation that would eliminate Indiana’s township boards received an initial go-ahead by a House committee despite testimony that the three-member boards are vital to the state’s system of government.
There are 2,988 township board members who would lose their posts if House Bill 1650 is passed by the Indiana General Assembly and signed into law.
"I authored 1650 to further the legislative priority to reform government, rid wasteful spending and improve oversight of all government officials to protect Hoosiers and ensure that their tax dollars are being used to better their lives and not ours," Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, said.
Ziemke has proposed legislation in the past and in this session to reform local government. Her latest bill would dissolve township boards in all Indiana counties, except Marion County, by Jan. 1, 2020.
The bill would keep the elected post of township trustee but dissolve advisory boards. The trustee would be required to file a capital improvement plan to show that there are plans in place for use of tax dollars. Without a plan, the trustee could not collect property taxes.
However, the bill also prevents townships from merging, as is currently allowed.
The bill passed 8-3 through the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform this week despite opposition from township officials. The bill next goes to the full House.
Township government is currently affordable for Hoosiers, said Deb Driskell, president of the Indiana Township Association. Shifting the responsibility to county offices would likely increase costs, she said. Generally, township operations cost about 7 cents on an average tax bill, according to a spot check of townships conducted by ITA.
The cost of township government has risen dramatically over the past 35 years, from $63.8 million in 1984, to $219.7 million in 2005, to $389 million this year, according to a study by CNHI. Adjusting for inflation, the cost of township government has increased 151 percent since 1984 and 36 percent since 2005.
Statewide, townships cost about 3 percent of the entire state budget.
“I see no argument for better transparency," Driskell said. "I see no argument for better accountability. I see no argument in the bill for even cost savings.”
Critics of the system also question recurring problems in finding local residents to run for elected township spots. And sometimes family members run for both trustee and board positions.
"For years we have seen issues of nepotism and corruption in township government," Ziemke said. "In many of these instances the issues pertained to gross misuse of public funds which boards are set up to prevent. Only after more money is spent and issuing an audit ... do we see how poorly township funds are spent."