EVANSVILLE - This year, Indiana House Republicans will target townships — a form of government that operates with high overhead and little oversight.
The House's majority party announced Thursday it would make cutting nearly a third of the township governments in Indiana a key part of their 2018 agenda.
The proposal would consolidate about 300 of the state's 1,005 townships within the next five years. The move would eliminate nearly 1,200 elected positions.
Townships are governed by one elected trustee with some oversight by a three-person board. Townships provide financial assistance to residents to pay bills and other expenses, fire protection and emergency medical services. Some townships fund libraries, oversee parks and maintain cemeteries.
Last year, the Courier & Press published an in-depth look at the role township government plays in Southwest Indiana. "Unsupervised" shined a light on common township practices that included high administrative costs and little oversight. Some rural townships featured in the Courier's investigation found township dollars mostly went to benefit the trustee and their families.
PART 1: How local rural townships employ, award contracts to relatives
PART 2: Townships ready to pay your Vectren bill
PART 3: Township runs taxpayer-funded sports park
PART 4: Paying for fire protection expensive, complex
DATABASE: How all Indiana townships spent their money last year
Under the current proposal, Southwest Indiana would see ten of 38 township offices consolidated. Those ten townships with populations spent nearly $450,000 in 2016.
Those townships are (township, county, population):
- Union, Vanderburgh, 292
- Point, Posey, 497
- Lynn, Posey, 945
- Bethel, Posey, 327
- Wabash, Gibson, 30
- Washington, Gibson, 785
- Campbell, Warrick, 906
- Pigeon, Warrick, 979
- Lane, Warrick, 281
- Owen, Warrick, 611
There are 11 other townships in the four-county area with populations between 1,200 and 2,000.
The Indiana Township Association, which provides support and lobbies on behalf of townships, backs the proposal.
Executive Director Deborah Driskell said the organization worked with Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, who unsuccessfully sought to eliminate all township government board positions in 2016.
"We’ve worked with her for the last year to find common ground that we could both live with has far as meaningful township reform, so we are supporting the bill," Driskell said.
It's a plan that keeps township government as an institution together, Driskell said.
"We’re glad that we've got a plan where we can keep township government intact and that everybody will still have their services and their trustee," she said.
The bill reportedly contains other changes to township government, like capping all township board member salary at $5,000 a year. No Southwestern Indiana township board member has a salary more than $5,000.
Eliminating small, rural township offices and moving them elsewhere would take away the personal touch those trustees can have, says Don Mercer, Lynn Township trustee in Posey County.
Lynn Township in Posey County is mostly farmland. About 945 people live there, according to Census information.
Mercer has been the township's trustee since 1983. He knows everyone and they know him.
"If they come to me wanting some assistance, as far as rental, electrical bill, I know the people. I can act on it within 24 hours," he said.
But, if Lynn is consolidated with a larger township, like Black Township, which includes Mount Vernon, "that'll be a process that'll have to go through more and the response time will be off," he said.
Last year, the township spent $87,324, which included a $12,720 salary for Mercer, $2,160 to go toward running the office out of his home. The township provided six households last year with a total of $2,049 of financial assistance, according to state records.