INDIANAPOLIS -- A legislative bill that would mandate small townships merge with larger neighbors faced its first challenges Tuesday as opponents questioned whether Hoosiers would pay more taxes after the consolidations.
As proposed by State Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, townships with populations of 1,200 or less would merge with larger contiguous townships in their home counties.
House Bill 1005, negotiated with the Indiana Township Association, allows the mergers to be formed amid local public discussions. Townships would not take on one another's debts.
"This is allowing the township unit to provide more services in a far more effective manner. In Indiana, we are so proud that we have such effective government on our other levels, as well as really fine accountability to our taxpayers," Ziemke said. "I feel this has been the one piece that has been lacking, as far as that value to our taxpayers."
About 310 of the state's 1,005 townships would face mergers. Township trustees provide poor relief, fire protection, pioneer cemetery maintenance and other services. Some townships currently share fire protection with other townships, towns or cities.
The bill was heard Tuesday by the House Government and Regulatory Reform committee. Chair Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, asked Ziemke to meet with opponents and return next Tuesday.
Katrina Hall, director of public policy for the Indiana Farm Bureau, representing farming and agriculture interests, said townships have the lowest levies of government units in Indiana.
"Forcing mergers of the smallest townships with the most populated will surely raise the taxes of those in the rural areas," Hall said.
Larry Curl, representing the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association, also spoke against the bill, saying it was bound to raise taxes if fire districts had to cover more areas.
Following the committee meeting, Indiana Township Association Executive Director Debbie Driskell indicated those issues would likely be part of the discussions as townships merged.
The township association, which represents about 600 to 700 townships, also proposed elements of the bill including a cap of $5,000 on township board member salaries and a requirement for a capital improvement plan if a township's improvement fund exceeds 150 percent of the township's annual budget. Also, township residents who are not satisfied with their requests for poor relief could seek resolution from their county commissioner offices.
"We have consistently been encouraged by members of the General Assembly to put forth ideas for reform, meaningful reform that will better township government. House Bill 1005 is an attempt to improve and preserve township government for the long term, and we stand in support of it," said Driskell, adding, "We have townships that cannot afford to provide the services mandated by statute."
The association also recommended that townships not be required to publish annual reports in local newspapers but post those online through the state's Gateway system, a stipulation in the bill.
Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, asked that reports be published to ensure transparency in government. More Hoosiers would read the reports if they were published in newspapers, he said.
About 3 million Hoosiers read a newspaper at least once a week, he said, noting that a survey found that there would be a decline of 60 percent in interest among readers if a government public notice were published online instead of in their paper.