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12/27/2018 7:31:00 PM
Indiana legislative attempts fail to reform townships

Scott L. Miley, Goshen News CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — The go-ahead for Hoosiers to reform local governments came in 2006.

That year, the Indiana General Assembly enacted the Government Modernization Act allowing voter referendums to consolidate townships and other units of government.

The act removed much of the consolidation power from the General Assembly and put it in the hands of voters. 

The GMA had been a top priority for then-Gov. Mitch Daniels who, that January, proposed modernization under House Bill 1362, which he signed into law on April 24.

But from 2008 to 2012, only four referendums were held; two failed involving city-county mergers and two were approved in town and township mergers, according to a study by researchers at Ball State University.

In the township-town mergers, researchers found there had been little overlap in services, which led to little opportunity for savings.

Although the Zionsville merger with Eagle and Union townships saw a 46 percent reduction in executive and legislative officials, "neither do we find that large reductions in the number of elected officials has any discernible impact on the level of support for political consolidation," wrote the researchers.

So, what works to push mergers through?

Populations in the two areas, Zionsville and Yorktown, were more homogeneous as opposed to being more socio-economically diverse where urban and non-urban residents might have diverging interests in reasons for consolidation.

And, among other factors, support from community officials was also obvious with consolidation campaigns favored by members of the town council, township board and trustees. In a failed Vanderburgh County merger, the local sheriff became an opponent, citing in part the need for an elected chief rather than an appointed one.

There was also limited financial impact in the consolidating communities. For example, Zionsville and Yorktown had pre-arranged fire protection services.

Since then, legislation has been introduced to change township operations, including bills to eliminate them as a form of government.

Perhaps most critical statewide, in 2008 township assessor duties were transferred into county assessor offices under the idea that property assessments could be more uniform. Referendums were allowed in townships with more than 15,000 real property parcels, and 13 kept their township assessors.

In 2009, when three bills were introduced to eliminate townships, former Sen. Connie Lawson, now secretary of state. authored Senate Bill 512, which would have reorganized some townships into county offices. The bill also would have required township trustees to justify year-end balances.

If the bill had succeeded, the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance would have been called upon to evaluate whether part of a township's balance in excess of 10 percent of the budgeted expenditures should be used instead of imposing additional property taxes for the ensuing year.

The bill passed 28-22 in the Senate but stalled in the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform — as did another township elimination bill. The committee, then chaired by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, is now chaired by Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City.

The issue of high budget excesses in townships is expected to resurface in the 2019 legislative session.

In the 2018 session of the Indiana General Assembly, nine bills were introduced addressing township issues. Only one was signed into law. 

Under that law, terms for three-member township boards will be staggered beginning in 2022.

But two critical pieces of legislation, ones that might change the way townships operate, died in committee last session. They included a plan by Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, to have adjoining townships consolidate if they had less than 1,200 residents and one establishing a committee to study funding for township firefighting services.

Here are key issues from previous sessions.

2017: Township boards would have been eliminated, making a county's fiscal body responsible for township duties. The bill never left the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee.

2017: Municipalities could reorganize with a surrounding township if 51 percent of voters approved the change. The bill died in committee.

2017: Township boards would have been abolished under Ziemke's House Bill 1232, with county fiscal bodies taking over the duties. The bill stalled in committee.

2016: Three of nine proposed bills were signed into law. One allows trustees to sell certain cemetery plots. A second required the filing of forms for a resident to receive insulin under the poor relief provision. The third addressed library board appointments. Not passing was a bill to dissolve township government and shift its duties to a county executive

2014: Two bills died in committee. One would have consolidated townships; another would have eliminated them.

2013: Signed into law, House Bill 1276 cleaned up some issues facing township boards in small communities. Township boards are required to meet in February, instead of January, to approve a trustee's annual report. Also, a board can reduce the salary of board members with a majority of members favoring the action (instead of by a unanimous vote).

2011: There were 19 bills introduced; none were signed into law. Three came close, including Senate Bill 385, which passed the Senate but died in House committee. Essentially, townships and municipalities could merge if their legislative bodies initiated the merger and at least 70 percent of the township residents also lived in the municipality's boundaries.

Related Stories:
• Authors of controversial 2007 government reform report still say townships must go
• Indiana's township system dates back to Jefferson
• How property assessment went from townships to counties
• Critics: Indiana townships ripe for corruption
• Indiana Legislature to wrestle with township budget surpluses
• Hoosier township trustees may need to justify surpluses under House Bill 1177

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