Rep. Ed DeLaney was full of reformist zeal when he introduced legislation in 2010 to abolish township government throughout Indiana. The Indianapolis Democrat called for transferring all township functions to county government and eliminating township trustees. A single county executive would handle those duties.
But DeLaney’s idea got nowhere.
“I still have the bruises. It didn’t go well,” he said. “I really couldn’t garner any support for reform of township government, and it hasn’t really been a topic since ‘09 or ‘10.”
That was a disappointment for DeLaney, if not a surprise. The 2007 Kernan-Shepard commission report on reforming Indiana local government recommended eliminating township government, and lawmakers balked at that too.
Asked if the current prospects for future reform are bleak, DeLaney chose another word — “non-existent.”
Township reform proponents often argue that legislators — some with backgrounds in township government — have an entrenched constituency of sorts in the system. It’s a big system. There are 1,005 townships in Indiana. The 995 townships that filed annual reports with the state last year spent $444.22 million in taxpayer money in 2016, according to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
“It’s really only a matter of math. It took me awhile to figure this out,” DeLaney said. “There are 10 townships for every member of the House, on average. So there are 10 elected officials (trustees) who have some staff in some cases, have some pay or benefits.”
Factor in elected and paid township advisory boards, almost all of which have three members, and “that makes something like 4,000 elected officials in the township trustee system,” DeLaney said.
“It just is a mountain that — it can’t be climbed,” he said.
Two local legislators — one veteran Republican and one first-year Democrat — didn’t give DeLaney much hope that things can change. State Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, and Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, championed township government. In fact, Becker and Hatfield made arguments nearly identical to those offered by township trustees.
Becker, a longtime legislator, attributed the lack of action to what she called township government’s popularity. Becker rejected DeLaney’s mathematical equation.
“I don’t know that, that’s the case. I just know a lot of people support government that’s closest to the people,” she said.
“(Township reform) hasn’t really been discussed for a few years now. I know that was something that (former Gov.) Mitch Daniels was focused on, but I think the majority of the public supports government closest to the people,” Becker said. “If there was a push by (current Gov.) Eric Holcomb, it might have a little better chance than it had before, but I sort of doubt it.’’
Hatfield, who was elected to represent District 77 last year, said township government provides access to services for residents.
“What I like about township government, and what I believe needs to be preserved, is the ability for local folks to talk to local people about government services that they may need,” Hatfield said.
“Any reform effort would need to preserve the ability for folks to talk to a real person about any government services that they are receiving or need to receive.”
Reforming township government wasn’t on the radar screen of the citizens committee that crafted a plan for Evansville- Vanderburgh County consolidation in 2010 and 2011, either.
The committee’s reticence was a talking point for consolidation opponents. They pointed out that the subsequent ballot proposal for merger offered no savings on what was then $2 million in township tax dollars for fire protection outside the city.
Becky Kasha, chairwoman of the citizens committee, recalled that members believed some reorganization of township fire protection was brewing among the townships themselves.
“We were sort of under the impression that they were working together anyway to try to consolidate,” Kasha said. “I think they wanted to try to do it on their own first without having someone from the outside coming in and telling them what to do. “I think also we just thought that that was getting too deep in the weeds.”
Creation of the Scott Township Fire Territory last year did ultimately effect a major change in the way township fire services are taxed and delivered. But that idea wasn’t in the wind when Kasha’s consolidation committee was meeting.