Consolidating townships? Property taxes going toward operating expenses


Jackson County’s four smallest townships may be forced to consolidate with other townships if a proposed bill introduced this session finds its way to the governor’s desk and he signs it after the session ends.

House Bill 1005 would require townships with a population of less than 1,200 to merge with other townships in the next five years.

If enacted, the bill would eliminate 307 of the state’s 1,004 townships. The 307 townships are located in 76 of Indiana’s 92 counties.

The measure is designed in part to save taxpayer monies, although the amount of savings has yet to be determined.

Township governing bodies, which consist of a trustee governed by a three-member board, generally provide those in need with temporary help for utility bills, rent, groceries and other needs. The funds for those services are raised through property tax dollars.

Property taxes also pay for operating expenses, including salaries for the trustee, administrative staff and board members. The general fund also pays for the rent of office space for each township’s office, which in rural areas often is based in the trustee’s home. Other general fund expenses include insurance, supplies, advertising and professional services.

Township governments date back to times when people traveled by horse or walked, making trips from rural areas difficult.

Some townships around the state oversee cemetery maintenance, burials, recreational facilities, libraries and more.

In the past, townships were responsible for providing fire protection services. In January 2010, most of the county’s townships with the exception of Carr and Vernon established fire districts with the power to raise their own funding to support operations.

In late 2016, a fire protection district was established in Vernon Township, leaving Carr as the only one funded by the township.

Each township board sets policy, makes appropriations and establishes tax rates and levies each year. Income for townships is generated from property taxes, income taxes, vehicle and commercial vehicle excise taxes and other sources.

If enacted, HB 1005 would require Driftwood, Grassy Fork, Salt Creek and Washington townships in Jackson County to merge with other townships under the law.

Township board members would vote to join others to bring the population total above the 1,200 threshold. By population, Salt Creek Township is the smallest with 347. Grassy Fork has 676 residents, while Driftwood has 869. Washington Township has the largest population of the townships that could be affected at 1,135.

In 2016, financial reports filed by those four townships show 37 recipients were awarded $9,722.84 in assistance for utilities, food, housing and other expenses.

Salaries for the four trustees, four clerks and 12 board members totaled $39,165, according to Indiana State Board of Accounts data.

House District 69 Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said he is studying the bill now and has not formed an opinion on the legislation.

He said he would try to find a balance of protecting both the taxpayers and people that receive assistance from townships.

“I’m still getting information on the townships, like how much money they get, what their budget is, how much they’re allocating out and distributing to their overhead costs,” he said. “My job is to protect the locals, but also, we have to protect the taxpayer.”

Parke Hackman, who has served as Grassy Fork Township trustee for eight years, said he was familiar with the bill and had “mixed emotions” on it.

He acknowledged mergers may make townships more efficient for the state, but the residents of those townships may have more inconveniences.

“A lot of people we’ve helped don’t have a good vehicle, so I’m not sure how they would be able to go even farther away,” he said.

Virginia Wheeler, who has served as Driftwood Township trustee for 28 years, agreed greater distances would make things difficult for people receiving assistance.

She also thought it would be difficult for other townships to absorb the work of townships being eliminated.

“I’m sure they would ask for a raise for doing it, so that would be more money,” she said. “It’s an everyday thing right now and mainly paperwork.”

Sharon Reedy, who is finishing her first four-year term as Washington Township trustee, said she sees advantages and disadvantages to the bill but also expressed concerns some may see increases in taxes if their township merged with a larger one.

“Washington Township is mainly a farming community,” she said. “Myself and my three board members have lived in Washington Township all of our lives and for the most part know or are familiar with a majority of the residents who live in our township.”

She also had concerns about the maintenance of the small cemetery near Chestnut Ridge the township oversees.

“If we were to merge with a larger township, I do not know if maintaining this small cemetery would be as important to them,” she said.

Debbie Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association, said they support the bill’s framework but will push for amendments to allow townships to make an appeal to their maximum levy for township assistance. The association represents townships at the Statehouse.

“If they’re short on funds, there’s a recourse of avenue for them to seek more funds,” she said.

The same is true for townships that oversee fire protection, Driskell said.

“Those are two vital services that we are charged with, and state statute mandates that we assist with township assistance,” she said.

She said without that provision, townships are put in a difficult position — an obligation to provide services but without the means to fulfill it.

“If we run out of money, then we have to get it somehow because no money is no excuse,” she said.

All four township trustees said they try to provide a service to citizens by making themselves accessible, something they worry may be lost through consolidation.

“It’s not something that keeps you busy every day, but I’m open 24 hours a day,” Hackman said, adding he makes himself available by cell and home phone and at his house. “If it’s on a Saturday or a Sunday, I’m going to help them if I can or get to work on it.”

Wheeler said she operates on Mondays and Wednesdays, but is available in the case of an emergency.

Driskell said while the state is trying to make the townships more efficient, her organization is trying to preserve townships.

“Our motivation was to save township government in the long run,” she said.

Recent measures to eliminate townships have been defeated, like the one in the 2017 session from Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, who is the author of HB 1005.

There also was an attempt during the Mitch Daniels administration.

“We’ve been threatened the last 15 or 16 years,” she said.

Driskell said she thinks the reason townships have been the subject of elimination is because of a lack of awareness for what they do.

“I think for the most part, they don’t understand what we do on a regular, daily basis,” she said, adding she encourages state legislators to visit offices around the state. “When they do that, they do see the value.”

Lucas said any time there is a proposed change, people tend to panic without knowing the end result.

“You have to sift through all the smoke and come to the actual facts,” he said. “The bottom line is one, to take care of the taxpayer and see that people can continue to get the help that they need.”

Hackman said it may appear as though things would be more efficient through the lens of a lawmaker.

“When you look at it from the top down, it’s going to look more efficient if you consolidate it,” he said.


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