Infusion of accountability for township government

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Indiana’s system of township government is both inefficient and ineffective. Few have been able to mount a persuasive argument that it’s not.

Despite that, reform has been a hard to achieve. Of the 11 bills introduced in the recently concluded session of the Indiana General Assembly, only one passed. The others didn’t get past the committee stage.

The bill that did survive, however, is a good one. It was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Townships with seemingly massive budget surpluses will now need to submit plans to show the public how the money will be used.

The legislation authored by Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, requires townships to file a three-year capital improvement plan with the state if their surplus is 150 percent over the annual budget estimate and more than $200,000. The plan would affect 88 of Indiana’s 1,005 townships.

The goal of the law is to inject greater accountability for township funds to the taxpayers.

The principal purpose of township government is to supply funding for fire service where necessary, maintain cemeteries and provide poor relief to residents. But a number of townships have been shown to collect large amounts of money from taxpayers while rarely putting those funds to productive use.

Miley reported that last year, townships across the state ended with balances totaling $481.3 million. On average, township trustees end their year with a surplus of 111 percent over their adopted budgets.

Across the state, townships had budgets totaling $389.3 million in 2017. But they had a total cash balance of $453.6 million, more than 16 percent above their budgeted amounts. That was enough for 14 months of operating revenues, as much as seven times the generally accepted threshold for government units.

Last year, the number rose as townships recorded total budgets of $402 million and cash balances of $472 million, according to records kept by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Even lawmakers reluctant to take on the township system recognized the problem and were willing to take action to address it. If a township is amassing a huge surplus, at least it now has to explain why the money is there and what it will eventually be used for.

Additional reforms in township government will take time. But this law is substantive and brings more accountability to the system.

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