John Stafford, who former Gov. Mitch Daniels once called “the person who knows more about Indiana local government than anyone on the planet,” wasn't consulted before the latest plan to reform Indiana's township government system was unveiled by House Republicans Thursday. The plan is far less bold than the one Stafford embraced when he worked with former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randall Shepard on a more efficient way to organize local government. But he supports it nonetheless. So does the Indiana Township Association, which means there's a real possibility of making the state's township-trustee system more efficient during this legislative session.
The Kernan-Shepard Report, released in 2007, recommended doing away with all the state's townships, a proposal that has proven impossible to implement. The plan that will be considered during this legislative session would compel 309 of those townships – those with populations of less than 1,200 – to merge with other small townships or be absorbed by a larger one. That would be less of a shock to the Indiana political system than doing away with all 1,005 townships and their more than 4,000 trustee and advisory board members, but it could still depose up to 1,200 elected officials.
John D. Henry, trustee of Allen County's Pleasant Township and president of the township association, said his statewide organization, though it fought the Kernan-Shepard proposal and a more recent plan to eliminate the advisory boards, has supported for many years the concept of merging some townships. “But we always wanted it to be voluntary,” he said in an interview Monday.
Like other units of local government, Henry said, townships have struggled with their budgets since the imposition of property tax caps. Before that, townships were allowed to borrow beyond their levy limits to meet obligations, he said.
Tired of “playing defense” against reform proposals, Henry said, the township association has been talking with House leaders for the past year about a legislative compromise that would merge small, inefficient operations but allow townships more latitude to borrow funds to meet fire protection and poor-relief obligations. “We felt that if we were going to move forward, we would have to play ball,” he said.
Henry said he doesn't yet know the details of the funding proposal that would accompany the township-merger proposal.
The association is emphasizing that the grassroots nature of township government will be preserved for all Hoosiers. “There's going to be townships that fight it,” he said. But his association will argue “that's not township elimination when you merge.”
Stafford said in an interview Monday a case still can be made to scrap the whole township system, something The Journal Gazette editorial board has supported for years.
“County government handles transportation, public safety, a wide array of services,” he said. “Most of the responsibilities have long ago been transferred – justice of the peace, assessing – there are really few services left.”
But it's a positive step, he said, to weed out small, rural townships that provide the fewest services to the fewest people. “In many cases, it really is quite inefficient to keep them going.”
Though no one could accuse him of being a Kernan-Shepard fan, Henry echoed that sentiment.
“Some of those townships,” he said, “there's very little for them to do.”