House Bill Would Merge Townships With Less Than 1,200 People

More than 300 units of township government in Indiana would be consolidated under a bill touted as one of the legislative priorities for House Republicans.
House Bill 1005 would make it mandatory for trustee offices in townships with a population less than 1,200 to merge either with a more populous township or one of similar population.
Of Indiana’s 1,005 townships, 309 fit the bill’s population category, said Deborah Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association. Depending on the approach taken by the townships, there could be more than two townships in each consolidation, she said.
“They could consolidate in different configurations. There’s no way to predict exactly what the reduction would be. It could be 150; it could be more,” Driskell said.
Consolidations would not require a voter referendum, though a public hearing would be necessary. The mergers are to be led by township officials.
“We have far too many local government entities in our state for us to be efficient,” said Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville, author of the bill. “It’s really to try to gain some efficiencies and far more value for the taxpayer.”
Township governments have functioned in Indiana since the signing of the 1852 State Constitution. The House bill, if passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, would not eliminate the township concept.
“I am pleased that everyone will still have a township trustee and a township board. That’s the most important thing when looking at any kind of reform,” Driskell said. “We have always stood for the fact that if you get rid of townships, people lose their trustees and their boards.
“There’s been a push to get rid of the boards and put us under county control, and we have stood against that for many years. We have been encouraged strongly to come up with our own reform measures,” Driskell said.
Additional reforms – many recommended by the township association – in the bill include salary caps in trustee offices, a requirement for capital project plans and justifications for high cash balances in a trustee’s budget. Current debts would remain with taxpayers in the township where the debts were incurred.
House Bill 1005 could lead to savings in the costs of trustee salaries and building expenses, among other costs that would be shared by consolidated offices, according to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.
Another streamlining bill, House Bill 1003, by Rep. Douglas Gutwein, R-Francesville, would repeal six chapters of Indiana Code and 55 duplicative reporting requirements for local and state units of government, Bosma said.
Bosma said the bills are part of efforts “to continue to streamline and downsize government while still providing critical services to Hoosiers.”
A third bill, House Bill 1004, authored by Sally Siegrist, R-West Lafayette, would reduce paper reports.
Township trustees typically provide poor relief and pioneer cemetery maintenance.
In 2007, a study by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform recommended ways for Indiana to streamline services. The effort was led by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard and former Gov. Joe Kernan.
Among recommendations, the commission suggested transferring township services to county governments and having county government led by a single elected county executive.
The Kernan-Shepard report has had a rocky history. Efforts to consolidate township assessors with county offices were successful, but the state’s 1,009 township trustee offices have fought merger attempts. Township officials argue that they offer the units of government that are closest to Hoosiers.
Last session, Ziemke introduced a bill that would have abolished township advisory boards and assigned financial responsibility of townships to fiscal bodies of each county. The bill was opposed by the township association which since then has been in discussions with Ziemke.
Scott L. Miley
CNHI News Indiana Reporter