The People Are Getting Closer And Closer To Government

The Howey Political Report

by Brian Howey

There were 964 township assessors who were folded into county assessor offices on July 1. Did you notice?

Defenders of township government keep making the argument that it is government “closest to the people.” The problem with this is the fact that for the past 130 years, people have been moving closer and closer to their government. In 1851, a human could move no faster than a horse or a primitive locomotive. We had the telegraph. Today, we have cars, phones and computers. Government is a now a simple phone call, computer click or a 15-minute drive away.

The battle lines over government reform finally came out into the open during the recent gubernatorial debate in Jasper. Gov. Mitch Daniels said that while he supports the Kernan-Shepard recommendations, he didn’t want to “politicize” them during his campaign with Democrat Jill Long Thompson. That’s why we haven’t heard much on the subject thus far, he says.

“My opponent is just against it so we don’t have a contrast,” Daniels said of the campaign. “I have tried to discipline myself to stay with the original concept, which was to not make this a partisan proposal, but to make it a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission report to the people. I would hope we would arrive at the end of this year with consensus around many of these ideas. I’ve tried not to partisanize this debate.”

During the debate, the candidates were asked about eliminating township government. “I actually disagree with his approach. I do support township government,” Thompson said, adding that she likes “decentralized” government.

Daniels responded that Thompson has a “very backward point of view” and noted that she disagreed with former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, co-chair of the Kernan-Shepard Commission that advised the elimination of township government. Daniels describes her as “isolated” on the issue. He said that township government doesn’t even exist in most of the U.S.

With some 11,000 elected officials, Indiana has more government than almost anywhere else in the entire nation. “There’s more duplication, more overlap, there’s waste everywhere. This is not my opinion. This is from people in both political parties,” Daniels said.

The politically safer position might be Thompson’s. In the August 29-30 Howey-Gauge Poll, 40 percent said they were “uncertain” about the Kernan-Shepard reforms. In the other categories, support was generally minuscule. On one issue that appears to have bipartisan support at the Statehouse—moving from the three county commissioners to an elected county chief executive—only 7 percent approved. Gov. Mitch Daniels is likely to support such a move and last spring, House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer told me that he would like to see that particular issue on the “front burner.”

Only 14 percent of those polled favored elimination of township government. This comes after the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that eliminated all but 44 township assessor positions. There has also been a spate of township fire department consolidations around the state. Both stories received a moderate amount of press, particularly when the 964 township assessors were folded into county assessor offices on July 1. For the most part, this transition generated little controversy. Had there been much public consternation and opposition, it would have generated more headlines.

Daniels said he intends in the next legislative session to “move out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century” by seeking to pass 24 of the 27 Kernan-Shepard Commission recommendations still on the table. Three were passed in 2008 by the legislature, including the assessor consolidation law and another that allows no more than two 911 centers in each county. About 10 of the remaining recommendations will require legislative action.

Phase II of the township assessor sequence comes between now and the Nov. 4 election when the remaining 44 township assessors face ballot referendums in counties such as Marion, St. Joseph, Vanderburgh, Lake, Porter and Allen.

Mark Lawrence, senior vice president for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, is part of a consortium that includes the Indiana Association of Realtors and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership that is pushing a “yes” vote on the referendum. He said the coalition would have limited resources, though he expects some direct mail campaigns in the coming weeks. He called the assessor referendum “a bump on the road on the way to Kernan-Shepard.”

The fact that the referendums come in each township, as opposed to countywide, means the “deck is stacked against us,” Lawrence said. The problem is that poor assessing in one township can impact property taxes for the entire county.

“We hope there will be enough interest in having fair assessments,” Lawrence said. “You want to make sure your house is assessed fairly as well as the neighbor’s down the street,” noting what he called the current “fragmented system.” “If people understand it under those terms, they’ll see it impacts their pocketbooks,” Lawrence said.

An influencing factor may be the recent Washington and Warren township fire mergers with Indianapolis. “That went very smoothly,” Lawrence said. “It is saving millions of dollars. There has been no decrease in services.”