Township Trustee Spends $20,000 to Defend $758 Decision… Sounds About Right

Since disbelief is already in the air due to the wonder that is the NCAA hoops tourney (Go Dawgs!), here’s a shocker to add to the list from the world of township governance. The Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP) blog sums it up aptly, but hold onto your beverage while reading (and hopefully that beverage is just coffee since it’s only 8 a.m.):

(Thursday’s) Indianapolis Star includes an interesting article on the latest antics from the world of township government – the Washington Township (Marion County) trustee racking up $20,000 in legal bills in a dispute over $758 in poor relief aid sought by a township resident for help with her rent and water bills.

Of the many troubling issues this story raises, two stand out.  First, the idea that these sorts of fiscally imprudent decisions are being made with little or no oversight by 1,008 separately-elected township officials is disheartening given the dire financial straits of state and local governments. 

Across Indiana, local officials are debating cuts in education, infrastructure, public safety and more.  Counties and municipalities are making tough choices.  Our legislature has made these choices even tougher by not stepping to the plate and making its own difficult political decision to reform local government, at least by demanding more oversight and streamlining of township offices.  And so we continue to be burdened by another layer of government bureaucracy that consumes and squanders tax dollars.

As to the circumstances of the Washington Township case itself, it’s difficult to argue the merits of either side on the basis of any statewide or even countywide guidelines.  That’s the second issue – there are no common rules for the provision of poor relief in Indiana.  Each township sets its own, leading to a patchwork approach that’s unfair and inefficient.  More than half the state’s townships provide relief to 20 households or less, and spend three dollars in overhead for every one that actually reaches a disadvantaged family.   It’s no surprise that disputes such as the one in Washington Township arise.

While the General Assembly again failed to take action on local government reform this session, more and more communities are exploring consolidation themselves out of financial necessity.  As these efforts multiply across the state and the fiscal climate continues to worsen, let’s hope that common sense reform – starting with township government – begins to gain more converts among lawmakers.

Indy Star Blasts Washington Township Board

We brought you this gem last week. Now, the Indy Star is weighing in with some strong words against the Washington Township board that voted to give itself a 60% pay increase. The Star rightfully also points out that this is just a microcosm of the entire township government problem:

Over protests from residents and with little discussion, the Washington Township Board last week handed itself a 60 percent pay raise, effectively reversing a pay cut the board accepted last year after the township fire department was merged with the city’s.

… Eliminating township government altogether is a prominent recommendation of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, whose report last year has been driving high-level discussions about municipal efficiency. One major result already is the folding of township assessors into one countywide office. A new state law accomplished that for smaller counties; and Marion County, for one, approved a referendum this month abolishing the job of township assessor.

Can township government itself, and township boards, be next? Gov. Mitch Daniels, among others, hopes so, arguing convincingly that multiple redundant layers of local government waste money and impede service. As property assessing joins police and fire protection among countywide functions, the dispensability of outmoded township governance will become more obvious.

Defenders of that 19th-century vestige maintain that it keeps public servants closer to the public. Whether that’s worth higher cost and lower efficiency is debatable in any case. In the case of the Washington Township Board, close turns out to be more like in-your-face.

Again, if the board wanted to make a case about job duties changing and whatnot as justification for a raise, I’m sure most of us would be willing to listen. Probably still wouldn’t support it, but we’d listen. Yet the unwillingness to even listen to public input or discuss the matter with the media, as displayed by reporter Norman Cox’s original blog (linked in our first post), is the most alarming aspect of this. The government is not God; it should work for us.

Drama in Washington Township

So local TV reporter Norman Cox wanted to ask some questions about a pay raise the Washington Township Board members gave themselves (in a 4-3 vote) last night. Well, that didn’t go so well as the whole transparency thing kind of went down the ol’ commode:

Last night the township board’s Democratic majority rammed through a 60% pay raise for board members. They did so without speaking one word at the public meeting to justify it. They then refused to answer questions from the media or the public after the meeting.

I won’t post any more because you should really read Cox’s entire blog post if you want to start your weekend with a little disbelief. Oh, and you can watch an entertaining video as well.

Pay raise? Sure, we’ve earned it — just don’t ask us about it.