NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Newspaper group supports elimination of Indiana’s township system

On Jan. 9, 2018, we wrote here that we thought legislation by House Republicans to reduce the number of townships in Indiana was a good plan to consider because they are units of local government that operate with high overhead and little oversight.

Less than a month later, however, the bill died without a vote on the House floor, despite support from House Speaker Brian Bosma.

With the 2019 legislative session before us, we think the issue should be revived, perhaps with an even more radical outcome — possibly the dismantling of the entire township system.

Under House Bill 1005 proposed last year, 309 of Indiana’s 1,005 townships would have been forced to merge. According to the planned legislation, townships with populations of fewer than 1,200 people would have consolidated into others within five years.

Most of those affected would have been in rural areas. Of Allen County’s 20 townships, only Scipio (population 414 in the 2010 census) and Jackson (population 504) would have been affected. By comparison, Wayne Township has the largest population in the county with 103,803.

Bosma said after the bill died last February there wasn’t enough support due to the number of lawmakers who are from rural districts, even though it did have the support of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Township Association.

Since that time, journalists from Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s 13 Indiana newspapers — including the Elkhart Truth, Anderson Herald-Bulletin, Kokomo Tribune and Terre Haute Tribune-Star — made an in-depth examination of township government in the state. As a result they have proposed in an editorial the elimination of townships altogether.

Townships are governed by an elected trustee and a three-member advisory board that sets policy and tax rates. Their purpose is to provide financial assistance to residents to help pay bills and other expenses. Some townships fund libraries, oversee parks and maintain cemeteries. They provide fire protection in rural areas.

CNHI says it surveyed 94 trustee offices in Indiana, discovering that “most operate out of trustees’ homes, and many still use handwritten ledgers for accounting.”

While they did find some examples of excellent services, overall, they concluded the system is broken. One particular township office, they pointed out, “has no website, no Facebook page, no regular business hours and no sign to identify the office from the street. And no one showed up for a public hearing on the township’s 2019 budget, not even the three elected members of the township advisory board.”

A bipartisan commission on local government reform appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels concluded in 2008 that townships are “an outdated legacy of the 19th century and that many are too small to provide cost-effective services to the public.

The conclusion then, according to a news release from the governor’s office, was that “[t]ransferring township duties to the county would allow for more efficient planning, provide a broader tax base for funding and reduce the overall complexity of Indiana’s current system of local government.”

CNHI’s editorial says Indiana taxpayers should insist that Indiana’s General Assembly heed those decade-old recommendations. We concur.