In 1977, when I first walked into the City-County Building after being appointed Corporation Counsel, I was handed a formidable green, spiral-bound book by John Krauss, who was then Executive Director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. Its title was "Unigov and You," and it laid out in great detail the operations of "unified" city government that had gone into effect in 1971.
In 1977, when I first walked into the City-County Building after being appointed Corporation Counsel, I was handed a formidable green, spiral-bound book by John Krauss, who was then Executive Director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. Its title was “Unigov and You,” and it laid out in great detail the operations of “unified” city government that had gone into effect in 1971.
Whether one believes the legislation creating Unigov really “unified” city and county government depends—as a former President might have put it—on what your definition of “unified” is. Schools and public safety were left out, four “excluded cities” remained, and township trustees continued to operate as before. My green book identified forty-three separate taxing districts and ninety-two different tax rates. Nevertheless, Unigov was a stunning achievement: it created an efficient and accountable countywide government out of a bewildering assortment of “special service” districts and authorities (no two of which seemed to have the same geographic boundaries) run by directors (appointed by a variety of legislative bodies) whose names were hardly household words.
It is true that Unigov also “consolidated” Republican control of local government, but those who criticized it as just a political coup were wrong. Civil city tax rates declined in each of the first four years of Unigov, as economies of scale were realized, but the real benefit was accountability. For the first time, citizens knew who was in charge of most services, and who to blame when things went wrong. Indianapolis began to get delegations from other cities interested in replicating our “good government” success.
Thirty years later, Mayor Peterson wants to complete what Keith Bulen and Dick Lugar began. As “Indianapolis Works” points out, we still have dozens of local officials making major budget decisions independent of each other. We have more than 170 separately elected officials. City and County budgets compete for our tax dollars (and that is true even when both are controlled by the same political party—just ask former Mayor Bill Hudnut!) We have duplication of services, inadequate oversight, and “government by crisis.”
It is time for Unigov II.
During my stint in city hall, the mantra from GOP county headquarters was “Good government is good politics.” Dick Lugar has already endorsed Peterson’s proposal; those most familiar with the operations of local government, from the Chamber of Commerce to Council President Rozelle Boyd, have advocated for the change.
The Mayor’s proposal will still not effect a complete consolidation. Schools—always a political “third rail”—are once again untouched. Merging IPD and the Sheriff’s department is long overdue, but there are 23 other police departments in Marion County that are not currently part of this plan. Two of the anachronistic and inefficient Township Trustee offices remain. These and other omissions are clearly accommodations to political reality. It will be hard enough to get the plan adopted over the opposition of those whose fiefdoms are being threatened. But we did it once, and we can—and must—do it again.