Let’s Get Serious

Marion County’s dramatically—if erratically—increased property taxes have been the topic of non-stop conversation and exhaustive media coverage for the past two weeks.  I’m hearing lots of complaining. What I’m not hearing is serious consideration of the causes of the problem (finger-pointing doesn’t count) or suggestions for sensible measures to reduce unnecessary costs.


I know that one person’s “unnecessary costs” are the next guy’s “absolutely essential public services,” but—at risk of enraging more readers than usual—let me suggest just two measures that could reduce taxes and improve services at the same time.


  • Marion County supports eleven school systems. That’s eleven superintendents, making over 100,000 each. That’s eleven administrative structures, each with its own buildings and staffs full of deputy superintendents, curriculum experts, human resources departments and the like. Eleven transportation systems, bus fleets and dispatchers. Eleven food service operations. Eleven separate school boards, with per diems, travel budgets, and other expenses. Each school system hires its own lawyers, negotiates separately with the teachers’ union, builds its own schools, provides its own counseling, policing and standardized testing. Meanwhile, enrollments have been declining in several of those districts, even while costs continue to accelerate.


            The savings that would accrue from consolodating those districts would be         significant. (In 2006, the budget for IPS alone exceeded five hundred million            dollars.) We could also redirect resources from overhead into our classrooms, and            equalize services—and school tax rates—across the county.


  • A similar argument can be made for consolodating (or preferably abolishing) the outdated Township Trustee system. Over the years, most of the duties originally discharged by individual trustee offices have been assumed by other agencies. And repeated studies have confirmed that trustees are not cost-effective providers (to put it kindly) of poor relief, their  major remaining function.


So why are these two measures, which could yield substantial savings without sacrificing service, essentially off the table? Simple: politics and patronage.


In the case of the schools, it has been the politics of money and race. When Unigov was enacted, it was common knowledge that including the schools would have been the kiss of death—privileged white parents weren’t going to send their children to school with poorer children, especially if they were black. Demographics (and, one hopes, attitudes) in Marion County have changed considerably since 1971. It’s past time to revisit the issue. 


In the case of the Township Trustees, patronage is the culprit. As the county has become increasingly Democratic, suburban Trustee’s offices are among the last Republican strongholds, while the Center Township Trustee is a longtime source of Democratic jobs, especially for minorities.


Meanwhile, political game-playing hasn’t helped. When President Bush “cut” federal taxes, states were stuck with the costs of services those taxes had paid for. Then state governments realized that two could play that game, and shifted costs to local units of government.


Now local government has to decide who it will hurt: property taxpayers, or those with vested interests in keeping things as they are.