Old News–Again

The Evansville, Indiana Courier Press recently ran an “expose” about Indiana’s Township Trustees.

I put expose in quotes because the article repeated and confirmed practices that have been widely criticized since at least 1967, when a law review article disclosed that every dollar of poor relief that Trustees distributed cost Indiana taxpayers another dollar and a half in “overhead” costs.

The Courier Press fleshed out the picture:

What kind of job doesn’t have any competition to apply, lets a person keep their brother employed, gives their husband (who helps approve the budget) a mowing contract, gets paid to use their house as a seldom-used office and have part of their phone paid for? And, oh yeah, it’s all on the taxpayer’s dime?

The job is rural township trustee.

The paper’s investigation found that more than half of the 38 Township Trustees in Vanderburgh, Warrick, Posey and Gibson counties employ relatives, award contracts to relatives or have a Trustee’s relative on the advisory board that (theoretically) oversees the office.

Twenty-seven of 38 area township governments are based out of the trustee’s house. The average number of households those trustees helped in 2016 was 14, with a median of 6. More than half of the townships based in homes helped fewer than 10 households last year.

Four township offices didn’t provide any poor relief in 2016: Armstrong and Union townships in Vanderburgh County and Wabash and Washington townships in Gibson County.

They also can be reimbursed for Internet and telephone usage.

Taxpayers paid about $60,000 last year for rent paid to trustees working out of their homes in the four-county area.

Hundreds of the 1,005 townships in Indiana are managed in similar ways.

In fairness, Governor Daniels tried. When he convened the Kernan-Shepard Commission to study government reorganization, one of its recommendations was elimination/consolodation of Indiana’s 1008 townships. Townships are an artifact of the days when travel to the county seat (by horseback) took half a day. Township responsibilities have steadily shrunk, and today they do very little; a few manage fire departments and most administer (with documented inefficiency) poor relief.

Poll after poll confirmed that most Indiana voters agreed with the Commission. Abolishing townships should have been a no-brainer–except we still haven’t managed to do so.

The problem is that, although a large majority of voters agreed that townships should go–that they wasted money better used elsewhere–it was a rare individual for whom this was a burning issue. For the Township Trustees and members of their Advisory Boards, however, it was issue #1. Eliminating townships would eliminate the livliehoods of the Trustees (and the relatives so many of them employ). It would eliminate the inflated fees paid to Advisory Board members for attending three or four meetings a year. Those Trustees and Advisory Board members focused like lasers on lawmakers, marshalling their forces, bringing in people to testify, hiring lobbyists and calling in political favors.

And Indiana still has townships.

In Washington, this same scenario plays over and over. Most Americans disapprove of the special tax breaks that benefit Big Oil, to offer just one example, but how many of us have written or called our Senators or Representatives about it? Very few–it is just one issue among many for most of us. But it is issue #1 for Big Oil (and Big Pharma and Big Banking, etc.), and they have  actively worked to protect their subsidies. When those with lots of resources focus those resources on lawmakers, they tend to get what they want.

When ordinary citizens care enough about an issue to create and donate to grass-roots organizations, call their Representatives, enlist their neighbors and friends–they can prevail. But they have to care enough.

When it comes to Township government, they evidently don’t.

 

23 thoughts on “Old News–Again

  1. Another form of corporate welfare bought and paid for by the good ole boy network, and I’m sure its not just Republicans although most are.

  2. Restructuring state and county government for Indiana is long overdue, however resistance to such reform does not come from just those currently employed in those positions. Much self identity on the part of the citizens as a whole is attached to local offices and the buildings they are housed in. People see the government as “theirs” and do not want any change that might alter their perception of themselves or the landscape they inhabit even if it is someone’s living room.

  3. I recall the investigation into Township Trustees years ago. At that time, there were a few articles written about trustees in and around Indy. Their salaries, ‘expenses’, and salaries of family members were astronimical compared to the trustees written about in this current story.

    The Kernan-Shepard report tried hard to convince taxpayers that Township Trustee work could easily be transferred to court house employees. I recall that the biggest fight to keep township trustees revolved around their expected election support for the campaigns of local and state officials in their area. Apparently, they are expected to help with the campaigns of State Reps and Senators and that work comes in very handy for the people running for office. I believe the efforts to eliminate township trustees was ultimately shot down in our legislature by our elected officials who wanted to continue with the ‘free’ campaign assistance.

  4. Just despicable in every way possible. The state of Louisiana has nothing on us in terms of corruption – they’re perhaps only just more open about it than the crooks that hold local offices here are.

  5. Tom,

    Back in the late 60’s, I led the Internal Revenue Service Task Force investigating illegal political contributions in the State of Louisiana. It’s not just Louisiana and Indiana, we’re all now just passengers on one big “Ship of Fools.” How else could we elect a “Captain” like Donald Trump?

    I might be mistaken, but I believe our only recourse is for a PEACEFUL MUTINY. Remember “The Caine Mutiny”?

  6. You know, I’m looking for a job…a secretarial job but I’m not having much luck. Actually, no luck at all. Who wants to hire someone in their late 50s for 10-15 bucks an hour with computer skills that will actually show up every day. I don’t know how you get a job these days because I can’t do the physical stuff that’s required of retail and all I want is a job that doesn’t require a certification or license. I do have a bachelor degree in science so it’s not like I’m not qualified to do admin work. Maybe I should move back to Indiana and work as a township crook. That would be easy money, right?

  7. I moved to Indiana in the summer of 2004, lived in Indianapolis/Marion County in Washington Township for 7 years, and have lived in Hamilton County in Washington Township for the remaining 6 years. I’ve yet to know the name, the location, or the function of my Township Trustee either in Marion County or in Hamilton County.

  8. AgingLGrl, I completely understand your situation. Been there, still doing it.

    Actually, I recently decided to run for my township trustee position in 2018. The current trustee made headlines 2 or 3 years ago for excessive unapproved spending on computers and office equipment. He spent nearly $40K on stuff that was not necessary. The board members were angry enough to bring it to the public’s attention, but apparently he didn’t do anything illegal. Seems it is just too easy to spend taxpayer money on yourself in that position.

    Amazingly, no one ran against him in the next election and no one seemed to care. I have decided that it is time for someone else to watch over the township’s funds and it may also be time to wake up some of the long term board members who most likely collect a nice paycheck for doing nearly nothing.

  9. BSH – I think the Washington township trustee was one of those written about in the investigation piece that was highlighted a few years ago. You might want to google it or look up the trustee info on the government website.

  10. Sheila: “When ordinary citizens care enough about an issue to CREATE and donate to grass-roots organizations………..Then they can prevail.”

    None of this can happen until the INCOMPETENT ENTRENCHED GRASS-ROOTS ORGANIZATIONS are successfully challenged. That’s the biggest hurdle to cross, but it might be an impossible one.

  11. In general, I agree with Sheila but this time I have to disagree. Mainly because I have some hands-on experience with this topic and know that while there are flaws with the township system there are many pluses. I am a township trustee (Monroe County’s Bloomington Township). I am not a rural township trustee. I serve about 45,000 residents – most within the city limits of Bloomington but some in the unincorporated area. My budget to run the township and provide township assistance is $564,791 and to run the Northern Monroe Fire Territory is $2,776,423. A total budget of $3,341,214. Every audit by the State Board of Accounts has been blemish-free. We are a professional organization that takes its responsibility to its taxpayers seriously. We also take our responsibility for providing emergency assistance to those in need very seriously. We continue to work on ways to improve our assistance and support to those who have a great many obstacles to self-sufficiency. I utilize my position to advocate for affordable housing and expanded public transit, for example. We also leverage some of our resources through community grants to support nonprofits that are making a difference in Bloomington Township.

    I especially take exception to the remark “most administer (with documented inefficiency) poor relief.” We are the only governmental office where people in need can have a one-on-one hour with a caseworker. We get to know people and what they might need. Most importantly, we are a place where they can be listened to and respected. I am convinced that the supposed efficiencies requiring folks to apply for assistance online or by phone are in the end more inefficient. No, we are not perfect. But, we’re a helluva lot more humane!

    I know rural township trustees who do their damnedest to help their community, to do good, and be responsible and responsive stewards of their role and the tax dollars. The township trustees in Monroe County regularly meet; we help each other with how to better run our individual offices, to meet the state’s numerous reporting requirements, and to better serve our residents.

    Furthermore! Perhaps other townships would run better if their citizens paid more attention to the township and other local government entities. Democracy, friends, is a two way street. Subscribe to your local newspaper (it’s the only place where local government doings will be reported). Ask your township trustee for the dates and times of the board meetings (which are public), and attend their meetings. Then, listen and learn before judging.

    Every year the Indiana Township Association holds a 2-3 day conference where trustees and township boards and staff can learn a good deal of good stuff to do a better job. Encourage your township trustee to attend – stop resenting the money they might spend (it’s actually nothing compared to other conferences) and support professional education and development.

    Looking at some of these comments, I am struck by how quick we are to find fault and vent our spleen. My experience in township government has taught me that few people really understand how township government, or local government for that matter, works. We all hold responsibility for restoring ourselves to a more civil and engaged society.

  12. Our only chance for a PEACEFUL mutiny is LEADERSHIP provided by a re-vitalized WOMEN’S MOVEMENT.

    Nancy is a good example to follow not only for women but also for men.

  13. This all sounds terrible–lazy trustees, sorruption rampant, no check and balances, no one does anything and they all rake in monet?

    I have heard that for years (moved to Indiana in 1964, and my previous home states were Minnesota, Wisconsin (pre-Scott Walker) and Michigan. Thoose states do not have township trustees like oure>)

    In the 1970 election our county focussed its attention onn Township trustees–lots of money goin gin, very little going to help–that election started a trend here foto watch our Trustees, especially those with big mudgets.

    This is what has happened over the years.:

    T-rustees have developed guidelines and become transparent in their dealings. We insisted.
    –Trustees have taken the responsibility of poor relief and fire protection very seriously,, to the point where owe have several departments that are highly professional

    – -in a state where there is virtually no safety net and no interest in having one, Trustees are often the only source of emergency assistance and guidance in helping individuals and families over very bad patches in their lives. IIndiana migh

    Indiana might not like the Trustee system, but there is nothing in place to work with tht individuals and families that Turstees fo.

    I was a City Council member adn have been a County Commissioner. Commissioners are the Appeals court for Trustees decision. I learned a lot about all of these offices and transactions.

    Until Indiana becomes a state with va record of compassionate and helpful–and efficient– mechanisms for working with people in eneed, including fire protection, schoolbooks (are we the only state that makes parents pay for them?) Township trustees are the last bastion between utter mean-spiritedness and compassion.

    Nepotsim, c misuse of funds lack of transparency, efficiency, can all be addressed with turles and ruglations and watchful citizens. We have had ugly situations in our county and they have been addressed. They happAlmost all of our trusttess have an unblemished record now, as opposed to pre-interest in their doings.

    So we can throw the Trustees out, but only when we, as a state are willing to take a comprehensive look at how we treat our citizens.

    Unfortunately most people do not take the time or interest to talk to their trustees=–if you don’t know their names it may be time to learn to know them Find out local facts. Just don’t respond to a negative article.

    These are people’s lives you’re talking about.

  14. The trustee system is like other systems with its share of flaws but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Let’s throw out the ones who are overreaching with their phony costs and nepotism and replace them with caring trustees such as those I heard talking at a recent meeting of the Democratic Women’s Caucus in Bloomington, Indiana. I am not sure that the recent attempts to end the trustee system with a system run from the county courthouses would amount to an improvement, as county courthouses have their flaws as well. What to do? Pay more attention to what local governments are doing and hold them accountable.

  15. Hats off to Lillian Henegar for her service and her illumination.

    I grew up in a rural township (there was no incorporated town in our township) and the township trustee provided a lifeline to those in need of poor relief and emergency help when no county offices were open and at other times too. Rural churches and the local school employees referred families needing poor relief to the trustee. Paying rent to them to set aside a portion of their home for office space and to receive visitors was a bargain compared to the cost of office space miles away in the county seat. Pressing their family into service to help out in their office sounds old-fashioned and out of date, but living in the country and working out of one’s home, it makes perfect sense. I don’t begrudge paying family members who really do the work.

    The Kernan-Shepard Commission often applied the standards of urban offices to those in small town and rural locales. When the State Chamber of Commerce lobbied to eliminate trustee offices, their generalization of abuses in a couple of urban locations was applied to all without apparent knowledge or interest in how smaller offices must operate. This infuriated state legislators who had been township trustees and took their obligations to their neighbors very seriously. County welfare offices were not accessible 24-7 to needy famlies, but trustees got calls at all hours of the day and night to provide assistance, and God bless them for it. They were lifesavers.

    Our rural trustee also headed our volunteer fire department which had the benefit of also alerting him to those whose homes had been destroyed by fires and needed assistance.

    The Kernan-Shepard Commission made an assumption that offices other than the township trustee offices would and could offer the same services for the same or less money, but no county welfare office was going to offer round-the-clock poor relief 7 days a week, let alone for the same or less cost. A young single mother evicted on a Friday evening with nowhere to go needs formula for her baby and a roof over her head. There are no ‘shelters’ in rural communities. What does she do when the county welfare office doesn’t open til Monday morning? She calls the Trustee.

    So often, when a government office experiences problems, the solution is to eliminate the office rather than fix the specific problems. For instance, advisory board members who need to exercise oversight over trustees should not be family members. It’s not as much the case today, but when I was growing up, most in our township were somehow related to each other, and there weren’t that many folks who would run for advisory board. So anti-nepotism rules have to be somewhat cognizant of such situations.

    Of course there are elected officials who aren’t up to the job. That’s why we have elections – so we can replace those who don’t perform. Most newly elected public officials could benefit by some job training to learn their legal responsibilities and guidance on how best to implement them. Providing such training and REQUIRING attendance would be very helpful to many new newcomers.

    My parents often contacted the trustee to help a family on our road or in our church gain much needed assistance that was beyond the ability of my family to provide. God bless the trustees for giving a lifeline to those in need.

  16. Nancy “I recently decided to run for my township trustee position in 2018”
    Way to go! Good luck!

  17. Marv – thanks for the compliment, but I am just trying to do what I can to improve my local situation. Who knows? I may not win the election.

    Nancy Papas – great points! Unfortunately, the bad apples are still out there. I live in a very rural area and the local townships have been stingy when it comes to helping those in need. They seem to think that their only real responsibility is fire protection, which they all do an excellent job of. My township’s bank account has grown astronomically over the years. If elected, my goal is to be completely transparent with monthly reports that I would hope to have published free of charge in the local newspaper if they would allow it.

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