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State looks to merge townships

BY Spencer Durham - sdurham@chronicle-tribune.com

A proposed bill by Indiana House Republicans aims to consolidate low population townships.

The proposed bill would merge any township with a population of 1,200 or less with a neighboring township. Should it become law, 309 townships would reportedly be consolidated with an adjacent one. And nearly 1,200 elected positions would be eliminated.

In Grant County, three townships would be consolidated under the bill: Richland, Liberty and Green. As of the 2010 census, Richland had 966 people, Liberty had 1,028 and Green had 500. According to projections for 2016, by STATS Indiana, the townships each saw a population decline – Richland should now have 926 people, Liberty should have 978 people and Green was projected to have 475.

Deb Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association, said township consolidation could help pool together resources between townships. For example, Driskell said some townships struggle to get money for volunteer fire departments. If two townships merge, they could pass a new levy and get affordable fire protection that way.

“There’s a financial benefit to the townships that do (merge),” she said.

Larry Downs, township trustee for Green Township, said consolidation is an idea worth considering.

“I’m not in favor of doing away with townships,” he said. “But consolidating might not be a bad idea.”

Downs said finding people interested in trustee and board positions is difficult but voiced concerned that if more townships were consolidated more funds may go to bigger cities such as Marion and Gas City.

In regard to volunteer fire departments, Downs wondered how beneficial merging might be, as not every township in Grant County has a fire department. He said Liberty Township already pays Green Township and Swayzee for fire protection so just what funds would be available if townships were to merge is up for debate.

Though not directly associated with the bill, Rep. Mike Karickoff, R-Kokomo, said he supports the idea.

“When you have 1,000 townships, that’s too many,” he said of the multitude of counties in the Hoosier state. “The Township Association supports it, that tells me a lot.”

Karickoff said he thinks the bill would help to reduce nepotism in township elections and help local governments run more efficiently, adding that a certain number of people are needed to make a trustee and board worth having. Like Driskell, the state legislator said sharing resources would be beneficial especially since sophisticated accounting is needed for bookkeeping, which can be difficult to find in small townships.

Tom Schuman, senior vice president of communication for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, also supports the bill, citing government efficiency. He said many duties a township handles can be performed at a county level.

Driskell said the bill will be heard in committee on Tuesday. She said if passed, a township would choose which neighboring township they merge with.

Some oppose the bill given that township officials, which sets policy and tax rates, is the form of local government closest to the people.

“I look at it as they have tried so hard to get rid of all the townships, this is one way to start it,” said Gloria Gerig, trustee of Allen County’s Jackson Township. “Then they can come back in five years and get rid of the rest.”

In 2007, a commission headed by former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard recommended eliminating township government altogether. Lawmakers chose not to because it’s the layer of government closest to the people.

“We can assure everyone will have a trustee and board,” Driskell said of the bill. “We hope services will be improved.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.