Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

January 18, 2012

Shocker - opinions differ on topic

Maureen Hayden
The Herald-Tribune

-- — Two starkly different views of township government emerged at a heated legislative hearing on local government reform after a retiring House member described it a “Civil War relic” too costly to maintain. 

State Rep. Ralph Foley, a Republican from Martinsville who's announced he won't seek re-election, said the state's 1,006 townships – and the 4,000 trustees and advisory board members who oversee them – are no longer worth the millions of dollars that taxpayers spend to support them.

Speaking to the House Committee on Government Regulatory Reform on Tuesday, Foley said he rejects one of often-cited arguments in the long debate over township government. That argument: That only a small fraction of property taxes go to preserve the most local form of government.

“Just because I can take a little bit of money from people without them noticing, doesn't mean I should,” Foley said. 

Foley has authored a bill that stops short of eliminating township government. Past proposals to do so have met with failure.

His legislation, House Bill 1254, would let counties hold a referendum vote on eliminating townships and transferring their duties, including fire protection and poor relief, to county government.

It would also compel township fire departments – many of which are staffed by volunteers – to come under a single county-wide umbrella to better coordinate their coverage, and it would consolidate multiple emergency-dispatch systems that currently exist within a county.

The bill met with fervent opposition from the Indiana Township Association, whose director said there had a been an aggressive campaign conducted by “big business and mass media” to discredit township officials.

“They've invested a lot to tear us down,” said association head Debbie Driscoll.

She was referring to 2009 reports from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and newspapers around the state that cited significant problems at the township level, including widespread nepotism, minimal record-keeping, and high administrative costs for poor relief. Among other things, the reports said townships spent one dollar in administrative cost for every dollar in services provided to the poor.

“We are not opposed to local government re-organization, consolidation or modernization,” Driscoll said. “We simply believe it needs to be a local decision.”

By “local,” Driscoll said she meant township officials should be able to decide whether to merge with other local units of government, and to take steps to improve how they account for the funds and deliver their services.

State Rep. Scott Reske, a Democrat from Pendleton and committee member, said he was concerned that forcing township volunteer fire departments to merge into a county-wide system would undermine the bill's intent to save dollars.

“You'll lose half your volunteers,” Reske said. “You'll hit an immediate fiscal crisis as soon as this happens.” 

In arguing for the bill, Foley said he had files full of newspaper clippings reporting “dysfunctional fights” among township fire departments over money, equipment, and other issues.

“Am I the only (state) representative who is sick of fire department fights?” Foley said.

That comment brought a response later in the hearing from Larry Curl, head of the Indiana Volunteer Firefighter Association. Noting the contentious and continuing dispute over the “right to work” legislation that would criminalize mandatory union dues, Curl said: “We're not the only ones who fight. Look at state government.”

No vote was taken on Foley's bill. It's scheduled for vote for Friday. If it passes, it would go to the full House for a vote.