Scott L. Miley, For CNHI News Indiana

The Indiana Township Association hopes that results from a study will convince legislators of the viability of the form of government that has been in the Indiana Constitution since 1852, despite calls in the past to eliminate townships.

“We banked on the belief that if we could tell our story, who is doing what and where and at what cost, the long battle might be over,” said Deborah Driskell, executive director of the association that represents Indiana’s 1,002 townships. The study, paid by ITA and considered one of its most comprehensive, was conducted through the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. Out of the study came 27 recommendations ranging from mandating continuing education for elected trustees and their three-member boards to merging townships for efficiency.

Township trustees are known for providing poor relief, cemetery maintenance and fire protection. However, the study found that trustees perform some nontraditional programs including answering questions on fence line disputes and removing noxious weeds.

“Our study revealed that there were a lot of services being provided locally that had never been collected or documented before,” Driskell said.

The study has been discussed in the legislature, where there are currently three pieces of legislation, down from an initial six, that address township government. None calls for eliminating townships as has been discussed in prior sessions.

One tied into the study would set up a pilot program for the merger of townships in Blackford, Crawford and Switzerland counties. Representatives in those counties contacted the ITA regarding merging with one another, officials said.

However, funding for the program was axed by a House committee. The amended House Bill 1355 now goes to the Senate.

Since 2004, there have been dozens of legislative bills attempting to alter, if not eliminate, township government.

House Bill 1355 is an attempt to bridge many of those efforts. “There’s data to support that there are specific areas where township government is very effective,” said Rep Doug Miller, R-Elkhart.

“There’s also data to support areas across the state where we don’t need four, five, six townships in a county with a small population.

“They could all merge and actually provide a higher level of service specifically for police, fire and ambulance, based on a broader tax base that they can use to help ensure those Hoosiers get those three basic services that they want and desire,” said Miller, the bill’s author.

Rep. Chris Campbell, D-West Lafayette, who serves on the House Ways and Means committee, voted in favor of passing the bill.

“It’s very complicated to merge. This just creates a conversation in a few counties who’ll have that opportunity to work together and see if that’s a potential possibility for their community. It doesn’t force a merger.

“I would like to see the pilot move forward just to see if this is something that we could address in our state Instead of having legislation every year that just wants to completely take out our townships,” Campbell said.

There have been township mergers and consolidations in Indiana. In what is considered the first merging of townships, Franklin, Needham and Union townships in Johnson County merged last year into a single township — Franklin Union Needham (FUN) Township.

Among the township association’s 27 recommendations:

• Support townships that want to voluntarily merge by creating criteria to evaluate if merging is appropriate and by developing a program within the ITA to offer assistance for townships that wish to merge. State funding could be sought.

• Encourage interlocal agreements to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of township services.

• Update statutes to remove challenges to mergers. One answer is to allow varied tax rates among merging units. Opponents have said that a township with fewer taxpayers would be forced to take on tax burdens of a larger township; this recommendation would ease that concern.

• Standardize guidelines for administering township assistance, known as poor relief, which had a value of $49 million statewide in 2021 mostly for housing and utilities. The ITA study noted that many services are not consistently reported to the state.

• Simplify processes for townships to form a fire territory, which is currently complex with specific time limitations.

• Mandate annual education for elected officials and critical staff; less than 15% of townships reported board members attending training sessions offered by the State Board of Accounts, the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance and at ITA’s annual conference.

Finding candidates for township offices can be difficult; about 25 townships have no trustee. Mergers can occur only if trustees and boards concur.

Currently in the legislature, Senate Bill 182 would allow an easier process for a township that does not have a trustee or board to merge with an adjoining township.

“If we have vacancies in offices, obviously there’s no interest or ability to run; therefore, it would be best to merge those townships with a township that has leadership and is willing to run both of them,” Driskell said.

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