Momentum Building to Eliminate Township Assessors
Indiana Writers Group column for Jan. 18 and thereafter
INDIANAPOLIS — Wells County Assessor Connie S. Prible isn’t seeking re-election, so she can risk being blunt about the inadequacies of township government.
"I can’t think of anything township officials do right now that couldn’t be handled at the county level," says Prible, who’s been handling real estate assessment for her county’s nine townships for most of 20 years.
Don’t get her wrong. She says she has been "blessed" by relationships with her township colleagues. They’ve learned to work well together. Wells County is cited as a leader in professional reassessment practices.
But when Prible took office in 1987, the assessment system was "a nightmare." Nothing was computerized. Property diagrams were riddled with errors. If you asked the nine township assessors for their opinion about a house’s condition and quality, you’d get nine different grades.
Such experiences convinced Prible to take over the real estate assessment job under contract with the townships. And it’s stories like hers that convinced Gov. Mitch Daniels in his State of the State Address to call for an "end of the archaic township assessment system and the transfer of this failed process to the level of our 92 counties."
Transferring reassessment authority to the counties is just one piece of the governor’s plan to reform local government; he’s also asked the legislature to make it easier for units of government to consolidate to avoid duplication of services and reduce overhead.
Carried to its logical conclusion, the restructuring would spell the end of townships entirely.
Don’t expect that to happen in a short session of the legislature. But do expect the conversation to get heated.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has championed reform of township government for years. In October, the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute weighed in after conducting an exhaustive study of assessment practices. The institute documented a chaotic mix of rules interpretations across the state, which encouraged errors and forced taxpayers "to pay more for less."
The institute recommended moving assessment responsibility from the township to the county level and eliminating all 1,008 elected township officials who now manage the task.
The Indiana Township Association, which represents them, has argued that services can be provided more efficiently and effectively closer to the people.
That was the thinking when township government was created in the 1600s by American colonists who wanted governments more accountable than the autocratic, centralized versions they had known in England.
The township as a political unit wasn’t necessarily linked to a town, as the word suggests, but was the byproduct of the process of surveying land for settlement and westward expansion. From an arbitrarily fixed line running north and south, and a horizontal baseline, territory was marked off in rectangles, typically six miles square.
Those township tracts became the basic unit of government. Today, township government exists in 21 states.
In Indiana, townships have three primary responsibilities: property assessment, emergency assistance for the poor and fire protection in areas not served by municipal departments. The cost to taxpayers: about $285 million a year.
Prible firmly believes that smaller doesn’t mean more accessible. Take Wells County where township offices are part-time posts. Throughout the state, many operate from their homes rather than offices on familiar streets. "The bottom line," Prible says, "it’s far easier to come to the courthouse than find a trustee at home."
Likewise, she points out, township fire departments staffed by volunteers may not be as responsive as full-time agencies. "We really need one centrally located fire department with districts," she says of Wells County.
In the same vain, smaller doesn’t always mean cheaper. "There can be no economy where there is no efficiency," Benjamin Disraeli once said.
A case in point: It costs township trustees 90 cents in overhead to administer every dollar in assistance – a whopping 47 percent of the poor relief budget, according to the Chamber of Commerce’s 2004 local government efficiency study. In contrast, the state spends about 10 percent to administer its aid to needy families.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that township government is a drain on Hoosier taxpayers. Just because we’ve always done it this way doesn’t mean we should continue.
Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.