Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Township Consolidation, Compromise Is Counterproductive

Otto von Bismarck once said, "Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made."

This has never been more true than with HB 1181, which is Representative Bill Crawford's answer to Ed Delaney's bill designed to abolish township governments. Under HB 1181, instead of just getting rid of the little buggers on an up-or-down vote (with all trustees and board duties going under the mayor, city-council, and a county-wide poor relief advocate, respectively), we permit every township to have its own referendum first.

This is, to use a fine term of art, bananas. As P.J. O'Rourke might say, having some townships in and some out is only a compromise in the sense that being bitten in half by a shark is a compromise to being eaten whole. It would defeat the purpose of consolidation if we created a county agency when only a few townships "opted in." It would almost certainly end up costing us more. As much as I respect Bill Crawford, this is an area where he needs to go all in or not go at all. There's no middle ground here, though that's where I find myself on the larger issue.

I'm incredibly torn on the subject of consolidation, though I'm leaning against it.

On the plus side, if money can be saved on administration costs that we can funnel into more poor relief, preferrably the type that addresses underlying causes of poverty instead of only cutting checks, how could I oppose it in theory?

Also, I can't deny that some of our trustees have done a disservice by acting like their offices are employment agencies for family members. The fact we need to include language like in Crawford's bill to abolish the practice of blatant nepotism tells you what kind of abuses can happen in offices "close to the people." But should we really phase out an office based on malfeasance of a single officeholder? Seriously, if we abolished an entire office everytime someone discredited it, Barack Obama wouldn't have been able to assume the presidency).

On the idea of trustees being "close to the people," I am not sure I accept it on faith that you can't connect with folk unless you limit your territory by trustee boundaries lines. Sure, trustees are neighborhood based, but couldn't statellite offices be established under a county poor advocate to retain that flavor?

I keep asking myself this question. Were someone like Julia Carson put in charge of a county-wide trustee's office, couldn't she save money for the entire county without being cruel the way she did in Center Township? I like to think her success had to do with her philosophy of personal responsibility, not the fact she had only 90,000 constituents.

But here's what bothers me terribly about consolidation. Nobody can show me the numbers. The Kernan-Shepard report says that the total levies for all local government via property taxes in 2006 was $7.8 billion, of which 2.7% was for all township government. That's a savings statewide of $216 million, but that's only if you make every dollar spent go poof. You can't. Most of that $216 million is spent for direct poor relief and firetrucks. So how much would Marion County save if it got rid of all of its township governments? We don't know, as the bill has an "indeterminate fiscal impact."

Here's another interesting tidbit from the Kernan-Shepard report. From 1984 to 2005, the tax levy for township governments overall has gone up 6.07%. Guess what the county increase was during that time? 6.09%! So we're supposed to abolish a governmental unit that has held the line better over time than the one into which we're consolidating?

But my greatest issue is that I get indigestion chewing on hypocrisy. The greatest local government cost is schools, with 53.81% of the total levy. Why isn't anybody talking about finishing Unigov and consolidating those? If townships are such an inefficient governing body, why is every single school board in Marion County township-based? Is it because nobody wants to pay for IPS who doesn't live in it, or that nobody wants to see IPS kids going to their magnets throughout the county?

This rather selective picking and paucity of compelling financial data plays into the unease of Democrats generally, as they hold six of the nine trustees' offices, and of the African-American community, in particular, as three of the nine trustees are African-American: David Baird in Wayne, Lula Patton in Pike County, and William Douglas in Center.

You can't deny the racial undercurrent that has attached to this story (though I doubt Dr. Adam Herbert, the African-American former president of IU and PhD in Urban Affairs, would say he intended to stick it to black folk by co-authoring the Kernan-Shepard report).

As Amos Brown noted in a recent colum for The Recorder, "If [the Philistines who want to do away with township government] get their way, scores of Blacks, elected by their neighborhoods and our community, would lose their positions. Again, for no good reason."

That's a powerful critique. But I think it relegates African-Americans to a marginal role when they could have something better. You see, Ed Delaney's bill replaces a bunch of small trustees for an elected countywide poor advocate. That person will almost certainly be a Democrat, and given that fifty percent of our current trustees are African-American and pretty skilled, you have to like their chances.

In short, were I Amos Brown, I'd be willing to sacrifice a few elected knights for the chance to have an elected "king" of poor relief. My party would have to give away some mini-fiefdoms, but I can't think of better training for actually being the mayor than efficiently running a county-wide operation. We could do well springboarding from that office.

So, no, it's not all downside in consolidation, but before I jump on board, somebody is going to have to help me wrap my mind around the blatant hypocrisy (and arguable racism) in how we choose what we abolish and what we keep.

Talk to me, people!



varangianguard said...

There are 92 Indiana counties and 1008 townships. Indiana counties range from four (Brown and Ohio) to twenty-one (LaPorte) townships in size. You have to get out beyond Marion County on this one.

And, if you think that it's one bad apple hiring his/her whole family to "work" in the Trustee's office, you are sadly mistaken.

I think your experiences are overly-colored by Julia Carson's tenure here in Center Township, Marion County. She was the exception to the rule.

Mann Law, P.C. said...

I do not see any mention of small claims courts in your blog. One rumor, is eventually they will be replaced with 2 superior courts in the City-County building. A brief look at the bill looks like they will be taking the money for the general fund or at least a part of it. I think many politicians want some of the constable salaries, which currently costs the taxpayers nothing and use it for their pet projects. The small claims courts have many faults but can you imagine all those hearings being handled by 2 Superior court judges? What judge do you know would even hear the cases?

Chris Worden said...


I'm such a homebody! Thanks for weighing in.


Anonymous said...

Good politics, bad public policy

Koz said...

While I am just getting into this issue, I think consolidation is a good goal but don't see the harm in letting each county deciding for themselves.

Having grown up in Cleveland OH, I can see the difference Unigov made in the development of Indy versus Cleveland. Cleveland proper is fairly small, but the county (Cuyahoga) is estimated to be 15% larger than Marion. As a result, there are a bunch of 'cities' (fiefdoms) that fight amongst themselves to decrease efficiency. It is not just about admin costs, it is about decision making. You can not believe the decade long year fight between Cleveland and a 'city' in the county called Brook Park about expanding Cleveland's airport. This didn't happen (to my knowledge) when Indy expanded its airport.

However, I think the point about different counties are set up differently is valid and therefore it makes sense to go county by county.

I think in general shifting power to counties is a good idea, not just shifting up, but shifting down as well, especially if they are not affecting the state budgets.

Is there a case that not mandating county consolidation would hurt the state's finances or just the individuals paying property taxes in that county?

Reform Believer said...

Your philiosophy appears to be that if a "reform" doesn't perfectly satisfy you, then there should be no reform at all.

The facts are that there is a consensus on what to do with the trustees, but there is no such consensus on what to do with the school systems.

In politics you can seldom get everything that you want. Personally, I would like to see a Commision make a report on Indiana's bizarre Judicial system, but that is not likely to happen either.