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Trustees may go by wayside


January 20, 2010
Township government in Indiana could be in the hands of voters this fall if a bill that passed, 54-44, in the House a few days ago also gets the nod in the Senate.

The bill, labeled House Bill 1181, if passed, would put a referendum on the November ballot, letting voters decide to keep or eliminate the township trustees and advisory boards in the 1,006 townships in the state. If voters decide not to keep the current system, the responsibilities of the townships will be taken over by county governments. Those responsibilities include poor relief and fire departments.

"According to a group of county council members, they don't mind reviewing township budgets, but they don't want to write those budgets," State Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, said. "Things like assistance for the poor and fire departments, they said they're just not used to working with those.

"And the House has another piece of legislation that calls for a referendum in each township that is out of committee. And with each township making that choice, we could have a hodgepodge of governments in every county that would be totally confusing," he said.

"But the House will write their bill, and the Senate Republicans will write their bill, so it's really too early to tell what the final outcome will be."

But many believe that the system has been working well for years and think the poorest of the poor could be adversely affected.

"I've been a trustee in Whiskey Run Township for 39 years," Ron Spencer of Milltown said. "We used to assess personal property in the township — things like tractors and farm equipment — and even four-wheelers. Now, the county has no one checking that stuff. They just send out a tax bill based on the information they had the previous year. If someone buys a tractor and doesn't turn it in, the county can't collect taxes on it.

"I even collected the dog tax for 38 years. If someone had a cow or calf that was killed by dogs, I'd pay them for their animal out of the dog tax. But the legislators did away with all of that. It's all changed now and what we do mostly is poor relief. But I don't know what some people, like those who have lost jobs and are held up getting benefits, would do without us. Those families still have to eat."

Mae B. Parr, trustee of Boone Township in southern Harrison County, for the last eight years, agrees.

"I think there's a lot of people in rural counties who will miss us if those changes are made," she said. "I think what will happen is they'll turn it all over to the county and then the state will take it. But we need someone in the townships who knows the local people and what is needed.

"We're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week if someone needs something in an emergency. The courthouse and other agencies are closed at night, on holidays and on weekends. But people still get hungry, even on weekends," she said.

"This is one of the smallest townships in the county, but there's families here who need help at times. We help them out in an emergency with electric bills or food. And now, with the economy so bad and people losing jobs, there's people who are hungry. Someone has to make sure the babies and families have something to eat."

Trustees are elected every four years, but many have held the positions for years. Few people want to take on the responsibilities.

"They do a much-needed service for the county," Terry Stroud, Crawford County Circuit Court clerk, said. "It's not going to help anyone to get rid of the trustees. It just doesn't make sense."

"We see families with three or four kids who need help," Spencer added. "Sometimes they're cold and need heat. It often takes a lot of time to get food stamps or other help, so that's where we come in. I feel sorry for the kids, but I don't think the state does."

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