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A case study in the need for local government reform

By Scott Tibbs, September 18, 2008

On September 9, the Herald-Times reported:

Last year, (Brown County) commissioners Stephanie Yager and Blake Wolpert supported and voted to establish a fire district and a board to oversee the fire departments. The district has taxing power and received preliminary approval Aug. 28 from the state to levy taxes of up to $166,000 for 2009 and up to $420,000 for 2010 to fund the operation.

The Brown County Council considered the $166,000 budget request for the district, but refused to authorize any money for it. The fire district was very unpopular and a petition against it had hundreds of signatures. Whether the fire district is good policy or not, the Brown County Council certainly followed the will of their constituents.

What this does demonstrate is the disjointed nature of county government. The county commissioners have legislative and administrative power, but the county council has budgetary authority. County government in Indiana also has several mostly administrative offices that are elected, including Clerk, Surveyor, Auditor, Coroner, Treasurer, Recorder and Assessor. While city government has a mayor who appoints a chief of police, county government has an elected Sheriff. Indiana's antiquated system of county government needs reform.

First, legislative and administrative powers should be separated. There should be a single county commissioner with administrative authority and a county council with legislative and budgetary authority. This would probably be the easiest reform for the state legislature to make, and would make county government more in line with the separation of powers model used in city, state and federal government.

I'm not entirely convinced that we should eliminate township government altogether. I've praised the Bloomington Township Fire Department in the past, and BTFD's hazmat capabilities proved to be a valuable resource during the local anthrax scares of 2001. Government that is closer to the people tends to be more accountable because it takes fewer votes to swing the results of an election. If county government took over all fire protection, would it be managed better or worse than in the past? Making property assessment consistent through consolidation made a lot of sense, especially with a county assessor already in place.

I doubt we will have one sweeping reform package completely overhaul county government. That is probably for the best. While reform is needed, it is wise to take an incremental approach and change the structure of county government slowly over time. Changing the structure of county government itself will be easier, and also probably has more broad-based public support, than consolidation of township and county government. That will certainly be easier than reducing the number of counties. Separating legislative and executive functions, and making many of the elected positions into appointed positions, should be the first order of business when 2009 legislative session opens in January. With the next elections a year away, that is a perfect time for reform.