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Abolish township government?

By Scott Tibbs, January 10, 2008

One of the ideas that Governor Mitch Daniels has to reform and streamline local government is the elimination of township government. I think it would be a good idea to consolidate property assessment within the County Assessor's office. Right now, we have 12 different elected assessors in Monroe County, one for each township and county government. In some of the smaller townships, the trustee is responsible for assessment. With one office handling all assessment duties, it would bring greater efficiency and consistency to the process, provided it is organized well.

But we should not completely eliminate township government, which provides other important services such as fire protection and poor relief. Bloomington Township has stood out for years as an example of an excellent township fire department. In the anthrax scares of 2001, it was the Bloomington Township Fire Department's hazmat unit which was called to Wright Quad on the Indiana University campus and downtown Bloomington on separate occasions. The Bloomington Township Fire Department has also constructed a modern, versatile "burn building" to effectively train firefighters from Bloomington Township and other townships, as well as being a safer and more environmentally friendly training facility.

As former Monroe County Democrat Party chairman and current Perry Township Trustee Dan Combs pointed out in a January 7 letter to the editor, township government has been very effective in providing for those less fortunate. Perry Township has taken the lead in supporting social service organizations provide for those less fortunate, including moving Community Kitchen "into a modern commercial kitchen", creating "a modern purpose-designed facility" for the homeless to replace the house where people were staying, and arranging for a "modern, grocery store-type facility" for Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. That organization "now serves 1,400 people a week."

That said, I do have serious qualms about providing taxpayer dollars to social service organizations, and would prefer that such organizations not become entangled with government. It would be better for organizations like Community Kitchen and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard to be completely funded by private donations, where people choose which organizations to support with their donations, and have Perry Township's budget be completely separate. However, there is no questioning the effectiveness of Perry Township in providing for those in need. Would city or county government be as effective as Perry Township has been?

It wasn't until I ran for Bloomington Township Board in 2006 that I fully grasped the importance of township government to the people it serves. Township government is the closest form of government to the people and therefore the most accountable to citizen concerns. The township trustee is often the last resort for people who are about to run out of food or have their utilities shut off. Would these services be as effective if they were centralized into one department in county government? Would county government be able to effectively manage the various fire departments in the townships, and how would they be merged into a single county fire department? Which department within county government would handle fire protection?

There are certainly things we can do to improve local government. We can make county government more professional and less political by having county offices such as Auditor, Surveyor, Treasurer, Recorder and Assessor appointed rather than elected. While I oppose "unigov", it is a good idea to look at duplication of service and where it makes sense for city and county government to cooperate. Eliminating township government would not only fail to achieve more efficiency, it would likely make things worse by having everything centralized within county government. This is one reform that is not a reform at all.