Public outcry over rising property taxes could lead to a major reorganization of Indiana’s local governments.
Reorganization is recommended by a report of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, informally known as the “Kernan-Shepard” report. The report calls for more streamlined, cost-efficient local government. Currently, there are more than 3,000 local governments and more than 10,000 elected officials in Indiana.
Last summer Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appointed former Gov. Joe Kernan (D) and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard to head a bipartisan commission to study the state’s government operations. Anger over soaring property taxes was a major impetus.
The commission conducted a series of hearings with the goal of finding ways to cut wasteful spending.
Daniels called the findings a “terrific roadmap” for keeping property taxes down. They were issued in December through the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University.
The report made 27 recommendations. Some, such as moving funding for child welfare from the county to the state, and moving all municipal elections to even-numbered years, seem to face little opposition. Others, including abolishing most county elected officials and eliminating township government, have sparked heated debate.
The report called Indiana’s government “antiquated” and “designed for the realities of a state more than a century and a half ago.”
Ray Scheele, a professor of political science at Ball State University, called Indiana’s 1851 constitution a “hydra-headed monster” written in an era of Jacksonian democracy.
“The constitution’s authors believed in the long ballot. Their philosophy was the cure for democracy was more democracy,” Scheele said. “That meant electing everybody.”
Later, Theodore Roosevelt and his reformist, Progressive message took hold in the early twentieth century. Many elected administrative offices were seen as a source of corruption and patronage, and states began abolishing them.
“For the most part, Indiana ignored the Progressive era. Patronage was a way of life,” said Scheele.
Single County Executive
The report suggests counties scrap their elected three-member board of commissioners in favor of a single elected county executive. The county executive would provide “a single point of leadership, contact, and accountability,” the report states. Additionally, the duties of the county council would be expanded to make it the legislative unit of county government.
The reorganization is modeled in part after reforms in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh. In 1998, the county’s board of commissioners was replaced by an elected county executive and county council. Recently, voters approved a second referendum abolishing most elected county offices and allowing the county executive to oversee those responsibilities.
Kevin Evanto, director of communication for Allegheny County, said the changes proved beneficial and cost-effective. So far, $1 million has been saved, with more expected once the additional offices are consolidated in 2008.
‘Makes Perfect Sense’
Henry County, Indiana Councilman Nate LaMar, a Republican, welcomed the recommendations.
“I think it’s great. It makes perfect sense,” LaMar said, noting taxpayers are demanding government spend less and become more efficient.
However, he believes implementing some proposals will be difficult.
“It will take courageous elected officials not only willing to give up their own offices but also urge their colleagues to do the same,” said LaMar.
Opposition to Appointments
Among other things, the Kernan-Shepard report recommends the now independently elected county clerk, recorder, treasurer, coroner, surveyor, auditor, and sheriff be appointed by the county executive.
Marion County Assessor Greg Bowes, a Democrat, said he supports many of the recommendations. However, he said his fellow county assessors are “up in arms” over the proposal to make their positions appointed. He said they feel an elected assessor would be closer to voters than a political appointee.
Marion County Clerk Beth White, a Democrat, is also opposed to making her position appointed. She told the Indianapolis Star the state has a “very strong local-control culture. This is a bold move away from that.”
Fears of Cronyism
Bowes believes the report’s goal is to de-politicize county government but fears the opposite might happen.
“How can there be a guarantee the County Executive will hire these people based on merit and not politics? How do you know it won’t be political payback for helping on the campaign?” Bowes asked.
Wayne County Commissioner Ken Paust, a Republican, called the proposals “sweeping.” He thinks replacing the commissioners with a single executive “could work very well.” Wayne County has already instituted some of the 27 recommendations, Paust noted, such as establishing a countywide 911 dispatch system.
Paust believes making the other elected offices appointed could prove difficult.
“You will see the various associations who represent these officeholders lobby the legislature to keep things they way they are,” Paust said.
David Bottorff of the Association of Indiana Counties said in a statement, “Local government needs to remain accessible. People are very comfortable entering their local courthouses or county offices and appreciate finding a responsive elected official.”
No Savings Estimates
Absent from the report was any estimate of how much money would be saved if the recommendations were implemented.
Scheele believes if any reforms are enacted, the state legislature will allow voters to choose which system works best for their county.
“One size doesn’t fit all. What works in Indianapolis might not work in Gnaw Bone,” Scheele said.
Paust is not as optimistic about some of the other proposals being implemented, citing a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. He pointed to a previous study recommending government be reorganized, including eliminating elected assessors.
That study, which received scant attention, was published in 1935.
Nick Baker ([email protected]) is legislative specialist for budget and tax issues at The Heartland Institute.
For more information …
“Streamlining Local Government: We’ve got to stop governing like this,” Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22629