INDIANAPOLIS | Griffith's latest attempt to divorce itself from Calumet Township cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.
A House committee voted 11-1 to send House Bill 1585 to the full chamber. The proposal sets conditions that would allow Griffith to leave Calumet Township and join either North or St. John townships.
State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, the sponsor of the legislation, said Griffith taxpayers currently contribute $1.7 million to Calumet Township for poor relief, but its residents get only between $10,000 and $15,000 back from the township. He said the township also has a long history of financial mismanagement.
"The people of Griffith have had enough," Slager said.
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin told the committee that she's repeatedly cut staff and services to reduce township expenses. She asked for more time to work with Griffith to find a way to keep the town in the township, which also includes parts of Gary, Lake Station and unincorporated Lake County.
"We are having a hard time and you have your feet on our throat and it's not fair," Elgin said.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson spoke in support of Calumet Township. She said the motives of Griffith leaders "are less than honorable" and "based in racism."
A recent investigation by The Times found Calumet Township spends more per resident than any other township in Indiana. Township board members earn $25,000 a year to attend a few meetings, and eight township staff members get take-home cars.
The legislation would allow Griffith to hold a referendum on leaving Calumet Township and joining another township if 30 percent of town voters signed a referendum petition.
Two-thirds of referendum voters then would have to support quitting Calumet Township to permit the separation.
Similar legislation has been considered by the General Assembly for the past five years but never made it into law.
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said he will try to kill this latest proposal when it is heard on the House floor.
Griffith officials said during Tuesday's Town Council meeting that they are pleased with the committee's vote.
"It was very encouraging to see it come out of the committee with an 11-1 vote," Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome said.
As the bill emerges on the full House floor, the hope is that it will not be watered down with attachments unrelated to the township issue, said council Vice President Rick Ryfa, R-3rd.
In addition, one representative would like to change the bill's language so that Griffith cannot form its own township if it is unable to join one of the others.
However, Jerome said he is not concerned about this.
"I feel pretty good that we'd have a place (an adjoining township) to go," he said.
Ryfa said council members will speak today with that representative and Slager about the bill's language.
"We'll get this resolved to everyone's satisfaction and move the bill forward," Ryfa said.
Slager and Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, have made strong efforts to push the bill, Jerome said.
"There's still work to do," said Council President Glen Gaby, R-1st. "(But) the first step is complete, and we're on our way."
Ryfa said if the bill is passed by both houses, signed by the governor and approved by residents, Griffith could be out of the township sometime next year.