INDIANAPOLIS | Griffith is halfway toward winning legislative permission to hold a referendum on whether to leave Calumet Township and join another Lake County township.
The Indiana House on Tuesday voted 66-32 for House Bill 1585, which sets up a path for Griffith to achieve its goal of reclaiming the millions of tax dollars it pays to Calumet Township every year but for which its residents receive just thousands of dollars in poor relief.
"They just want to pay a reasonable amount of tax, and I would venture to say that if they thought that money was being judiciously spent we wouldn't be having this conversation," said state Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, sponsor of the legislation.
Slager told the House of a recent investigation by The Times that found Calumet Township spent $45 million over 10 years on administration to distribute $64 million in poor relief, the highest proportion of any Indiana township.
Calumet Township board members also earn $25,000 a year to attend a few meetings, compared to the state norm of about $500. Eight township employees have take-home cars, he said.
"Sometimes bold action is required," Slager said. "This vote is about good government and empowering a community to shop for something better."
The Northwest Indiana House delegation split on the vote, with six region representatives voting "yes" for Griffith and seven voting "no" to preserve Calumet Township, which also includes parts of Gary, Lake Station and unincorporated Lake County.
Two of the "no" votes, state Reps. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, both said allowing Griffith to leave the township would set a dangerous precedent and devastate Gary.
"This is a community in the state of Indiana that is poorer than any other community," Lawson said. "They have the lowest income, they have high unemployment and I'm speaking for those people — they're poor and they need our help."
Brown and state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, who also voted "no," said that at every level of government taxpayers rarely get back what they pay into the system.
"That is what this whole society is based on, that we contribute to the whole and hopefully we get less back than we give up," Smith said.
But state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, the only region Democrat who voted "yes," said Griffith taxpayers are being forced to pay much more than their fair share.
"Nobody wants to see people suffer, but the town of Griffith is bearing the burden of carrying township poor relief, and it's not fair to them to have to pay 15 times the state average," Candelaria Reardon said. "The citizens of Griffith deserve to spend some of their tax money in their own town."
The legislation now advances to the Senate, where similar House-approved legislation to aid Griffith died in 2011 at the hands of state Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary.
Rogers said Tuesday that she will do what she can to make that happen again.
"I am just am in opposition to a town being able to secede and join another township," Rogers said. "I think we can do a better job of finding a solution that will be amenable to both sides."
State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, who led a summer study committee hearing on the Griffith-Calumet Township issue, is Senate sponsor of the legislation.