INDIANAPOLIS | Griffith leaders were ecstatic Friday after Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed into law mandatory reductions in Calumet Township spending and a path for Griffith to exit the township if its excessive spending continues.
"After many years of trying, we're finally going to get needed relief from the township," said Rick Ryfa, a Griffith town councilman.
House Enrolled Act 1585 gives Calumet Township until the end of the year to reduce its township assistance tax rate used for poor relief programs to no more than 12 times the state average. It is currently 22.64 times the state average, a rate nearly three times greater than the next-highest township.
If the township does not reduce its assistance tax rate by 2014, the Indiana Distressed Unit Appeals Board then can appoint an emergency manager to run the township, which includes parts of Griffith, Gary, Lake Station and unincorporated Lake County.
In 2015, if the township assistance tax rate remains above 12 times the state average, Griffith is entitled to hold a referendum on leaving Calumet Township and joining another.
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin did not respond to a message seeking comment on the new law. Several Lake County members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus previously suggested the proposal was racially motivated and urged Pence to veto it.
State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, and state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, said good government, not racism, is the reason they sponsored the legislation.
An investigation by The Times found that Calumet Township spends more on poor relief than any other township in the state — mostly on staff costs. For example, Griffith residents pay $1.7 million in annual township taxes but get only about $10,000 in township services.
The township has more employees than every other Lake County township combined and spent $45 million over the past 10 years to distribute $64 million in poor relief.
Pence on Friday also signed Senate Bill 585 thawing the Lake County property tax levy freeze, setting qualifications for Gary airport board members and providing for studies of region economic development projects.
The law's removal of the cap on total tax collections by all local governments in Lake County, known as their levies, is already moot as approval of a county income tax lifted the levy freeze automatically.
Other provisions in the law are expected to help set the course for the region's economic future, including a bustling airport, a new Lake Michigan port and a trauma hospital in Gary. The law also requires a study of whether the Port of Indiana should pay Portage for municipal services it uses.
The measure passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature without a single "no" vote.
It was sponsored by state Sens. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, Earline Rogers, D-Gary, Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, and Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago; as well as state Reps. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and Slager.