Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin doesn't get any slack from her critics even when the office tries to be frugal.
Elgin said her office has won nearly $2.8 million in federal refunds in the last dozen years for the township's poor, whom she helped until they qualified for Social Security's Supplemental Security Income.
"That is recycled into our township assistance budget and helps reduce the cost of assistance to local residents," Elgin said.
Griffith Town Councilman Rick Ryfa said, "Their refunds are higher than many townships issue in total township relief."
A Times analysis of township records indicates the office under Trustee Mary Elgin spent $87.7 million between 2004 and 2010, about half of which went to direct assistance in the form of emergency shelter, heat and electricity, health care, food and burial services and to support a township bureaucracy that has shrunken to 82 employees from 230, but is still almost as large as the other 10 townships trustees' staffs combined.
Ryfa said he wishes the trustee's refunds meant a major reduction in Griffith property taxes, but almost every home is taxed to its maximum under state law. His town ponied up about $2 million in township poor relief last year, he said. He said that figure was reduced from $3 million in 2010 by state-mandated tax cuts.
He said he doesn't know how much poor relief Griffith residents received back last year, but in 2010 it was $11,000.
Elgin said this week Ryfa hasn't presented any evidence to back up his figures.
Ryfa said he got the data from a Griffith resident who obtained Calumet Township records through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Elgin said her office is open to requests for township assistance from Griffith residents, although they must justify their eligibility for help, just like any other township resident.
Elgin said Griffith's prosperity and its responsibilities under America's social contract to Gary's teeming poor is why it must contribute so heavily and get back so little in return.
The disparity between Griffith and the city of Gary, where most township residents live, is as stark as the disagreement among the two communities' leaders.
Gary's population of 80,221 is 85 percent black and nearly 36 percent are below the poverty line. The median home value is less than $70,000 and the median household income is $27,000.
On other side of Colfax Avenue, where the two communities touch, Griffith's 16,877 residents are 76 percent white, and fewer than 10 percent live in poverty. The median home and household income is about double Gary's.
Elgin said she has reduced township spending to less than $6 million this year, a fraction of the cost Griffith and the rest of the township had to bear under her predecessor Dozier Allen.
"We lowered our budget," Elgin said. "I've been paid the same salary ($88,000) since the day I walked in the door. Reform has always been on our mind."
Griffith is again petitioning the General Assembly to let the community depart the township.
Ryfa said he hopes House Bill 1585 will become law and a neighboring township trustee will take over its poor relief, but "if we did it ourselves, we would operate at no less than 10 percent of what we currently are contributing to the township, and we would try to get closer to 5 percent."
Ryfa said the baseline of a Griffith township assistance budget wouldn't be the bloated figures of the past, but rather a zero-based budget where every new dollar spent must be justified by need as defined by his community.
"I would employ practices used in St. John Township and North Township," Ryfa said. "We certainly would require people to work if they got aid. We would use every resource possible, like churches, and steer people in that area."
Elgin said she requires recipients to repay their benefits through workfare. She said her staff secures millions of dollars annually in benefits and services for the poor from sources outside the township.
Elgin said there is a real need for assistance in a city where the unemployment rate is 13.6 percent — and still rising. She also said Gary has a 42 percent poverty rate, according to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
"It's not that they don't want to work. They are always asking me if there are jobs. We train and put hundreds back to work," Elgin said.
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said some township trustees in Indiana make themselves difficult for the indigent to reach with out-of-the-way offices or irregular hours but Elgin does not. Rogers said Elgin sees her mission isn't solely to protect the taxpayer, but also to help the struggling and the disadvantaged.