Cal Twp. trustee parks staff's take-home cars

2013-07-10T12:49:00Z 2013-07-11T16:00:04Z Cal Twp. trustee parks staff's take-home carsBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
July 10, 2013 12:49 pm  • 

GARY | Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin has parked much of her office's fleet of take-home cars in response to criticism over the high cost of its public relief services.

Elgin announced Wednesday four cars assigned to her staff no longer will be driven home by her employees.

"I hope this will abate the political noise surrounding these vehicles. I've taken enough heat over them," she said in a written statement.

She said the four 2004 Ford Taurus vehicles were a minimal cost to the taxpayers because her employees personally paid for gas and repairs. "But the vehicles became political fodder when the media and politicians such as Rick Ryfa of the Griffith Town Council started harping about them a few years ago," her release states.

Ryfa responded Wednesday, "That's a little like shutting the barn door after the horse is gone."

Elgin is under pressure to cut millions from her next budget under a new state law lobbied for by Griffith town officials who say they are unfairly burdened with some of the highest tax rates in the state to subsidize poor relief services their residents rarely use.

The law, signed by Gov. Mike Pence in May, forces Elgin to reduce the office's property tax rate that funds its township assistance program to less than 12 times the average of the state's 1,008 townships. Calumet Township currently is at 22.6 times the state average, the Legislative Service Agency estimates.

A Times investigation of her office earlier this year found her office had eight take-home cars, spent more than $12 million annually on all services, including more than $21 million in emergency shelter, utilities, health care, food and burial services in the past four years alone to 37,000 Calumet Township recipients.

Elgin has said her office must demand above-average tax rates because of declining property tax revenues and state laws mandating her to assist many of the 1 in 3 Gary residents who live below the poverty line.

She said high unemployment, which is out of her control, propels the problem and denounced the new law as "drafted specifically to punish Calumet Township."

If Elgin fails to reduce the tax rates on her own, the state's Distressed Unit Appeals Board could audit and direct cost-cutting for the township payroll and vendor contracts.

Failure to meet the tax-rate threshold also would trigger another provision of the law allowing the town of Griffith to shift its community of 17,000 from Calumet Township to another adjoining township as early as 2016, if two-thirds of Griffith's residents ratify the move through a referendum.

Elgin said she will ask township attorney Ragen Hatcher to research ways to dispose of the four cars.

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