GARY | Calumet Township taxpayers have provided their trustee with many helping hands during the most recent decade.
A Times computer-assisted analysis of the office's 2010 payroll shows there was room on the trustee's staff for 17 administrative assistants, eight assistant deputies, six maintenance assistants, five shelter assistants, two assistant maintenance supervisors and a lone job-search workfare assistant.
Collectively, those assistants were paid about $1.1 million that year.
The plethora of assistants helped swell the Calumet Township payroll to 135 employees in 2010.
Though that number dropped to 82 employees by 2012, it still is about as many as all the other 10 Lake County townships' employees combined.
Those numbers have garnered the criticism of some region political leaders, who believe the township is the poster child for bloated government and waste.
But Trustee Mary Elgin said her staff used to be much larger and that she has taken austerity measures in recent years.
"I had 230 when I took office (in 2003). I'm at 82 at the moment," Elgin said.
Making the cuts?
Elgin said she trimmed her budget by 23 people when she first took office and was greeted with a lawsuit claiming they were political firings. All but one of the suits were thrown out of court for lack of evidence. The remaining one was settled privately.
Elgin concedes many of the later payroll cuts were forced on her by state-mandated property tax relief that has reduced the township's previous revenue stream by more than half.
But township records obtained by the The Times indicate combined salaries and benefits, which averaged $4.5 million annually between 2001 and 2010, contributed to an administrative overhead of an office that never employed fewer than 135.
Over the 10 years analyzed by The Times, those salaries accounted for $45 million in taxpayer dollars.
And even with recent cuts, Calumet Township remains a giant among other townships in the state in terms of both payroll size and expenditures.
North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan has the next largest body of employees at 46, a little more than half the size of Elgin's township ranks.
Meanwhile, Mrvan administers to a population that is 36 percent larger than Elgin's constituency.
Like Elgin's workforce, the North Township employees have dwindled in numbers in recent years. But the North Township employment figures were never as large as those of Calumet Township in recent years.
"We were approximately at 74 or 75 people, and through retirement and the tax caps and frozen levy, we are where we are at 46," Mrvan said. "We have a lot of volunteers with workforces and other things."
At the top of the Calumet Township payroll over the decade reviewed by The Times stands Trustee Mary Elgin, who earned $88,000 a year.
In North Township, Mrvan is paid $78,000 annually, all while administering to a larger population.
Calumet Township's three board members were paid $25,000 a year each to attend a handful of meetings connected with the once-a-year budget approval for the township.
Those salaries -- and the size of the Calumet Township workforce -- are a contrast to the bodies of government performing similar roles in the state, an Indiana township official said.
"The majority of (Indiana's 1,008) townships are very small," said Debbie Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association. "In fact, many trustees operate out of their own homes, with only a handful to assist people with basic necessities."
Rosemary Morrow, the newest trustee of Eagle Creek Township, has only one employee to process the few claims for assistance for this rural section of Lake County between Hebron and Lowell, home to fewer than 1,700 people.
But Elgin said her office is as large as needed to deal with a high concentration of destitution where one in three of the township's 104,000 residents live below the poverty level.
"Other townships aren't servicing 150 people per day," she said.
Relief vs. overhead
Calumet Township provided an average of $6.5 million annually in food, emergency shelter and long-term housing, electrical service and heat, job training and placement, emergency medical care and burial for the township's poorest residents to an average of 9,800 recipients per year during the 10 years analyzed by The Times.
By contrast, the office's payroll for administering that relief averaged about $4.5 million annually, just $2 million less than what it cost to provide township services.
The high administrative overhead in relation to the assistance provided the poor has fueled criticism that township trustee operations in general are much less efficient than the best private charities.
Chief among the critics has been Griffith Town Councilman Rick Ryfa, whose town falls within Calumet Township.
"I don't know why they need all the cars and the volume of employees," Ryfa said. "The administrative costs are the biggest reason our taxes are so high. A study shows 85 percent of all our homes in town are at the tax cap."
The General Assembly has placed upper limits, called caps, on the amount of taxes any one property can be assessed.
But Elgin persists that her payroll and expenses are large because the need is great in her township.
Gary's unemployment rate hovered at 13.2 percent in November, more than 60 percent higher than the rest of the state.
"If you are a citizen and a community resident, you can walk in that door and ask for assistance, and we are required by law to give it to you if you are eligible," she said.
Job titles galore
Many of the office's employees have job titles indicating their responsibilities are directed at handling that crowd of people in need for verifying eligibility and delivering help to the one in 10 who qualify for relief.
Those employees include more than 40 intake clerks, general assistance supervisors, investigative inquiry investigators, claims processors, job counselors, job search/workfare deputies and supervisory appeal hearing officers.
"We may have 10 service representatives working on the crowd of claimants in the course of a day," Elgin said. "A person coming in for assistance may not have the information or is hesitant to give it ...
"You cannot approve a person for assistance without getting information they are eligible, and state law requires us to make a decision within 72 hours."
Still, a number of Calumet Township jobs appear to have little to do with providing poor relief.
During the 10 years of data analyzed by The Times, the township employed more than 20 with jobs in building maintenance and technical support and a deputy of buildings and vehicles to manage the township's properties. The buildings managed by the township once stood at six but now are down to three.
The township also maintains a vehicle fleet that includes eight take-home cars for select employees.
At least one of the buildings is a township-run emergency shelter for the homeless, and the payroll lists at least one part-time building manager, who was paid $28,500 in 2002 under former Calumet Trustee Dozier Allen, to be the live-in supervisor of the shelter's residents on the weekends.
There also were more than 40 employees with miscellaneous titles that extend beyond working with township relief services, including front-desk clerks, a switchboard operator, several finance assistants, client vendor processors, order-writers, an administrative assistant of policies and research and an executive secretary to the trustee.
They also include an administrative assistant, who was paid at least $51,500 between 2001 and 2002, but who was laid off in 2003 by then incoming Trustee Mary Elgin.
The assistant sued Elgin, claiming to be a victim of a political firing. Elgin's attorneys were able to have her case thrown out of court.
They argued the assistant's real job was to do public relations for then-Trustee Dozier Allen. They said the assistant busied herself by preparing condolence letters to bereaved families in Dozier Allen's name, searched newspapers for any mention of Allen's office, writing his speeches and even compiled information for a political science book highlighting Allen's accomplishments as trustee.