Calumet Twp. suit claims Griffith secession law is unconstitutional

2014-01-27T16:30:00Z 2014-01-27T21:39:09Z Calumet Twp. suit claims Griffith secession law is unconstitutionalBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
January 27, 2014 4:30 pm  • 

GARY | Lawyers for Calumet Township officials are challenging the constitutionality of a 2013 state law that could force them to cut millions of dollars in assistance to Gary's neediest residents.

Trustee Mary Elgin and Dwight Gardner, a Gary resident, have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hammond contending the law, known as House Bill 1585, is improper special legislation to provide tax relief to the predominantly white town of Griffith at the expense of black Gary residents.

The law would reduce the millions of dollars paid annually to tens of thousands of township blacks to provide emergency shelter, rent, mortgage payments, transportation, utilities, health care, food and burial services to tens of thousands of residents requesting township assistance.

It also would permit Griffith, which provides much of Calumet Township assistance revenues, to hold a referendum to leave Calumet for another neighboring township and escape Calumet's high poor-relief tax rate -- more than 22 times the state average last year.

"HB 1585 fuels the flames and passions of prejudice to encourage and pit one community against another," the suit states.

It names Gov. Mike Pence and Micah G. Vincent, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, which would enforce the law, as defendants.

No court date has been set to resolve the dispute. Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the Indiana attorney general, said Monday his office routinely defends state legislation against such suits. A DLGF spokeswoman didn't return a call seeking comment.

The disputed legislation culminated in years of lobbying by Griffith town officials to divorce themselves from a township trustee who they complained leans too heavily on their community to fund overgenerous social services in Gary, where more than 1 in 3 residents live below the poverty line.

A Times investigation last year found Elgin's office spent nearly $88 million between 2004 and 2010. Mandated state tax cuts already have forced the township trustee's office to lay off 155 employees since 2003. Most Indiana township trustees have only a fraction of her staff and budget.

Griffith officials say their taxpayers have supplied more than $1.7 million annually to support Elgin's poor relief operation, though the town's residents get back less than $11,000 of that for their own needs.

"It appears many recipients receive benefits year after year, and others in desperate need are completely shut out of any relief," Griffith Town Councilman Rick Ryfa said.

"Instead of fixing the problem of reckless spending on administrative costs, and what may be an unfair distribution of benefits, the township continues to make wild accusations and deflect accountability. The people of Gary, Griffith and the entire township deserve better from government."

The law would only go into effect if Elgin cannot reduce the office's property tax rate that funds Calumet's township assistance to less than 12 times the average of the state's 1,008 townships. The DLGF hasn't yet made Lake County's 2014 tax rates public.

Failure to meet the tax rate threshold could trigger two things -- state oversight of the trustee's checkbook and, eventually, Griffith's potential departure from Calumet Township as early as 2016 if two thirds of Griffith's residents ratify the move through a referendum.

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