Taxpayer resistance drives debate on costs of township assistance spending

2013-03-17T00:00:00Z 2013-03-17T22:47:07Z Taxpayer resistance drives debate on costs of township assistance spendingBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
March 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The ignored but essential service of feeding, sheltering and burying Northwest Indiana's neediest township residents is being thrust into public over its cost to region taxpayers.

The General Assembly is expected to mull a proposal this week to rein in the more than $13 million in public money earmarked by 23 township trustees across Lake and Porter County to annual payments to the tens of thousands living below the poverty level. For these residents, federal welfare is either temporarily unattainable or not enough.

Calumet Township alone requested $8.9 million in property taxes last year to deal with the entrenched poverty and unemployment of Gary's city residents – 220 times the state average. 

Griffith residents who must supply $2 million of that amount renewed their request to secede from Calumet Township and join another to avoid the burden which has most of them paying the maximum amount of property taxes allowed under law.

Legislation to give Griffith permission to leave was amended this week to turn the legislature's focus on any township with an assistance levy 10 times the state average.

That amendment would ultimately impose state-directed restrictions on not only Calumet, but also North Township – which consists of East Chicago, Hammond, Whiting, Munster and Highland – in Lake County and Portage Township in Porter County.

That briefly infuriated North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan.

"North Township is not in the same category of poor relief as Calumet," he said. "We have done nothing but be efficient and effective in our use of poor relief and making people accountable. Administratively, it costs us 12 cents to administer a $1 of all our services we provide.

"Now I'm in jeopardy. I would have to reduce my poor relief by 60 percent. I would have to take $2 million away from it and still provide poor relief assistance. Its is insanity as written," Mrvan said.

However, State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, the Senate sponsor of the amendment, indicated he is willing to make adjustments to ensure only Calumet's outsized tax rate would trigger the law, if passed.

Mrvan said he is relieved to hear that, but remains eager to explain to the public that poor relief can be administered as efficiently as the same work done by private charities.

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin insists Calumet is as frugal as many township, but she must follow state law, which requires her to investigate all requests for assistance.

She said she was sued in 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union when reductions in property tax revenue forced her to reduce township assistance spending. She said she had to revert to her original assistance policies to avoid a protracted and costly legal battle.

There is no dispute township trustees have wide latitude under state law to determine who is eligible for assistance and how much assistance each individual or family can receive.

Township Assistance reports released by the Indiana State Board of Accounts between 2008 and 2012 indicate 37,026 Calumet Township recipients received benefits valued at $21,439,100 for an average of $579 per recipient.

North Township provided $4,159,408 to 63,347 over the same five year period for an average of $66 per recipient.

Mrvan said he keeps township assistance expenses low by aggressively pushing recipients toward self sufficiency, some often achieved within six months.

Other townships give less.

"The most we give is $200 toward utilities and $200 toward rent for a family unless there is some other extraordinary circumstance," Nina Rivas, chief of staff for the Portage Township Trustee's office said. "The distributed an average of $263 per recipient in recent years."

Pleasant Township Trustee Jean Oehlman in southeast Porter County said a lot of people are involved.

"Sometimes it's a real team effort to pay someone's rent because I can't do the whole thing. We get help from the churches, American Legion and others," she said. "I don't like to see recipients every month. My annual budget is $15,000."

Boone Township Trustee Russell Franzman said low-income housing developments in the town of Hebron boost his township assistance spending over those of other rural townships. 

"We will help people four times a year, unless they find it through another source or there is an emergency event. If their electricity is going to be shut off tomorrow, we try to work with them," Franzman said.

 

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