Calumet Township is rich in poverty

2013-01-06T00:00:00Z 2014-03-13T16:24:04Z Calumet Township is rich in povertyBill Dolan, (219) 662-5328
January 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Hidden away among Lake County's many courthouses, city and town halls, along with state and federal government offices, are political subdivisions rarely seen on any map.

Most of 11 elected township trustees and their meager staffs quietly go about the work of helping the poor and ensuring fire and ambulance service in far corners of the county under the names: Calumet, Center, Cedar Creek, Eagle Creek, Hanover, Hobart, North, Ross, St. John, West Creek and Winfield.

But Calumet is a township with a capital T.

Until recently, the office of Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin owned and operated a chain of homeless shelters, a fleet of 46 township-owned vehicles and has been home to as many as 230 clerks, claims processors, job-search deputies, recordkeepers, order-writers, investigators, building managers, front-desk and switchboard workers and assistants.

This crew was paid $4.2 million annually between 2001 and 2010 in return for processing at least 365,000 requests for help. They bestowed at least $64 million of food, emergency shelter and longer-term housing, electrical service and heat, job training and placement, emergency medical care and burial services over that decade.

During these years, the township generated at least $24 million in business for hundreds of merchants and consultants ranging from $2.4 million for health and casualty insurance for its many employees and real estate holdings, to $60 for Build-A-Bear items.

Debate about the cost-effectiveness of Indiana township government in general and controversy about the spending practices of Calumet Township in particular prompted The Times to focus on this often overlooked branch of local government.

The 2007 "blue ribbon" report of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform concluded, "Townships often are too small, in terms of land area and population, to provide cost-effective public services."

It recommended abolishing all 1,008 township trustees in the state and letting county government take over their responsibilities -- something that has yet to happen.

But in the eyes of Griffith officials, Calumet Township is inefficient because it is too large and spendthrift, and they are again lobbying the General Assembly to escape the crushing burden that has resulted in maximum tax bills for 85 percent of the town's homesteads.

Town Councilman Rick Ryfa said Calumet's property tax rates are 34 times the state average. Griffith taxpayers forwarded $2.97 million to the trustee's office for use as township poor relief, but the town's residents received back less than $11,000 in township assistance.

"I spent hours dissecting their records and still can't figure out where the money is going," Ryfa said. "Maybe they don't know where the money is going, either."

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin said Ryfa is only one of many who overestimate the township's spending and underestimate her.

"It's easy to use unfair numbers and claim to be more responsible than me and tell me I'm wrong when I'm not," Elgin said. "It frustrates me when everybody wants to make judgments about Calumet Township, but they aren't walking in my shoes.

"We serve desperate people who we cannot deny if they prove they have a need."

She said she inherited a bloated operation from former trustee, Dozier Allen Jr. She said she has closed township buildings, downsized her staff and fleet of take-home cars, reduced her budget by $4 million last year and fought unsuccessfully with state officials to recognize her austerities.

Need for reform, discerning actual costs at issue

Although the push to abolish township government, sparked by the 2007 report, has likely ended now with the departure of reform-minded former Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana General Assembly is expected to consider new legislation, proposed by Griffith, to cap Calumet Township spending, or permit Griffith to divorce its tax rate from the trustee's.

Township government predates Indiana's 1816 creation. Of its 1,008 trustees, 95 percent still oversee rural, sparsely populated sections and will spend less than $1 million in taxes this year.

Lake County's Hanover Township, occupying the western shore of Cedar Lake, is typical.

"My staff is me, a chief deputy and two clerks," Hanover Township Trustee Mitchel Lopez said. "We get an average of three requests per day. We try to offer them private services rather than handouts. Everybody who does receive assistance from this office works it back in the food pantry. Assistance is a matter of trying to get them back up on their feet and have them off by two months."

He will likely spend less than $600,000 this year.

The trustee for Calumet, which embraces Gary, Griffith and five square miles no municipality has annexed, has proposed a 2013 budget of $10.2 million, its smallest in more than decade, but still larger than all but five so-called metro townships around the state.

The Indiana State Board of Accounts reported the trustee's office spent a total of at least $360 million since 2003. Other state officials said Calumet is scheduled to spend about $100 per resident -- many times larger than the state average -- this year.

North Township plans to spend $41.75 per resident, on services in East Chicago, Hammond, Highland, Munster and Whiting. North's population is 36 percent larger than Calumet's.

Elgin said those state-generated figures are wildly exaggerated -- the result of bookkeeping protocols that count the same dollars multiple times. Her office records indicate spending levels at only a fraction of that state figure.

The Calumet Township trustee's office grew to its larger-than-life size under Dozier Allen who who took office in 1970 as the region's steel-related industries began shedding jobs in the thousands in the face of increasing automation and overseas competition.

Elgin, a steelworker and union official for 30 years at what is now ArcelorMittal, decided to take on Allen in the 2002 Democratic primary.

"There was a young lady working at my union hall almost homeless and in such a desperate situation the state was going to take her three children away. I saw many desperate people. I was so angry I looked at (Allen's) budget, and they had $24 million. I thought there was a better way."

She said between 100 and 200 apply daily for assistance. "People ask us to keep their household lights on for families with children or to pay the mortgage since there was no compassion when banks were going through their foreclosure," Elgin said.

"Who else buys mattresses for them when their old one has bed bugs? Who buys school clothes for these kids? We are an emergency provider. It must be done by 72 hours." Elgin said.

In theory, township assistance is supposed to be brief, with recipients returning to self-sufficiency or qualifying for more permanent welfare benefits. Elgin said in reality it becomes a way of life, passed down from generation to generation.

While few dispute the township's ingrained poverty, the cost of administering that aid has raised hackles over the years.

The late Philippa Cody Tolliver, who served on the township board of advisers, wrote to the Indiana State Board of Accounts in 2006, complaining, "There is a culture of family nepotism, political cronyism and perhaps worse. ... These questionable spending practices have taken priority over serving the poor and protecting the taxpayer ... no-bid contractual payments to questionable technical companies ... questionable travel and education expenses for certain employees."

Cody sued to tighten the township board's control over the trustee's spending, but a federal judge dismissed it as having no legal merit.

Elgin said Cody and other opponents in Griffith and downstate are better at generating rhetoric than facts.

"I don't understand why there is such a constant attack on Calumet Township. I wish that effort was put into helping us improve these people's life," Elgin said.

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