DOUG ROSS: Calumet Twp.'s plight should inspire Pence

2014-03-07T00:00:00Z DOUG ROSS: Calumet Twp.'s plight should inspire PenceBy Doug Ross doug.ross@nwi.com, (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 nwitimes.com

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin is running for re-election, but she's not running from controversy. Neither should Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Elgin met Thursday afternoon with The Times Editorial Board to address criticism — by me, among others — over township spending.

Elgin was spotted using her township-owned vehicle to visit her campaign headquarters. That raised all sorts of questions about the township's fleet.

The fleet has shrunk dramatically since Elgin took office 11 years ago. But cutting spending remains urgent.

The township is under the gun to reduce spending on poor relief to no more than 12 times the state average. If not, Griffith could hold a referendum on seceding from Calumet Township. That would ease the tax burden in Griffith but exacerbate it elsewhere.

Between property tax caps and the incredibly low property tax collection rate, hitting that target is harder than it looks.

Calumet Township has to ask for twice as much as it expects to collect because the tax collection rate is so low. That's a rare problem in Indiana.

Elgin is suing Indiana to set aside this state law.

She makes a good argument in saying the township needs more guidance from the state in determining eligibility for assistance.

"The statute says every 30 days they're eligible, but the state says we do too much," she complained.

She said each intake interview with a client to determine eligibility takes 45 minutes. That's 60,000 man-hours a year for Calumet Township, she said.

It's also an opportunity for Pence.

Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels tried to streamline the welfare intake process by hiring IBM to handle it. It was a failure.

When IBM was gearing up, though, it turned to Calumet Township for advice, said Alex Wheeler, who heads the township's Job Search Works program.

Pence could capitalize on this situation. He should appoint a blue ribbon panel to study welfare in its various forms, including township assistance, with an eye toward making the process more efficient.

Daniels did that for local government reform. Not all of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations were implemented, and I'll keep reminding both elected officials and the public about the remaining reforms Indiana needs.

But that report did set the bar for reform, which is what welfare — everything from urgent rent and utility bill assistance to health care bills — needs.

One of the outcomes of a comprehensive welfare study should be to shift the township assistance tax burden from the township to the state. Calumet Township, with its concentrated poverty, is the poster child for this.

This blue ribbon, bipartisan panel could be Pence's opportunity to shape the future of welfare in Indiana for the next generation. What an appropriate way to honor the state's bicentennial in 2016.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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