MARC CHASE: Cries of racism are deplorable smokescreen

2014-01-30T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Cries of racism are deplorable smokescreenMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
January 30, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Using claims of racism — a true scourge on society — as a shield against good fiscal governance is deplorable. So is wasting taxpayer money to legally defend the waste of the same taxpayer money.

Unfortunately, that's just what seems to be happening in a lawsuit filed by Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin's office against the state of Indiana.

Last year, the office fired off verbal claims of racism when Griffith town leaders and Indiana House Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, proposed legislation to curb long unchecked and out-of-control spending by the trustee's office.

That measure, known as HB 1585, became state law in the last legislative session. Now the trustee's office is suing the state, claiming the law unconstitutionally singles out Calumet Township and is motivated by tax relief for predominantly white Griffith at the expense of predominantly black Calumet Township.

"HB 1585 fuels the flames and passion of prejudice to encourage and pit one community against another," the recently filed lawsuit claims.

What the lawsuit doesn't state are the facts leading to this appropriate law — that the only thing feeding flames in Calumet Township are tax dollars shoveled into a blast furnace of patronage and waste.

The new law seeks to compel fiscal responsibility, a truly foreign concept to the trustee's office.

The township's poor assistance tax rate has been a whopping 22.64 times the state average, or about three times higher than the next highest Indiana township. Elgin told The Times last year about 43 cents for every dollar of poor assistance distributed by the office went to administrative costs — a ridiculously high proportion.

A Times investigation of the office's financial records between 2001 and 2009 revealed it spent $42 million on patronage employee salaries and benefits and $23 million in payments to business vendors for services. In that same time, $65 million went to actual poor assistance, a 50-50 split.

The law demands a more reasonable tax rate, no more than 12 times the state average. It also allows an emergency manager to take over any township if the rate isn't reduced to that level by 2014. Under the same law, Griffith could leave the township and join another if the rate isn't reduced to 12 times the state average by 2015.

So what's happened in the heat of the flames fanned by this new law?

Well, we learned in the summer Elgin had parked four of her office's take-home cars — vehicles previously funded at taxpayer expense that employees were allowed to take home with them. It was a small step, but a good one.

We don't know yet how close Elgin is to complying with the new tax-rate limits, but let the law do its work. Hopefully a judge will see Elgin's lawsuit for what it is — a frivolous claim of racism hurled in an attempt to preserve a status quo of waste.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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