MARC CHASE: Elgin drives home need for reform in township car

2014-03-04T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Elgin drives home need for reform in township carMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
March 04, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin keeps driving home the need for the very state law she seeks to relegate to the scrapyard.

As Elgin attempts to thwart — via pending lawsuit — a 2013 state law requiring her to cut spending and bring her township's exorbitant tax rate down to more reasonable levels, she's still tooling around town in a taxpayer-funded car, by her own admission on errands of personal business.

Some of you probably saw the report last week of a Democratic Gary precinct committeeman snapping a shot of Elgin's township car — government plates and all — parked outside her campaign headquarters.

Some wondered if she was mixing government resources with her campaign efforts, a legal no-no that has landed some Lake County politicians in hot water with the federal courts.

Elgin claimed she and her son, township employee Steven Hunter, drove to the campaign headquarters — using the government vehicle — during her lunch break so she could drop off a key. She claims no campaigning took place, and The Times has found no evidence to the contrary.

But even the hint of impropriety should be avoided. So should the use of taxpayer money for any personal errands.

I lauded Elgin last year after she announced her office parked four of eight take-home cars — vehicles some of her office employees could take home with them — to save money. Such cars inevitably become vehicles for personal use of taxpayer-funded resources — a wasteful luxury.

It seemed like a responsive move to the Indiana Legislature's demand she bring her poor-relief tax rate from 22.64 times the state average — the highest of any township in the state — to a more reasonable 12 times the state average. The clock is still running on that demand, and Griffith could elect to secede from Elgin's township and join another if the demand isn't met by 2015. If it's not met by 2014, a state-designated emergency manager could take over the township.

So when Elgin parked the four cars, I read it as a sign of moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the luster of responsibility dulled last month when Elgin's office filed a lawsuit against the state, attempting to avoid the spending reforms.

Now Elgin is creating more questions with her personal use of a township vehicle.

Elgin receives about $89,000 in annual compensation as elected trustee, more than enough to purchase her own set of wheels to drive to lunch, her campaign headquarters or other personal errands. Her pay is more than three times the U.S. Census-recorded median household income in Gary, where the majority of her constituents reside and where most people pay for their own wheels, ride the bus or go without.

Elgin needs to exercise better judgment when using taxpayer-funded property. She also needs to purge take-home cars from her township entirely and stop fighting to stay beyond reform.

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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