GRIFFITH — Calumet Township Board President Darren Washington says proposed legislation allowing the town of Griffith to provide its own poor relief sets a dangerous precedent, and he wants to do whatever it takes to keep Griffith a part of his township.
“It creates a problem for other townships. If you do it for one, you got to do it for everyone. It opens a door that doesn’t need to be opened,” Washington said. “So right now, let’s bring all of the interested parties together, and let’s have a conversation.”
Griffith Town Council President Rick Ryfa, R-3rd, said the town collects only $5 million to $5.5 million to run the town, but nearly half — about $2.2 million and $2.5 million this year — is paid to Calumet Township. Yet last year Griffith received only about $30,000 in poor-relief services in return, he said.
At the polls last year, Griffith residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the controversial secession from Calumet Township, saying they thought Griffith was paying more than its fair share of the township’s poor relief assistance.
Washington said this week he would like to reduce the payments Griffith makes to the township as part of a good faith effort to keep the town in the township.
Washington admitted he isn’t sure how that would take shape, but that he hopes a solution can be considered by the General Assembly this session.
“I told (Ryfa) I was committed to doing whatever we could do in this legislation session to get some relief for Griffith,” Washington said.
Having missed Thursday's deadline to introduce legislation, his only option would be to tack on an amendment to a budget bill.
But there is more than one reason why Washington’s efforts to reduce Griffith’s share might be futile.
Ryfa said likely the only way Washington could reduce the annual amount paid by Griffith to Calumet Township is a legislative change that allows the town to have a different tax rate than the township.
“And you just can’t do that. You can’t,” Ryfa said. “I love the idea of trying to help us out and finding out if there’s a way we can pursue this. I would love to work with him, and I respect him.”
Because both St. John and North townships rejected Griffith’s recent bids to join them, Griffith must spend at least one more year as a member of Calumet Township.
Data provided by the town shows Griffith’s tax collection rate was 98.5 percent last year, compared to Calumet Township and the city of Gary, which had collection rates of just 54 percent and 38.7 percent, respectively.
Griffith’s high collection rate, coupled with the township’s high taxing rate, is why Griffith is forced to pay so much into the township’s coffers, Ryfa said.
Preliminary figures suggest it would cost $30,000 to $200,000 per year to administer services if Griffith created its own township, he noted.
Ryfa is busy trying to get legislation — sponsored by state Rep. Chris Chyung, D-Dyer — approved that would allow the town to create its own township in 2020.
He said he’s trying to get House Bill 1227 a hearing before the Committee for Government and Regulatory Reform.
While he understands Washington’s concerns about the bill, the legislation would not result in a free-for-fall of municipalities escaping townships.
“It doesn’t pertain to just any town. They would have to go through the entire process we did,” he said.
The township's poor relief budget must go beyond 12 times the statewide average, triggering a referendum for secession, and the town must be rejected by the adjacent townships prior to qualifying under the bill to create its own township, Ryfa said.
“And quite frankly, if any other townships across the state are taxing at the rate of Calumet Township, it’s only fair that the municipalities have an opportunity to leave,” Ryfa said.
If the bill is successful in the House and Senate, and receives final approval by the governor, the council will have to present a comprehensive plan to the Department of Local Government Finance.
Under such a plan, the council president would serve the same function as a township trustee, with the remaining council members forming a township-like board, Ryfa said.
In good faith, Washington said the township board voted this week to alternative meeting locations between Gary and Griffith’s town hall.
“We want to make sure Griffith residents’ voices are heard,” he said.