If you own property in an unincorporated part of Indiana, you may have noticed an unfamiliar name on your property tax bills.
Maybe it says “Twin Creeks,” “Valparaiso Lakes” or “Independence Hill.” These are all conservancy districts, and if you have storm sewers or a water treatment facility outside of city limits, they may be maintaining these utilities.
Brian Groene, a resident of unincorporated South Haven in Porter County, said he and most of his neighbors didn't have a clue about their existence until the county held a public meeting discussing some sewer upgrades.
“Pretty much no one there had any idea who they were or what they did,” he said.
The districts are formed when property owners come together and file a petition asking for its establishment and what it will do.
The districts work similar to a board for a town or city government, albeit with a focused goal usually related to water drainage, sanitation and sewers. Only property owners can participate in running for elections for the board.
The districts' work and finances are overseen by Indiana state government, with their documents accessible on a website run by the department of local government finance, called Gateway.
There are more than 130 districts across the state with some in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. Porter has more than most, with about eight active districts in all or part of the county as of 2018.
Many of these eight are assisted by attorney David Hollenbeck, who also works with the city of Valparaiso among other local government bodies.
Hollenbeck argues they are a classic form of grassroots governance that is highly accountable to residents.
“These people don't get elected to go off to Washington, these are their neighbors,” he said.
“That's the irony of people saying 'I've never heard of you for 30 years.' ”
Either way, many are unaware of them and often are surprised to find out they exist.
Porter County Commissioner Jeff Good knew of their existence through real estate work but didn't know the specifics on how they functioned until he was elected in 2014. Good said residents were even less aware.
“When I got into office, my first year, all of a sudden I get a lot of these calls on complaints,” he said.
“When I'd get to these complaints, I'd found out this person was on a conservancy district basically asking the county to do things outside of the responsibility of the county.”
Good was surprised by the volume of these calls and that it seemed to him the conservancy districts weren't doing what they were supposed to.
“Either they're not (doing what they were supposed to do) or people call and don't really understand a conservancy district and what they are charged with doing,” he said.
The county formed a stormwater management board to help prevent floods in the county and also allowed conservancy districts to fold into the board.
South Haven, Twin Creeks faced problems
One of these districts, Twin Creeks, which covers South Haven, partially joined and became a major issue for the county due to the myriad problems that emerged regarding the stormsewers.
Some of these include sinkholes, corroding pipe and debris buildup possibly caused by the original developer. This led to a $17 million project for the county to rehabilitate or even rebuild the infrastructure.
Unlike how it would be done today, all the pipes under the road and were poorly constructed and laid. That caused problems for county-maintained roads, making county involvement in these sewers essential to road quality.
Hollenbeck said the sewers were falling apart for decades due to a lack of regulation and oversight during the '60s when they were constructed. He said Twin Creeks was founded in 1997 to prevent it from getting worse.
“To be candid, the reason why (other districts) aren't folding into the county is that they don't have $17 million worth of work,” he said.
“That amount is overwhelming and not realistic for our budget, which is about $120,000 at Twin Creeks. Nobody would be crazy enough to loan us that amount.”
The dilapidation of Twin Creeks led Good to be concerned about the quality of other systems in Porter County run by the districts.
“I don't want to paint the picture all conservancy districts are bad; I'd say they're like anything else, they're a tool you can use for whatever,” Good said.
“However, it seems like Porter County has a very large amount of them, and I really don't know why that all happened.”
Confusing system, obscure election process harms process
In South Haven a group of residents started questioning the purpose of the Twin Creeks district as the county stepped in to take more responsibility.
Groene has led some of them, which formed into a community group that discusses other local issues as well.
He and other residents think the money spent on the conservancy district could be better spent and that they serve little to no purpose if the county is spending so much money toward repairing the system.
“It's frustrating, because I pay property taxes and some of them go to them (conservancy district),” he said.
“Maybe there are some areas (that wouldn't have running water or sewer). This is not one of them. Abolish it. It serves no purpose.”
As a piece of government, they even have elections, but according to Kevin Steele, a member of the Natureworks district, as people are unaware of the districts, they also are unaware of the elections and don't run to serve on them.
“Our difficulty is finding people to serve, instead of a situation where we've got 10 people running for one spot,” he said.
The lack of awareness may also be exacerbated by the election schedule for the districts. Instead of May or November like most Indiana elections, the nominations start in late October, while polling occurs in January or February during the district's annual special meeting.
Groene recently ran to serve on the Twin Creeks board but lost his election, which may have been one of the first contested elections in the district's history.
He said he did not campaign particularly hard but claims the board was hostile to his running and felt that it was an uphill battle.
“It's a good ol' boys club,” he said.
According to Groene, the ballots were paper and inserted into multiple envelopes. A representative of each of the candidates and the board counted them by hand. He said the polls were only open for an hour on a Saturday.
Hollenbeck said part of the irregular nature is due to Indiana law, which tasks the district to run its own election providing absentee ballots and the procedure to count them.
The landowners, called “freeholders,” can vote in elections for the board and can even run for a seat. That designation doesn't necessarily mean residents, though.
A landowner in a conservancy district could live in Illinois, Michigan or even Hawaii and vote in the elections but a renter who lives there could not.
“It makes no sense to attach a conservancy district election with a general election,” said Hollenbeck.
“I'm not even sure how you would even that election together as you have two different bodies that are eligible to vote. Talk about putting a burden on the election board.”
Hollenbeck said he hopes in the future that more people could become involved or pay closer attention to the districts.
To solve some of the transparency concerns, Twin Creeks is working on getting a stronger online presence so finding documents is as quick as a google search.
But, Steele said that may not change due to the nature of their work.
“In my experience, people don't care until they go to flush their toilet and it doesn't flush or there's a stormwater flood,” he said.
“Then they care and they hunt you down to tell you their problem and how they want you to fix their problem. If it's out of sight, it's out of mind.”